The Flint Folk Music Society – A History
by Jim McTiernan
The Flint Folk Music Society was born in 1999 but the roots of Flint folk music and those of the Flint Folk Music Society extend back in time to the 1960’s and early 70’s when folk music flourished in two amazing venues operated by Don and Jackie Bowles. This is the beginning of that story.
The Sippin’ Lizzard Coffee House
The “Sippin’ Lizzard Coffee House” was located at the corner of Lewis St. and Bennett St. in Flint Michigan. It grew out of the gatherings that Don and Jackie Bowles hosted in the basement of their home where their son, Paul, and his friends gathered to play guitar and sing. When attendance became too large for the basement, Jackie, with Don’s support, rented the old building on Lewis St. and established a coffeehouse in 1965.
The name for the coffeehouse came from an incident at Paul’s high school. Paul and his friends were constantly being harassed by school officials for their hair and dress. One day Jackie was called to school and found Paul in the counselor’s office. In the course of the discussion that followed the counselor referred to Paul and his friends as nothing but a bunch of “no good, long-haired, guitar-playing, coffee-sipping lizards.” And the “Sippin’ Lizzard” was born.
The building that housed the Sippin’ Lizzard was rented by Don and Jackie Bowles in 1965 because it was the only one they could afford at the time. It proved to be an adequate location despite some business women who practiced their profession in the apartments upstairs and an unsecured basement door which allowed the cellar to serve as a restroom for “street people”. The building was demolished a few years ago.
At this location, folk music fans heard Joni Mitchell as she began her career, as well as Cedric Smith, Phil Marcus Esser and others while sitting on the floor and drinking coffee. (see concert info below)
But this was the sixties and Flint was not ready for the Sippin’ Lizzard with its variety of anti-establishment entertainment. Police routinely raided the Sippin’ Lizzard looking for marijuana-using “hippies.” After a year and a half, Jackie closed the Sippin’ Lizzard due to the harassment and building code problems. Jackie was not abandoning folk music, however, as she already had visions of a new venue which might be less offensive to the city fathers. The new site would be called the “Concert Gallery.”
The Concert Gallery
The Concert Gallery opened in 1968 at the corner of Atherton and Fenton Roads in Flint. The building was formerly a pharmacy, but Jackie and her loyal following cleaned and painted, constructed a stage and installed a sound system and lighting. Flint folk music fans followed Jackie to the new location and folk music along with plays and comedy entertained the Flint audience until once again the Flint establishment objected. The political and social turmoil of the times was vented on a small and unthreatening alternative entertainment venue. Police raids continued under Flint Mayor and former police chief James Rutherford and Genesee County Prosecutor Robert Leonard. Finally, the police hired a young woman to make a purchase of marijuana at the Concert Gallery. She was unable to do so as Jackie had a strict “no drugs” policy that was rigidly enforced. The police plant was able to buy a joint outside the Concert Gallery. The city ordered the Concert Gallery closed and Jackie filed a lawsuit against the city.
The protracted lawsuit that followed was won by Jackie, however the fight had been expensive and exhausting. Jackie reopened the Concert Gallery for a few weekends to celebrate the winning of the lawsuit, then closed for good.
Folk Music in Exile
What folk music remained in Flint after the closing of the Sippin’ Lizzard and the Concert Gallery lived in the smoky confines of downtown Flint bars. Hat’s Pub, Doobies, Sports Bar and other bars and restuarants often presented folk music entertainers. However they too soon fell victim to the dual pressures of downtown deterioration and University of Michigan-Flint expansion.
For decades the folk music scene in Flint was dormant and folk music only sporadically featured at libraries and other public locations. Folk music fans were forced to journey to the Ark in Ann Arbor or the Ten Pound Fiddle in East Lansing to see and hear folk music artists.
The lack of local folk music venues, and a fortuitous job loss, resulted in the founding of the Flint Folk Music Society in 1999.