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A Canterbury Tale — or The Gospel According to Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Commander Cody

 

Everyone knew the alley that led to the Canterbury House.  (Image courtesy of U-M Bentley Historical Library.)

Everyone knew the alley that led to the Canterbury House. (Image courtesy of U-M Bentley Historical Library.)

See that alley?

No, not there, you idiot . . .this one, here on Maynard Street across from the Arcade.

Walk down. The door to the right…

Open it.

Blow your mind…

In the 1960s the title of hippest town in the Midwest most certainly belonged to Ann Arbor, Mich., birthplace of Students for a Democratic Society, the Hash Bash, and Iggy Pop and the Psychedelic Stooges. In those days Ann Arbor was home to a vibrant music scene, and of the many hip clubs scattered about the city, among the very hippest was a small converted print shop less than a block from the University of Michigan campus, hidden behind a plain black door at the end of an alley across from Nickels Arcade. The sign on the wall read Canterbury House.

“There was a great vibe there,” recalls Andy Stein, former multi-instrumentalist for cult-favorite Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. The Cody band got their start in the late ’60s playing at Canterbury and other venues around Ann Arbor. “I loved the place. It was a real center of hipness in the ’60s, in a very calm and peaceful way.”

A lot of other people loved it, too. “It was a rare night that we weren’t full,” recalls Ed Reynolds, student manager of Canterbury House from 1965-68. On show nights the lines often stretched around the block. Those who couldn’t get in listened at the open windows, mesmerized by the nascent genius of fledgling folkies Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, or grooving to the virtuoso riffs of blues masters Buddy Guy and Luther Allison.

Theme and variations

Canterbury was more than just a music club, however. It was also a coffee house, soup kitchen, and counseling center, as well as a popular place for university students to spend the afternoons and evenings hanging out. You could take in a Bogart flick, watch a play about the Vietnam war, or listen to a debate on the use of marijuana and LSD. Then, on Sunday mornings, you could hear the liturgy and take Holy Communion, as Canterbury House was run by the Episcopal Student Foundation and was home to a thriving campus ministry.

“Canterbury was totally in keeping with the moment, with the times,” says Craig Hammond, a chaplain there from 1967-70. “It was a cultural, spiritual, and political force in a community that had come alive. It was exciting, it was dynamic, and never the same from one day to the next.”

Canterbury House was established in the mid-1940s as the Episcopal Student Center for the University of Michigan. Throughout the ’50s it served mainly as a quiet retreat for the campus religious community. But things began to change in the ’60s, especially following the arrival of Reverends Dan Burke and Martin Bell, a unique pair of jocular free spirits with unconventional notions about the ministry.

“They were probably the two coolest people I knew,” says Ed Reynolds.

Burke and Bell hatched the idea of turning Canterbury into a coffee house with folk music after hearing about similar ventures on the East Coast. Their superiors took a bit of persuading, but finally in 1965 the old Dobson family home at 218 North Division was converted into a beatnik café, open during the week for coffee and conversation, with music and “free eats”—usually sandwiches and cider—on Friday and Saturday nights. The program proved so successful that the next year it was decided to move to a more spacious location, closer to campus, and start bringing in bigger, national acts.

Let’s put on a show

In the summer of ’66 an old print shop at 330 Maynard Street was rented, refurbished, and turned into a state-of-the-art concert hall with a capacity of a little more than 200. Burke and Bell went to visit some contacts in the music business in New York and soon had a string of top-drawer talent lined up for the fall season. It was that simple.

“I think we hit at the exact right moment,” says Judy Calhoun, a student volunteer at Canterbury who now serves on the board of the Ark.

Joni Mitchell was a popular attraction. (Photo by Al Blixt.)

Joni Mitchell was a popular attraction. (Photo by Al Blixt.)

As the club’s reputation grew so did the caliber of its performers. The truly big acts like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs would play at Ann Arbor High School or Hill Auditorium. But for those who preferred a more intimate setting with an audience that was serious about the music, Canterbury was the venue of choice. Gracing the Maynard Street stage during its heyday from ’66-’71 were such respected names as Len Chandler, Jesse Fuller, Dave Van Ronk, Guy Carawan, Odetta, Richie Havens, Doc Boggs, Jim Kweskin, Mike Seeger and the New Lost City Ramblers, Buddy Guy, Ramblin’ Jack Ellliot, Doc Watson, Skip James, and Sun Ra, as well as promising up-and-comers like Tim Buckley, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, and Janis Ian.

Stories of the performers and shows at Canterbury abound. Dan Burke tells of how Neil Young had a particularly bad case of opening-night jitters before his ’68 appearance.

“When we went to his room we found him sitting on the bed with his knees drawn up close to his chest, a washcloth over his head, and he was just nervous as a cat,”Burke says.

There were real fears that the show would have to be canceled. But Burke and others managed to calm the singer and persuade him to go on. It turned out to be one of Young’s most appealing performances, as listeners of the recent CD release Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House, 1968 can attest.

“As is the case with so many performers,” explains Burke, “when they’re introduced and come out on the stage, they become a new person.”

Joni Mitchell was another who left potent memories of her brief visits to Ann Arbor in ’67 and ’68. Bob Franke recalls getting a hug from Mitchell because of a glowing review of her music he had written for The Michigan Daily. Alan Neff, a student volunteer at Canterbury, remembers giving her a bottle of wine and a poem.

“I was smitten,” he says, “and probably trying to work up to making a pass. It was hard to be anything but awed by her. I gave her the wine and the poem, and she gave me a big smile, and I just ran out of the room.”

Dan Burke tells of going out to eat with Joni after a show: “We were sitting in the restaurant, and someone came up and asked her why she used so much alliteration in her lyrics. She said, ‘When you’re born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, it sort of comes naturally.’ Everybody laughed and laughed and I still remember it, more than 40 years later.”

Committed spirituality

The Canterbury crew knew they hit on something at the right time. (Photo by Al Blixt.)

The Canterbury crew knew they hit on something at the right time. (Photo by Al Blixt.)

But there was more of the ’60s spirit at Canterbury than just the music. The pastors were active in the anti-war movement and were at least sympathetic with the counterculture—although a few went further. Craig Hammond stepped easily into the role of Ann Arbor’s hippie priest, a “freaky-looking, frazzle-haired Episcopal chaplain” (wrote the Detroit Free Press) who “spreads the Gospel dressed in steel-rimmed glasses, gray vest, light blue-striped shirt, wide velvet fuchsia tie, dark blue pin-striped slacks, and baby blue tennis shoes.”

Such an unorthodox approach to the ministry probably wouldn’t fly today, but for the time and place it was exactly right. The Sunday morning services at Canterbury happened in the same room as the Saturday night concerts, and were almost as popular.

“The atmosphere at Canterbury House was very permissive, but at the heart there was also a deep and committed spirituality,” says Gayle Rubin, then a leading figure in the local women’s movement. “I liked the pastors as people; very nice, smart individuals who were very engaged with their community. I even attended some of the Sunday services, although I was Jewish and not particularly fond of Christianity. But those services were sufficiently warm, welcoming, and ecumenical that I felt comfortable enough to go.”

“We accepted people for who they were,” explains Craig Hammond. “We never initiated discussion about their faith, or their faithlessness, or whatever. That was an important part of our success.”

Like all good things, however, the glory days of Canterbury House were destined to end. Although Canterbury continues to live on as the University of Michigan Episcopal student center, the coffee house closed its doors in 1971, a victim of changing times and financial pressure.

“In the beginning we had ham-and-cheese sandwiches and hot or cold cider,” recalls Judy Calhoun with a nostalgic smile. “At the end it was Tootsie Rolls on a paper plate, and Kool-Aid.”

But for many who were involved the experience remains an indelible part of their lives.

“It was an absolute wild ride,” says Ed Reynolds, who in addition to managing the coffee house was also a regular performer. “It was beyond fun. It was a very intense way to live, and a good thing it didn’t go on forever, because I couldn’t have stood it.”

Share your enduring memories of Canterbury House.

Comments

  1. Sally Foster - 1971

    I saw many of the artists mentioned in this article, Joni, Dave Van Ronk, Gordon Lighfoot, and Commander Cody. In fact my dog, Frank McGee, snuck in and saw the Commander and his Lost Planet Airmen too. One of my favorite shows though was when the Leaves of Grass, an A2 band, played there on my 21st birthday (1970). Joe Pitski dedicated the third verse of Train Song to me that night. Good memories.

    Reply

  2. Richard (Luke) Berman - '70

    I have so many fond memories of the Canterbury House, perhaps the greatest contributor to my education in Ann Arbor, likely the most memorable. One memory I’d like to share concerns Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and a song he introduced us to back around 1968. As I remember it, he reported he had recently finished a gig in New Orleans and was back in his motel room when there was a knock on the door. The hour was late, he was tired, he trudged to the door and there stood a tall, lanky kid with a guitar, saying something about how some New York music figure whom Jack knew and whose name escapes me had told the kid to play this song for him. Jack let him in, he settled on the edge of the bed and proceeded to play “Me and Bobby McGee”. That was Jack’s introduction to Kris Kristofferson, and right after that story, my introduction to that wonderful song.

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  3. Larry Williams - 1969

    Still got the poster someplace for that first Buddy Guy performance at the Canterbury House. Best live blues performance of my life, bar none. I believe it was Buddy’s very first road gig on a college campus. He was nervous at first. Bunch of white college kids and a dry venue must have sounded like a no fun night for him and his band. But Buddy’s amazing guitar work and blues soul (plus pulling occasionally on a bottle of scotch) brought the audience and band together surprising both. Buddy and his band played set after set, and would have played more but Ann Arbor curfew brought things to an end in the wee hours of the morning. I saw him a number of times in the ensuing decades as he reached celebrity status as a bluesman, but nothing ever ever came close to the magic of that night at the Canterbury House.

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  4. Jan Burke - 1969

    In my last two years at U/M I lived in Betsy Barbour, about a block away from Canterbury House. I was often there on Sunday mornings and it was a lovely introduction to the Episcopal liturgy. The video makes me grin. A week after graduation in 1969, The Rev. Dan Burke presided as my husband and I were married at St. Andrew’s.

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    • Craig Hammond

      Yes, it sure was an incredible place, experience and time for so many of us. Also super intense and, in the end, still the best “job” ever for me, a ride I will never ever forget, and I say this now after 71 years. But then in the end it got the best of me, very much needed to, and I needed to leave my ordained ministry to face some important music. I needed to separate my culture from my faith. I needed to stop and listen to my family. I needed to explore the world of the spirit and at the same time stand apart from the church. Since then I’ve remarried, have three more wonderful kids, have had a whole different career, and for 40+ years have lived in Oregon and Vermont, raising sheep and their lambs. I don’t preach, but I do sing in a choir. I’ve gotten over the hurt and anger I felt at leaving my ministry, and long ago accepted the wisdom of my brothers and sisters that I do so. But I still hear Richie Havens preaching on the Nicene Creed and Joan Baez singing “The dove has torn her wings, no more songs to sing…” at an anti-war worship. I am still welcoming home a soldier with blown apart legs from his time in Vietnam, I am still in grief over a young friend who died of an overdose, I still hear The Huron Valley Gospel Aires, aka Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen leading us in songs of praise on Sundays, and I remember so well our Flash Gordon films and Dennis Church’s daily soup kitchen. Most of all I remember and will always remember our community of faith, of hope and yes, of huge generosity. We reached far and wide, my friends, and what a joy it is that we can celebrate that, to the end of our days. I send you my love.
      Craig Hammond

      Reply

      • Martha Ledoux - not a student there

        I’m pretty sure it was you who performed the ceremony when my ex-husband and I got married in 1968 (Dec. 13th). Jim and Martha Sanders. We didn’t know most of the people there that day but they all stood up and in unison pronounced us man and wife. I also saw a lot of concerts there–Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk, Spider john Koerner. Good Place, good times.

        Reply

  5. Reid Hamilton

    While it’s true that times have changed, everyone should know that Canterbury House remains a thriving venue for innovative, prophetic music and for welcoming, inclusive worship. Our concert series features regional acts, student and faculty ensembles, and internationally-known artists drawing from jazz, contemporary classical, electronica, and other forms of improvised music. Canterbury House is still a great place to hear music from musicians everyone else will be talking about soon, such as Joey Dosik, Tyler Duncan, Ross Huff, and Laurel Premo, as well as established artists such as Pauline Olveros and Steve Rush. We continue to be defined by the spirit that made Canterbury House what it was in the late 60s – “deep and committed spirituality” and “warm, welcoming, and ecumenical” services. Thanks, Alan, for this fine article!

    Reply

  6. john adams - 1969

    Hi folks.
    Does anyone know about the coffee house in which Cody played? It was a basement venue. Very small – 50/75 people.

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    • Penny Hanna - 1969

      Commander Cody played in the basement of Mark’s Coffee House. This was when Mark’s was still run by Paul Melton, before Pat Reynolds and Sharon Hind took over. I was managing Mark’s in 1968-9 and booked Cody there as they had just returned from a trip to CA and needed a quick cash infusion. The place was packed.

      Reply

  7. Dave Freitag - 1968

    Amazing venue! My introduction to Joni Mitchell and other budding artists. Never expected to hear about it again, thank you! Canterbury House was am amazing outreach project by the Episcopal Church in Ann Arbor.

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  8. Theodore Masterton - 1980

    I was in Ann Arbor from 1966 through 1980. I was there for Joni’s concert, which started an avid appreciation of this music that has continued to this day. Time has scrubbed away most of the hard parts of that period. That leaves a nice codex of sweet memories to carry forward into my older ages and beyond.

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  9. Russ Jennings - 1968

    Canterbury was the center of my life. I’m still in touch with a few of the regulars, and after seeing a few familiar faces in the video, I’ll probably contact some more). To me the most incredible time was when Hugh Romney (now know as Wavy Gravy)and the Hog Farm led the service on Sunday morning. What a day that was! Joni Mitchell blew my mind. And who could forget Sun Ra. We were all ‘of the times’ and open to anything, but Ra took us farther than we ever thought we’d go. (And, Neff, I was a little smitten too.) My favorite performer was Len Chandler. I’ve stayed in touch with him off and on over the decades. One of the most wonderful things was to watch our local boy, Bob Franke, blossom as a performer and songwriter. Dan, Craig, Martin (rest in peace), Ed, Alan and everybody involved: Thanks for one of the most important parts of my becoming.

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  10. Ron Marabate - 1970 & 1971

    I was going to school in Ann Arbor from 1966 to 1971– prime time for Canterbury House’s evolution. While I can’t say that I was a regular at the House, I did see some memorable performances there. One was that of 16 or 17-year old Janis Ian, just as her hit Society’s Child had come out. She was shy, sort of lonely-looking, but so talented. Another totally different act was Luther Allison, a young and exciting bluesman–and one of the great blues performers at the initial 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival. Great article…thanks for the memories.

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  11. Jim Kweskin

    Hello Alan,
    The Canterbury House, like The Club 47 in Cambridge and The Ashgrove in L.A. was one of the seminal clubs for folk and acoustic acts to play in the 60s. I have fond feelings (I would say memories but memories fade with age) of playing there. My band, The Jim Kweskin Jug band played at The Canterbury House for three nights in December of 1966 and three nights in September of 1967. Those were the days when the popular acts played several nights in a row. I know we always looked forward to playing there.
    It’s great that you are doing a history. Keep up the good work,
    Best Jim Kweskin

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  12. Hal Rosenthal - 1971

    I came to Ann Arbor in 67 as an engineering student, although I already knew that was not my direction. Canterbury House provided a safe haven while I found myself in Ann Arbor and eventually set down roots at the Michigan Daily. Personally, that was the most important thing. But, the music was great. Seeing Joni Mitchell, Neil Young Dave Van Ronk, Doc Watson (throwing darts with Merle downstairs between sets), what a place for music! It was a special space.

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  13. Jim Toy - 1981

    Thanks Alan!!
    As I recall, I saw a marvelous performance of Macbeth there, staged in a simulated boxing ring.
    And Canterbury hosted the first “Gay Liberation” dance in Ann Arbor, in 1970. Several presumed lesbians or bisexual women danced bare-breasted. The 1st U. U. Congregation, whose church was then on Washtenaw, hosted subsequent dances, not necessarily as a consequence of the freedom enjoyed at the first dance.

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  14. Robert LaJeunesse - 1976

    I wasn’t ever at the early days of Canterbury house, so I missed out on a lot. When Neil Young and I met in early 200x, upon learning that I was from Ann Arbor, Neil brought up the subject of Canterbury house, and recalled it in a positive light. Since we’ve now not talked in years I didn’t know if Neil’s old email address was still in use, but figured what the heck I’d try to let him know about this article. So I sent out a link to it along with an excerpt that included Dan Burke’s comment. Here’s what I sent, not knowing if anyone would see it. Much to my surprise Neil graced me with a personal reply, and I thank him for that. Here are the emails, with Neil’s reply as he typed it:
    (TO) ——————————-
    Sounds like the “good old days” weren’t quite so…
    …Neil Young had a particularly bad case of opening-night jitters before his ’68 appearance. “When we went to his room we found him sitting on the bed with his knees drawn up close to his chest, a washcloth over his head, and he was just nervous as a cat.”
    (from http://michigantoday.umichsites.org/story.php?id=8370 “A Canterbury Tale or The Gospel According to Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Commander Cody”)
    Let’s hope things are better for Mr. Young now.
    Bob LaJeunesse
    Ann Arbor
    (REPLY) —————————–
    definitely think that was “made up”. Does not sound like me. I was lookinf forward to those gigs,scared? yes! but this is fiction.
    Aloha,
    Neil
    —————————
    So Neil’s memory is a bit different than Dan’s. But I suspect that doesn’t surprise anyone old enough to have been at U-M in the 60s.

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  15. Don Hammond

    Canterbury House may have departed its location on Maynard Street in 1971, but that wasn’t the end of live music at that location. I came to Ann Arbor in fall of 1971 as a naive freshman, and on a weekend in mid-September some new friends persuaded me to join them at a concert at a little hole-in-the-wall venue on Maynard Street. It was called The Alley (for obvious reasons), and as a newcomer to Ann Arbor I was completely ignorant about its previous history as the Canterbury House.
    The band playing was Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. Since their debut album would not be released until November, I knew nothing about them and had no idea what to expect. We were able to get seated on the front row of folding chairs, so we could see every drop of sweat on the hard-working band members. Their music was a revelation; I’d never heard such a wild mix of basic rock and roll, country, and western swing. It wasn’t until halfway through the performance that I realized that lead singer Billy C. Farlow’s electric guitar wasn’t plugged into anything, which only heightened the eccentric exuberance of their performance for me.
    Unfortunately, the most vivid memory of the performance for me is an embarrassing one. The band was playing on a short riser, and Commander Cody himself was vigorously banging away on his upright piano no more than four or five feet away from me. I couldn’t help but notice that his bouncing chair kept edging closer and closer to the edge of the riser, and I was soon filled with anxiety that he wasn’t aware of the impending doom and would tumble off the stage and crash land right at my feet. Eventually I could stand it no longer and I shouted out “Commander, your chair is too close!” but there was no reaction from the grizzled madman pounding out “Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar.” A few moments later during a short lull in the music, I repeated my shouted warning, and this time Cody shot me a quick irritated glance over his shoulder and growled loudly enough for everyone around me to hear, “Yeah, kid, I know, I know.” Immediately chastened, I realized then that Cody knew exactly what he was doing and didn’t need interruptions from little punks in the audience to “help” him. My embarrassment notwithstanding, I’ve loved their early 70s-era music ever since.
    As for The Alley, the Concert Database website indicates that its life as a concert venue was shortlived, lasting only until the end of 1971. Considering the nature of the venue, it’s a pretty impressive list of performers: http://theconcertdatabase.com/venues/alley

    Reply

  16. Penny Hanna - 1969

    The basement venue where C.Cody played was Mark’s Coffee House

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  17. Mary Brugh - 1964

    Canterbury House was the center of my life for several years, starting with the first shows in “Canterbury House,” next to the church. I poured coffee and passed around donuts at that location, and later at the Maynard St. location. Hearing some of the finest music of the day and seeing performers up close was amazing; it set my standard for music listening venues. The Ark had a similar quality but was a long walk across campus for me.
    Thanks, Bob, for stirring the memories!

    Reply

  18. Jeremy Cohen - 1966-1969

    I went to most of the shows listed above. Canterbury House was an important part of my life during my formative years. It was also a warm place to hang out and Dan Burke helped me through some tough times. Several of my friends are mentioned in the article. I played there one night with Bob Franke and Alan Neff and a few other people. Andy Stein lived in the Nakamura Co-op where I also lived. My wife was in a jug band with Billy C. when she was in high school. Commander Cody’s whole band moved to California at the same time that I did. I’m now a full-time professional music and that might not have happened without the musician inspiration that I got from all those Canterbury House concerts.

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  19. rich feldman - 1970

    the Cantebury House, and Ann Arbor created a space and place for me to find my passions for community,. justice and fundamentally the birth of a north star that has guided my life for 50 years. Thank you to all who created the
    space.

    Reply

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