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The Folk Riot: Washington Square Park History

Steven Wishnia May 25, 2005

p2 folk riotWashington Square Park has been a place for musicians since at least the 1940s. By 1961, it was the center of the city’s folk-music scene, and Parks Commissioner Newbold Morris ordered the police to crack down on “the roving troubadours and their followers.” The musicians defied the ban, and on April 9, police invaded the park to clear them out. The result was what became known as the “Folk Song Riot.” One group sat down in the empty fountain and sang “We Shall Not Be Moved.” The cops attacked them with billy clubs. “5,000 BEATNIKS RIOT IN VILLAGE,” the tabloid Mirror headlined.

One of the demonstrators may have been 19-year-old Bob Dylan, who two days later opened for John Lee Hooker at Gerde’s Folk City, down the block on West Fourth Street. The city eventually relented after more musical protests, including a sing-in by 1,500 people in a nearby vacant lot.