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The Coffee House Celebrates 50 Years of Milwaukee Folk

May. 16, 2017
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If you’re an acoustic musician in Wisconsin, odds are you’ve heard of the Coffee House. This storied and historic venue at 1905 W. Wisconsin Ave. has been making a positive impact for local and traveling musicians alike ever since it opened in 1967. One of the country’s longest-running acoustic venues, it’ll celebrate its 50th anniversary this Saturday, May 20.

The event, taking place from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m., will feature performances from renowned and respected folk legends including Lou and Peter Berryman, Bill Camplin, and Fox and Branch. Milwaukee musicians David HB Drake, Jym Mooney, Sandy Weisto, Mud River Lee, Tom and Barb Webber will also be playing this special daylong event alongside other Milwaukee musicians.

Lou and Peter Berryman are headlining the fest. These folk legends have appeared on “A Prairie Home Companion,” and even have a song on a Grammy-winning record. Throughout the day there will be sessions and workshops on songwriting, humor, social justice, poetry and traditional music. There will even be a potluck dinner at 6 p.m.

The Coffee House started to host performances in the ’60s, as an outreach of the Redeemer Lutheran Church. The original idea for the building was to provide a safe environment for people to discuss the issues of the day. The “Downtown Coffee House,” as it was originally called stated its purpose as being:

“To serve the community by being a place where persons may meet in unhurried conversation and where the questions, the issues, the interests, and the hopes that lie within and around us may unfold in an atmosphere of openness and candor.”

In its early days the Coffee House would play host to film nights, poetry readings, theater performances and even group sing-alongs. As time moved on, however, the space became more of a venue in which local talent could perform. The first “folk gathering,” at the Coffee House was in June of 1974. Eight hundred people filled the venue for the two-day event, while partaking in various activities such as arts and crafts exhibits. The first “Mid-Winter Folk Festival,” began in 1987, featuring national and local talent, as well as a talent show that still exists to this day.

David HB Drake, a Milwaukee acoustic artist performing at the event, spoke well of the venue. Drake has existed in the folk scene for 50 years now, having written more than 200 songs, and appearing at various folk and music events throughout Wisconsin every year. “This is where every acoustic musician in Milwaukee makes their start,” he said.

Drake first played the stage in 1968, and has been back every year since. “You have this wonderful support system behind you when you play here,” he said. “This is where I, and many other musicians, get their training wheels for performing.”

Drake shared how he played the 35th anniversary show in 2002, while playing the exact same set list that he performed when he first played the Coffee House in 1968. Other musicians joined the stage with Drake, while they performed covers from the 1960s as well. “It was a tribute to the 1960s,” said Drake.

Acoustic music is known for being slower paced, personal and honest. However, these three qualities do not exactly describe the fast-paced culture and society we live in today. That’s why The Coffee House is attempting to keep acoustic music alive and well.

“I think there’s a yearning today for music and stories that are real,” said Drake. “We have so much music today that is not real, but I still believe storytelling is making a resurgence. This music is multi-generational, and you will always learn something from it. People will listen if you share with them face to face.”

The Coffee House’s 50th anniversary celebration begins Saturday, May 20 at 2 p.m. Find out more info about the event at the-coffee-house.com.


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