Nameless Coffeehouse

The Nameless Coffeehouse was a volunteer-run coffeehouse that presented weekend folk concerts at First Parish Unitarian Univeralist Church in Harvard Square for almost fifty years. Founded by assistant minister John Fleming in 1967 to connect with area students, the Nameless presented concerts up through 2015, giving hundreds of folksingers, groups and even comedians their start as performers. “Nameless” implies a certain humility, and for most of its history the coffeehouse did not charge admission (or pay performers). Despite this, the Nameless featured such future legends as Tracy Chapman, Ric Ocasek, Jay Leno, Andy Kaufman, Jon Pousette-Dart, Bill Morrissey, Patti Larkin, Dar Williams, the Story (Jonatha Brooke and Jennifer Kimball), and the Nields. Located just down Church Street from Club 47 (later Passim), the Nameless became a popular drop-by spot for touring musicians, with David Bromberg, Richard Shindell and others taking the Nameless stage after (or while on break from) their Club 47 gig. The price was right for students and folk fans on a budget, and crowds flocked, consistently filling the 100-seat church parlor for the Nameless’s first twenty years, resulting in a triumphant 20th anniversary concert in February 1987. This early era was documented in both Live at the Nameless and Fast Folk LPs.

An example of the Nameless’s role in artists’ careers is End Construction, the songwriters’ collective of Ellis Paul, Jim Infantino, Jon Svetkey and Brian Doser, who played their first show as End Construction at the Nameless in April 1989. They recorded an album, Resume Speed, and were able to sell out Passim for the release concert the following year. Infantino returned to the Nameless as recently as 2014 with his band Jim’s Big Ego, and Svetkey returned that same year, with wife/singing partner Heather Quay, to participate in a Pete Seeger tribute.

In the 1990s it became increasingly difficult to attract crowds, as Club Passim, reorganized as a non-profit, began presenting folk concerts seven nights a week. The Nameless cut back to a weekly, and then monthly, schedule. Highlights still occurred, and artists such as Hewitt Huntwork, Michael Troy, Susan Levine and All About Buford used the Nameless to launch successful careers. The Nameless was also the setting for a key scene in the novel In Hoboken by folksinger/author Christian Bauman, who returned to read at the Nameless’s 2013 Folk Author night. The last official Nameless performance, as of this writing, was in December 2015, with Dean Stevens, Terry Kitchen, and Deborah Silverstein (joined by Eric Kilburn, an early Nameless volunteer) presenting a Winter’s Eve concert, and encoring with Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.”

The Nameless Coffeehouse may not be best remembered for the relatively few performers who “made it” beyond the Nameless stage, but for the hundreds of performers and volunteers who made up the Nameless community for most of five decades, and for the thousands of audience members who got to hear live folk music, for little or no cost, in the heart of Harvard Square. The Nameless also made an effort to include students from the Perkins School and others with special needs as both audience members and volunteers, and no one who attended a Nameless show will ever forget having to fold and stack their chair at the end of the evening.

(by Terry Kitchen)

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