Boston is renowned for its history, educational institutions, medical centers, sports teams, accent. But aside from the mercifully brief marketing gimmick of the Bosstown Sound in 1968, there’s not been a lot of talk about its music scene. In the 1950s, there were jazz joints galore; the ‘60s saw a proliferation of folk and rock clubs; throughout the’70s and ’80s and today, still, crowded concert halls have been the norm. All sorts of venues, all kinds of music, much of it from local artists.
Now, with Friday’s launch of the Folk Americana Roots Hall of Fame (FARHOF) at the Boch Center’s Wang Theatre, a celebration of the city’s musical legacy begins.
Spread out over four floors, FARHOF is more of a museum than a hall of fame. Upper floors of the Wang will house photo exhibits and displays of memorabilia and artifacts. Monitors will show artists speaking — and their music playing — as visitors walk by.
The Wang’s lower lobby is home to the Music Hall, a room packed with rotating exhibits that serve as a sort of microcosm of what’s upstairs, and will eventually be the site of lectures and readings. A backstage corridor leads to themed exhibit rooms that will have new displays every four months. On the theater’s stage, where additional exhibits will be rolled out, visitors will be able to step to the front and belt out a song or just get an idea of what the pros experience from that vantage point. An additional plan, down the road, is to install large movable screens in the four-story grand lobby, and have them drop down to show music-related videos.
The brainchild of Joe Spaulding, CEO of the Boch Center, Folk Americana Roots Hall of Fame is the culmination of his sundry careers in music. A native of Manchester-by-the Sea, Spaulding caught the performance bug in the ’60s after attending a Tom Rush concert. In the ensuing years, he taught himself guitar, wrote and recorded a self-titled album, formed his own label, sold the label, and started working with promoter Don Law.
Soon after, a headhunter approached Spaulding with an offer to take charge of and help save the then-struggling Wang Theatre.
“At first I said no,” said Spaulding in his office overlooking Tremont Street. “But then I thought if I was successful, maybe my career would go in a different direction. So, I agreed to come for three years, and it’s now been 36 years.”
Under his aegis, performers who have taken the stage of the 3,600-seat theater range from Bob Dylan to Aretha Franklin to Diana Ross, Neil Young to Hans Zimmer to Lake Street Dive.
But filling seats for concerts wasn’t enough. Spaulding had something else in mind. About four years ago, it began to take shape.
“I started wondering about what we could do that would make us different than anybody else,” he said. “I was discussing this with Mark Weld, chairman of the board of the Boch Center. I said, ‘We’re the folk capital of the world, so why not do a hall of fame?’ And Mark liked the idea.”
But it was soon to go beyond just folk music. Spaulding and Weld hit the road.
“We went to the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame and the Grammy Museum,” said Spaulding. “I knew a lot of people in the business, including artists, so we started picking their brains.”
There was all kinds of talk, from buying someplace to house the hall of fame to broadening the horizons of what would be represented in it. Before long, the planners drew two conclusions.
“We decided to do it here,” said Spaulding of the Wang. “That way, we wouldn’t have to raise as much money as we would for a new building. We also decided that we should represent all music.”
Spaulding got in touch with Deana McCloud, who, with Bob Santelli, owns the Museum Collective, a consortium of music museum professionals. McCloud is also the founding executive director of the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Okla.
“We were both going to be at Americana Fest in Nashville,” said McCloud by phone from her home in Tulsa. “He wanted to meet for coffee and ask some very broad questions. We sat down and chatted, then stayed in contact as the project became more of an actuality.”
She and Santelli were brought on, initially as consultants. They’re now curators at FARHOF.
In 2018, Spaulding got the ball rolling in Boston. He hired architects, began amassing artifacts — some from his own collection, some from the David Bieber Archives and the Richard Vacca Collection, some from musicians and other collectors — and checked into available grants.
His first official step was transforming the Metropolitan Room — a former boardroom in the Wang’s lower lobby — and renaming it the Music Hall, a space that served as a preliminary version of his larger vision for the Hall of Fame. There was a concert series, with artists including John Prine, Joan Baez, and Neil Young. In 2019, Spaulding presented a gala featuring, among others, Peter Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey, Livingston Taylor, and Ruth Ungar. Even Spaulding joined in, singing a cover of Lori McKenna’s “Humble & Kind.”
“It was a gigantic success,” said Spaulding. “We raised a couple hundred thousand dollars that night, and then, bang, COVID hit, and we had to shut down.”
The Wang and its sister venue the Shubert went dark in March 2020, but planning for FARHOF never stopped. With the opening, the public will be able to experience what’s being called phase one of the project. On a recent walk-through, before installations were complete, Spaulding explained what they’ll find there.
He began in the lower lobby’s Music Hall, a wood-paneled room filled with concert photos, album covers, guitars, and display cases of music-related ephemera. Just outside that room is the “Cultural Heroes” exhibit, a grouping of seven sculptures by Alan LeQuire — likenesses of musical artists who have championed social issues.
An elevator ride brought us to the spacious, red-carpeted hallways on the fourth floor.
“There was nothing up here before,” said Spaulding. “People would just hang out during the intermission at shows. Now it has ‘The Wang Theatre: A Century of Great Music,’ a celebration of the concerts that took place here going back to when it was called the Music Hall in the early-’70s. The bays in the hallway will have cases with instruments in them.”
A walk down a staircase to the third floor revealed a similar hall, but the plans for it are quite different.
“Here we’ll be celebrating music from Boston,” said Spaulding. “Panels on the wall will feature information and stories about artists in blues, jazz, folk, rock, Americana, hip-hop, and classical.”
Among the treasures set to be on display in different areas are Pete Seeger’s five-string Vega banjo, a program from the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s first concert (Oct. 22, 1881), the album “Beatle Country” by the Charles River Valley Boys, a Nov. 23, 1962, issue of Time magazine with Joan Baez on the cover, an ashtray from Paul’s Mall, conductor Leonard Bernstein’s tails and baton, a 1986 calendar from the 1369 Jazz Club, and a black jacket owned by Cars frontman Ric Ocasek.
McCloud and Santelli are creating the exhibits. McCloud is especially keen on what they’ve compiled for the third floor.
“The display about Boston has enabled me to meet people in a variety of different genres of music,” she said. “Academics, historians, collectors, musicians. And I’ve been gathering their stories. A curator listens, researches, and gathers stories, and then puts it all into a comprehensive, condensed format within the exhibit. So, we’re telling the story of the diverse music that has come from Boston.”
Heading down some more steps, Spaulding led the way along a backstage corridor lined with photos of renovations that had been done on the building, of posters from shows that played in the theater, and, on a large expanse of it, signatures of everyone — musicians and actors — who have performed there.
“There will also be exhibit rooms down here,” he said.
McCloud described what the rooms will contain. “They’ll have rotating exhibits from a variety of different artists. We’re starting with ‘Ernie Boch’s Rare Guitars.’ We’ll have 24 guitars [from the collection of the Boch Center namesake], and each one has a story behind it. We made a hologram of Ernie, so he will be telling the stories. And the show after that is photos of Bob Dylan from the 1960s that were taken by Daniel Kramer.”
Spaulding saved what he deems the best for last, and headed up a staircase that opened onto the back of the massive Wang Theatre stage.
“We’re also using the stage as an exhibit hall,” he said. “We’ve developed a system of containers with exhibits inside them. When we have shows, they stack in the back of the stage. When we don’t have shows, and we’re doing tours, we move the containers, and put them onstage.”
“There’s a special relationship here between the audience and the artist,” Spaulding added, looking out at the empty seats. “To a major artist, this place is intimate. And with that interaction, the public goes really crazy in here. It’s wonderful.”
Guided tours will be led by Scott Towers, the Boch Center’s historian and director of special projects.
The only piece of the project that seems to be missing is an actual hall of fame. McCloud says that’s down the road.
“Until we start inducting people into a hall of fame, where we can have exhibits about them, we will focus on legacy artists,” she said. “We hope to get Odetta’s guitar and caftan, we would like to borrow Woody Guthrie’s fiddle from Arlo [Guthrie]. We want to make sure those legacy artists have their space, and we can grow from there. This is a living, breathing, changing entity.”
Tours of the Folk Americana Roots Hall of Fame are available Wednesday through Sunday at noon. No full tours will be scheduled on performance days at the Wang, but exhibit rooms will be open. Admission is $20; $12 for children 5-15. For reservations, contact email@example.com. For further information, visit www.folkamericanarootshalloffame.org.
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.