Keeping the Coffeehouse Spirit Alive

The Folk Project, a nonprofit, artistic community centered around music, seeks to recapture the magic of the coffeehouse.

Pairs trip the light fantastic at a contra dance.
Photo by Ken Gallipeau.

These days, the term coffeehouse evokes images of mocha lattes and Frappuccinos. Yet according to Ed Roffman, president of the New Jersey Folk Project, in the 1960s and ’70s, coffeehouses often were events, not necessarily places. And they were all about the music.

“There was an explosion of creativity from singer/songwriters and traditional music players in the coffeehouses, with attentive audiences,” says Roffman, 60, of Randolph. “The coffee was good, the atmosphere was warm and fuzzy and the music was great. It was nothing like Starbucks are today.”
Founded 36 years ago—when an earlier generation was still flaunting long hair and beat-up guitars—the Folk Project (folkproject.org) is a nonprofit, artistic community rooted in the idea of coffeehouses and sharing music.

It began with a handful of friends who came together to create a coffeehouse in the Morris County area. By the time Roffman joined four years later, the group had grown to about 100 members. Today, he says, the Folk Project is 600 members strong, and that little coffeehouse concept has turned into a volunteer-run collaboration that produces more than 120 music and dance events each year.

“There is a renaissance of homemade music,” says Roffman. “And we are glad to be a part of it.”

Folk Project events include showcases for every level of talent and multiple ways for musicians to interact. Members host music workshops and monthly gatherings at their homes, and member musicians play community-service events, such as the New Jersey Audubon Society’s recent May Day celebration.

Every first and third Saturday of the month, at East Hanover’s First Presbyterian Church, the Project puts on the Swingin’ Tern Contra Dances, a partnered folk dance. Four to five times a year, the Project presents big-name folk musicians in concert, such as the folk-rock band Aztec Two-Step, appearing August 12 at the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship. And twice a year, the Project produces weekend-long festivals, such as the upcoming fall festival September 30 to October 2 at Star Lake Camp in Bloomingdale, which will be full of performances, jam sessions and workshops.

In addition, the Folk Project still hosts coffeehouses—now 48 a year at the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship, where they are referred to as the Friday evening Minstrel Acoustic Concerts. (“We don’t call it a coffeehouse anymore,” says Roffman. “People were confusing it with Starbucks.”)

Once a month, the acoustic concert in Morristown doubles as an open stage—the longest running such event in the state—for any and all musicians to perform. According to Nancy Kelner, chairwoman of the publicity committee, the performers range from teens to seniors, and the music has broadened stylistically beyond folk.

Though the core membership is graying, Kelner touts the durability of the Folk Project in terms of bringing in younger performers as well as its ability to attract support.

“Everyone else is worried about funding, but we’re probably one of the few arts organizations that doesn’t have a physical office or a paid staff,” says Kelner, 57 of Cranford. “We are so blessed to have all these volunteers.”

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