March-15th-2007, 08:29 AM
I'm the face.
Rae Anne Donlin - R.I.P. -- Owner of legendary Boston folk club Passim
She'd been sick for a while, but the club's still an important venue. Money's always tight there, though, and there are frequent benefits. Hopefully, it doesn't succumb to the times. I've been to Passim several times, never met the owners but always read they were good, decent people who treated artists right. So RIP, Rae Anne.
Rae Anne Donlin; nurtured folk music with Passim coffeehouse
By Scott Alarik, Globe Correspondent | March 15, 2007
You might call Rae Anne Donlin an accidental impresario.
With her husband, Bob, she ran the renowned Harvard Square coffeehouse Passim for 25 years, nurturing a crucial haven for folk music during its worst commercial years. During the Donlin era, Passim was the most important folk venue in the Northeast and quite possibly the nation. Three decades of acoustic stars publicly credit the Donlins with helping launch their careers, including Suzanne Vega, Nanci Griffith, Shawn Colvin, and Ellis Paul.
"There would be no me if there was no Passim," songwriting star Paul said yesterday. "Playing there, you always came out a better performer than you went in. It was like my grad school."
Mrs. Donlin died Tuesday of complications from Alzheimer's disease, at the Newton Health Care Center, where she had lived since 2000. She was 68. Her husband died in 1996.
It was never Mrs. Donlin's intention to be in the music business, much less a legendary starmaker. She was born Rae Anne Wilson, in Fort Dodge, Iowa, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Iowa, with a degree in English literature.
She was working at a bank in Chicago in December 1963 when she met Bob Donlin, a beat poet from Massachusetts who appeared in two of Jack Kerouac's novels as the character Bob Donnelly. They soon returned to his home state, with dreams of starting their own little literary bistro, a place for light food and deep conversation.
In a 1984 interview with local writer- photographer Susan Wilson, for a Boston Globe story, Mrs. Donlin said, "We picked names like Just Desserts and the Gallery Gallery."
"But our favorite," she added, "was the Surly Ice Cream Man," a reference to her husband's famously crusty personality.
Then they heard that a newly opened bookstore-galley called Passim was available. The owners, Walter and Renee Juda, hired them as managers and eventually sold them the tiny coffeehouse at 47 Palmer St.
That address sealed their fates. The site had been the final home of legendary '60s folk venue Club 47 and soon, people were begging the Donlins to carry on the legacy and book folk music. Eventually they acquiesced.
In a 1989 Globe interview, Mrs. Donlin said, "What I really think is that the music just comes out of the walls here, and, sooner or later, it just sucks you in." Pausing to scowl at the walls, she hollered, "So how about sending us some money!"
Passim quickly became a premier venue, hosting luminaries such as Jackson Browne, Steve Goodman, John Prine, Tom Waits, Jimmy Buffett, Arlo Guthrie, Maria Muldaur, Martin Mull, and many others.
The list of acoustic stars who have expressed gratitude to the Donlins for boosting their careers is long, including Bill Staines, Mason Daring, John Gorka, Christine Lavin, Cheryl Wheeler, Catie Curtis, and Dar Williams.
But the Donlins made their greatest impact by developing new talent through the use of opening acts. Without radio or mainstream support for folk music then, it seemed like the only way to develop tomorrow's headliners.
"It just meant a great deal to have Passim on your resume," Griffith said in a 1996 Globe interview. "For players all around the country, it was a big deal to get booked there."
And the Donlins remained, first and foremost, literary people.
"They tended to book the more literary songwriters," Paul said, "and really helped shape the personality of the Boston folk scene that way. That's what got siphoned through their club, and playing at their club was the foremost measuring stick of whether or not you succeeded."
In 1995, the Donlins retired from Passim, and it was converted into a nonprofit venue called Club Passim.
In Globe interviews over the years, Paul, Griffith, and Vega all said the Donlins were like second parents to them.
"Rae Anne was always very warm to me," Vega recalled yesterday. "Bob was always more the disciplinarian. He would wave his hands to tell you when to stop singing; Rae Anne would make sure you ate something."
Bluesman-songwriter Chris Smither also remembered that sense of nurturing. "She was always glad to see me," he said. "Even in the worst of my days as a drunken performer, she would say, 'Don't give up.' "
Paul recalled how much her long hugs meant to him as a frightened up and comer. "Bob was more the crunchy, grumpy father figure," he said. "Rae Anne was more the heart provider."
"I remember Rae Anne's warmth," Vega said, "a certain kind of smile she had, with a strange mix of spirituality and comfort. I just remember the place as kind of a haven. I always felt welcome."
Asked what people should remember most about the Donlins, Smither thought for a long moment. "They just kept it burning," he said quietly, "kept the light on for all of us."
Mrs. Donlin leaves a sister, Jeanne Blyth of Iowa.
Services are private. Burial will be at the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne.
Club Passim is planning a memorial. Check clubpassim.org for details.