On Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, I was a young English teacher at Denfeld High School in Duluth, looking forward to the end of the school day when I’d be heading to Minneapolis for a three-day engagement performing at the old Padded Cell. With partner Dan Kossoff, I’d also been moonlighting on the Midwest folk music circuit for several years.
I was monitoring a fourth-hour study hall at Denfeld when the intercom crackled with static, but the words from a network radio announcer were unmistakable. “President Kennedy has been shot.”
It seemed surreal, so much so that I can’t recall if classes were dismissed, or if we held classes and tried calming students and ourselves while listening to the news on the intercom.
I headed to Minneapolis, not knowing if the Padded Cell would be closed that evening. It wasn’t, but neither Dan nor I were up to performing. Our shtick was comedy and song parody, and it somehow seemed sacrilegious to make funny in the immediate aftermath of so horrific a tragedy. We canceled our Friday performance, but showed up on Saturday, where we shared billing with Denver musician Walt Conley, and the late Native-American singer-actor Floyd Red Crow Westerman, both of whom worked the previous night.
“It was really rough,” Conley told us. “I mean this room was jammed, but people felt guilty about enjoying themselves, so they didn’t. They just kind of hung out and hoped maybe Floyd and I could make them feel better. Which we couldn’t, of course. Maybe tonight will be different.”
The place was packed again on Saturday, and Dan and I agonized over what to include and exclude from our sets. Should we use humor? Will people even want to laugh? Without the satire and parodies, we didn’t have much going for us; as musicians we were mediocre at best. A few months earlier the owner of a St. Paul coffee house called us into his office after our first set. He grabbed our guitars. “I can’t stand this,” he said, and tuned our instruments. Not slight adjustments either; he cranked the tuning pegs before returning the guitars with, “There, that oughta do it.”
We avoided material we thought might be a bit over the top in light of the national mourning, but worked in several sketches that drew a few chuckles from an audience seeking escape from overwhelming sorrow.
“Tough crowd,” Conley said after our first set. “Tough on us too. But,” he sighed, “this is what we do. And they expect us to do it.”
Near the end of the evening, audience reluctance to laugh had eased a bit, but it was daunting to stand on stage and attempt to induce enjoyment — let alone laughter. I can’t imagine a more onerous situation for an entertainer than observing nothing but profound sadness, and near silence from your audience.
The most memorable moment that night, which appeared to break the uneasy tension, was when Dan and I joined Walt and Floyd for a multi-versed rendition of “This Land Is Your Land.” It may seem maudlin now, but at the time it was deeply moving for us — and the audience.
That ended the evening, and as we were packing our instruments and putting on our coats, a young man and his date approached.
“Hey, I just wanted to thank you guys,” he said. “It probably wasn’t fun, but everybody needed a diversion, and for a couple hours you guys gave us that.”
Michael Fedo is the author of “The Lynchings in Duluth,” “The Man From Lake Wobegon” and other books. His next book, “Zenith City: Stories From Duluth,” will be published in March by the University of Minnesota Press.
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