Music man remembered
Allan Block: Longtime Francestown musician, craftsman was at the center of Greenwich Village’s 1960s folk revival
Allan Block, seated with fiddle, during a 1961 jam session at Block's Greenwich Village sandal shop that drew enthusiastic music fans, including Ramblin' Jack Elliott, the man in the black cowboy hat.
Photo by Marvin Lichtne, courtesy of Rob Hunter.
Allan Block with his daughter, Rory, on the night he accompanied her at a 2002 concert in Peterborough. "It was really an amazing night, very emotional," said Rory Block.
Photo courtesy Rory Block
Allan Block, left, plays the fiddle at a Greenwich Village party in the loft of artist Harry Jackson in October 1963. Playing with Block are Tex Isley (guitar), Bill Vanaver (banjo) and Walter Gundy (harmonica).
Photo (copyright symbol) John Byrne Cooke
Friends and fellow musicians are mourning this week, remembering Allan Block, a fiddle player, leather craftsman, poet and longtime Francestown resident who died last week at the age of 90.
Block moved to New Hampshire from New York City in the late 1960s, leaving behind his Greenwich Village sandal shop that had become a hub of the 1960s folk-music revival, drawing in some of the biggest names of the era. At the shop, Block would often host impromptu jam sessions where he’s credited with introducing young musicians like Bob Dylan and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott to Appalachian mountain music. And in New Hampshire, he quickly became a fixture on the contra dance scene and at area crafts shows, where he would sell his distinctive belts, sandals and leather goods.
“He was a crackerjack musician and he played our music very well,” said Dudley Laufman of Canterbury, who recalled Block’s contribution to the first recording by the Canterbury Country Orchestra in the 1970s. “Our style was New England contra dances. He was interested in the old-timey music from the southern mountains, but we were delighted to have him. He carried a lot of weight, even though he wasn’t from Carolina or the southern Appalachians. He certainly played like he was.”
Mary Desrosiers of Harrisville, who called many contra dances with Block, said he was known as the dean of New England fiddlers, “both for his age and because he just knew a lot of tunes.”
“He was very, very relaxed,” Desrosier recalled. “I was a new caller when I first started working with Allan. He was so helpful and confident. He’d flap his big feet — he always wore those big leather slippers — and lean into the fiddle and give it all he had.”
Block’s personality made him a fun person to play with at dances and weddings, according to musician Gordon Peery of Nelson.
“He had a great sense of humor, but he wasn’t that funny,” Peery said. “He’d be incredibly uninhibited about telling a joke, regardless of how bad it was. And he always had an eye out for a good buffet table. On more than one occasion at a wedding, Allan would go thorough the line with a paper plate and shuffle it out to his car. Then he’d go back and get another plateful to eat.”
Peery said Block was a wonderful sandal and belt maker.
“He was always eager to sell stuff,” Peery said. “A number of times, we’d be going to a dance and he’d be bringing a pair of sandals for a customer, or he’d pick things up to repair. He was always transacting.”
Block’s daughter, Rory Block, who grew up in Greenwich Village and went on to an award-wining career as a blues guitarist and singer, said her father had a huge impact on her music.
“Anything I do is because of him,” she said on Friday. “He was absolutely on the cutting edge in New York City in the early ’60s. The music he played was so unusual. When everyone else was listening to pop, it was so wonderful for me to have heard this beautiful and joyous mountain music.”
Rory Block said her father’s sandal shop became a magnet for incredible musicians, some of whom would hold jam sessions at the store. Young performers like Bob Dylan and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott would stop by to listen to people like Pete and Mike Seeger, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman.
“Bob Dylan lived just five doors away,” Rory Block said. “John Lennon lived over on Jones Street; he had an apartment half a block away.”
The sandal shop became a fantastic jamming location, she said.
“People would crowd out on the sidewalk to peer through the windows. I was just soaking it in. Dad was this driving musical force. He was a person of musical authority, kind of the MC in his own way. He inspired others.”
Rory Block recalled performing with her father in a concert in Peterborough in 2002.
“My dad sat in with me,” she said. “It was really an amazing night, very emotional. He was so sweet.”
In addition to his music and leather work, Allan Block was also a poet. His first book of poetry, “In Noah’s Wake,” was published in 1972 by Bauhan Publishing of Peterborough. A second book, titled “Unopened Mail,” was published under Block’s own imprint in 2001.
“Block’s subject matter ranges from childhood memories to love and loss and musings on nature,” Jane Eklund wrote in a review of “Unopened Mail” in the Monadnock Ledger. “But regardless of the topic, the meaning almost always comes back to one man making sense of life. Birds, flowers, roadmaps all take on larger meaning. Some of the poems are instructive, others seek to explain, still others to explore.”
Block had been ill in recent years. Another friend who often performed with him, piano player Bob McQuillen of Peterborough, said he had visited with Block at his home in Francestown about three years ago, but they hadn’t played together for several years.
“He will be missed,” McQuillen said. “He was a sweet man and boy could he play the fiddle. I loved backing him up.”