Corrections or additions?
This article by Richard Skelly was prepared for the September 24,
2003 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Mine Street Coffeehouse: Folk Survivor
by Richard Skelly
When you’re in New Brunswick looking for a night out
on the town, it’s easy to overlook the Mine Street Coffeehouse. While
the city’s nightlife scene has come back to life in a big way, the
Mine Street Coffeehouse is open only on Saturday evenings. And what’s
more, it’s tucked away in the basement of the First Reformed Church.
Yet Mine Street is New Jersey’s oldest continuously running
and in 1995, Robert Yahn, a New Brunswick native, took over the job
of booking its musicians.
Yahn, 54, says his first visit to the Mine Street was in 1967 when
it was still located on Mine Street, just off the Rutgers University
College Avenue campus. The coffeehouse moved to its current location
on Nielsen and Bayard streets in 1985. Yahn is a noted music
whose work has been exhibited at the New Jersey Folk Festival and
is often published in Sing Out! magazine, the eminent folk song
based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Despite the relatively low pay compared to other area coffee houses
held in schools or churches, many nationally-famous folk and blues
performers have graced the Mine Street stage in its nearly 40-year
history. They include Les Sampou, Barry Mitterhoff, Ralph Rush, Sparky
and Rhonda Rucker, Walt Michael, and modern day bluegrass specialist
"The average performer take-home pay at Mine Street is often as
little as $100," Yahn says. The group’s formula is to give
80 percent of the door receipts, plus the tip jar, and their CD sales.
The 2003 Mine Street Coffeehouse season opened September 20 with Jaia
Suri. On Saturday, September 27, the featured act is the aptly named
Basement Musicians’ Guild, a folk group comprised of friends since
childhood, who play folk covers and originals.
"Other coffee houses in the area have larger rooms, a higher door
admission price and can offer performers guarantees," Yahn points
out, "but we are the lowest admission price coffee house in the
state, the oldest acoustic room in the state, and the oldest
operating coffee house in New Jersey."
"Initially, Mine Street was a campus alternative to the fraternity
parties," Yahn explains, noting the original location was a much
smaller room in the basement of the Second Reformed Church on Mine
"The first acts I saw at the old Mine Street were probably
and folksinger Jim Albertson and blues performer Sparky Rucker,"
Yahn says, "and Ralph Rush was one of the people I saw early on
there, when Rush and Rucker were part of Victoria Spivey’s touring
Previous to 1973, he says, there was no organized booking schedule.
Mine Street was a meeting place for like-minded college students from
Rutgers and other nearby colleges who would often bring acoustic
to school with them. Yahn would also frequent the old Englishtown
Music Hall in the 1970s, where nationally known folk and bluegrass
musicians would perform.
"It was a local hangout, a non-alcoholic local hangout, and I
was developing an interest in folk music," Yahn recalls of his
years at Middlesex County College in the late 1960s. He graduated
in 1970 and promptly went to work for the post office at the Kilmer
Bulk Mail Facility in Edison, a job he holds to this day. Yahn
an interest in music photography several years later, when he began
photographing musicians at the New Jersey Folk Festival, and later,
the Philadelphia Folk Festival.
"In 1973, Kathy DeAngelo was looking for a venue for Ed McDermott,
the fiddle player, whom she was accompanying on guitar," Yahn
explains, "she invited other musicians from the area and had a
semi-formal concert." That was the beginning of weekly Saturday
evening bookings at the Mine Street Coffeehouse.
After the coffeehouse moved to Neilson and Bayard
in an expanded room in the basement of the First Reformed Church in
1985, organizers decided a formal admission price of $3 was not too
much to ask. DeAngelo handled bookings until about 1980, Yahn
and then Deena Amont, Jim Van Fleet and others took over bookings.
Ted Toskos took over booking the Mine Street Coffeehouse until 1995,
when Yahn took over the job, no easy task, when one considers Yahn
wants to book nationally and regionally famous performers for a
of their normal asking price.
"When I took over the bookings in 1995, I tried to get some more
`name’ performers into the coffeehouse and bring more of a diversity
of acts into the room," says Yahn, who also coordinated talent
for the now-defunct Raritan River Clearwater Festivals in Boyd Park
in New Brunswick in the early 1980s. Those environmental festivals
regularly drew thousands because Pete Seeger, Tom Chapin, Bob Killian,
Rik Palieri, and other nationally and regionally famous performers
were on the bill.
For the last eight years, admission to Mine Street has been a
paltry $5. A plastic pumpkin is passed around the room for additional
tips. There’s not a bad seat in "the new" Mine Street
good coffee and snacks are always available, and the room has adequate
heat for the winter months. Audience members get the same kind of
intimate experience they may find at the increasingly trendy
concerts." Mine Street performers often take requests from
In recent years, Mine Street Coffeehouse has been a place that puts
structure into Yahn’s workweek, and that’s been helpful.
"Mine Street has been my Saturday night date during what would
be the normal school year. For a time I did everything from opening
the door to setting up the coffee to miking," he says. Yahn is
now assisted by Joan Fekete of South River and other volunteers.
Yahn regularly attends important folk music festivals and conferences,
like the Folk Alliance and the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance
— the latter held every November in the Poconos.
"I get the satisfaction of introducing up-and-coming artists in
the folk music world to a new audience in New Jersey. Often times,
for the performers who play Mine Street, it’s their first exposure
to a New Jersey audience," he says. In the last year, Emily Slade,
an emerging British singer-songwriter played Mine Street to a packed
house, and labor singer-songwriter Joe Stead, also from England, will
be returning to the venue this November.
Performers who have been at Mine Street Coffeehouse through the years
include Elaine Silver, Rik Palieri, Gregg Cagno, and Roger Dietz,
John Pearse and Mary Faith Rhodes. Some of the touring acts from other
parts of the country include Priscilla Herdman, Bonnie Phipps, Greg
Greenway, Amy Fradon, Saul Broudy, Beppe Gambetta from Italy, and
Walt Michael and Company.
"I like being on the cutting edge of things," Yahn says.
in tune with up-and-coming artists and with trying to help them get
a foothold and an audience base on the East Coast."
— Richard J. Skelly
Church, Neilson and Bayard streets, New Brunswick, 732-545-1005.
Concerts are Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. (Doors open at 7:30 p.m.)
Ireland; traditional Irish folk music.
traditional and contemporary singer-songwriters.
the Pete Seeger of the U.K.
from New Jersey active in the New Jersey Folk Alliance.
in the church sanctuary.
January 17: George Wurzbach and Modern Man Trio.
January 31: Saffron Summerfield, from England, contemporary and
British ballad singer.
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