In 1958, the Kingston Trio's recording of the 19th-century folk ballad Tom Dooley topped the pop charts, selling more than six million copies and inaugurating a folk music boom.
Almost overnight, coffeehouses dedicated to presenting acoustic folk music sprang up everywhere. Winnipeg was no exception, with places such as the Java Shop and Establishment offering folk fare and espresso coffee. But the granddaddy of local coffeehouses was the Fourth Dimension, or 4D, located at 2000 Pembina Highway at University Crescent in south Winnipeg.
Opened in 1959 in the former Jack's Place dinner and dance club, the 4D was one of a chain of three other clubs (Fort William, Winnipeg and Regina) owned by Gene Ciuka of Regina. Jack's Place had enjoyed a long run during the big band jazz era. Marsh Phimister and his band held court there for several years. But by the latter '50s, it and other dance clubs had folded. The once all-white club beside the Pembina Drive-in Theatre was repainted black, given a dark bohemian interior (black walls lined with a snow fence and dim lighting), and recast as the 4D. Charlie Clements, from Regina, was installed as manager of the coffeehouse.
Besides booking travelling folk artists such as Casey Anderson, Len Chandler, Tim Rose, the Dirty Shames, Gale Garnett (We'll Sing in the Sunshine), and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, the venue often featured local performers. "We gave a lot of people their start here," boasts Clements, who also recalls the night Harry Belafonte, in town at the Rancho Don Carlos, snuck in through the back door to watch Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee.
Sunday-night hootenannies were a popular attraction for aspiring folk performers. "We had some great hootenannies," he continues. "We'd be playing and singing until all hours of the morning." Guitar genius Lenny Breau often dropped in for late-night impromptu performances.
"The 4D was a rather small, dark and claustrophobic space," recalls Janet Brett. "A place that you knew would look way worse in the daylight. The stage was small and elevated and the audience was close." The antithesis of the raucous community-club dances, the 4D was an oasis for like-minded souls with a penchant for a more cerebral experience.
"It wasn't about the mating ritual, like the community clubs," notes local folk performer Len Udow, who frequented the 4D. "It was a place where you could meet other people from other parts of the city who, like you, were caught up in this particular musical movement. It was a safe place. The coffee wasn't the attraction, like a Starbucks today. We were given a platform to express ourselves. It was a learning experience, too, a sharing of abilities. You could watch a performer, then afterwards have the opportunity to ask about chords they played or songs they sang. It wasn't formal or the mainstream. There was no glitz. It wasn't sophisticated but it didn't have to be."
With seating for approximately 100 people, the 4D offered an intimacy between performer and audience.
While the espresso coffee may not have been the attraction, chicken in a basket or a Sufferin' Bastard (a large dish filled with every ice cream flavour on the menu) were popular.
"Although it was billed as a coffeehouse," states Brett, "it seemed to me that an inordinate number of folks were drinking strangely named teas."
By 1963, local entrepreneur Mickey Cooperband, owner of the Midtown Buffet, bought the 4D and installed Udow as Sunday hootenanny host. The hootenannies often included Fred Penner, Jim Donahue, a flamenco guitarist everyone remembers only as T.K., Daisy DeBolt, animator Richard Condie, members of the Down-To-Earthenware Jug Band and Three Blind Mice (the three Kozub siblings) and Neil Young.
"He was a pleasant, easygoing guy, kind of shy and quiet," Udow remembers of the rock-music icon who also loved folk music. "He was a rock 'n' roll guy but he fit in with everyone at the 4D." Even then, Young's songwriting stood out. "He was a scruffy-looking guy with this high voice but all the girls loved him because he wrote these love songs."
Young often borrowed Udow's expensive Martin D-18 acoustic guitar to perform at the coffeehouse. "One time he scratched it and I was livid."
On Jan. 25, 1964, Young's band the Squires performed at the 4D for no money, just free food. They frequently appeared at the coffeehouse over the next 18 months and evolved a unique sound by rocking up old folk songs.
"Nobody was doing folk-rock at that time," recalls Bernie Barsky, "so when I heard him doing Oh Susannah at the 4D I said to him, 'Neil, you have to teach me this arrangement.' After he finished his set, he sat down at the front of the stage and showed me how to play it. I still remember it: Am to D over and over. Neil sounded the same back then as he does now; that reedy, high voice and that very loud simple guitar chording. I can still hear that high voice singing 'Well, I come from Alabama... ' " Adds Squires drummer Randy Peterson, "We did a version of Tom Dooley but you wouldn't know it was that song. Neil made it his own. He had this folk thing in him but he also loved to rock." In 2012, Young released Americana, an album where he revisited those early Winnipeg folk-rock experiments. He would meet Joan Anderson, a.k.a. Joni Mitchell, when she performed at the 4D. Stephen Stills' New York-based folk quintet the Company appeared for a weeklong stand at the 4D in April 1965. He and Young met up the week before at the Fort William 4D.
By 1966, rock 'n' roll had overtaken folk music in popularity and the 4D closed its doors that spring. Its former location is now a turning lane off University Crescent onto Bishop Grandin. Charlie Clements owned Tubby's Pizza on Stafford Street until 2010. For Len Udow, the 4D provided an opportunity to pursue a music career in Toronto before returning to the city and working with Fred Penner.
"The 4D changed my life," he muses. "It was a station to get on a vehicle that could take you somewhere else, as well as a spawning ground for many of us."