W is for Wintertide Coffeehouse #AtoZChallenge

When I discovered, and promptly threw myself into, Wintertide, it was strictly a winter thing. It happened at the off-season youth hostel. Now I can’t remember whether this was during my first year-round winter (1985/86) or my second. I’ve been thinking it was my first, but my “Winter Rental” sonnet sequence wasn’t complete until the summer of 1986 and I’m 95% sure I read the whole thing at the youth hostel. If the youth hostel hosted Wintertide for two winters, both memories could be true. That’s what I’m not sure of.

In 1991, writing a story for the Martha’s Vineyard Times about Wintertide’s big move to Five Corners and year-round operation, I tried to piece together Wintertide’s early history. It only went back to the very late 1970s, but already it was getting fuzzy: talk to three people who were around in the earliest days and you’d get three different dates and three different locations.

I did learn that one winter it had happened in the big room at the Wooden Tent and another in the basement of the stone church (Christ United Methodist) in Vineyard Haven, to which it returned when the youth hostel became unavailable. Someone really should do a history of Wintertide before all of us who were ever involved die off or leave the island.

Wintertide was inspired by the old West Tisbury musicales (generally pronounced  like “musicals”), in which islanders gathered in each other’s living rooms to play music together, sing, and chat. In the 1950s and much of the ’60s, the island did pretty much shut down after Labor Day so entertainment was DIY. (For more about the musicales and their legacy, see Shirley Mayhew’s wonderful memoir, Looking Back: My Long Life on Martha’s Vineyard.)

When I joined the party, Wintertide happened mostly on Saturdays from January through March. The musicians were mostly local, with off-islanders and ex-islanders sometimes passing through, and mostly folk and/or blues, which suited me fine. Occasionally a poet took the stage, but not all that often.

At some point, I mustered the courage to read my hot-off-the-page poetry at the open mike that often preceded the evening’s headliners. Reading poetry to listeners primed for music, along with my growing experience in theater, was  a crash course in performance.  It’s a risk getting up there all by yourself, but the energy that comes back from an attentive, even appreciative, audience is heady, inspiring, even transformational. It was probably at Wintertide that I got the notion that writing about the Vineyard was worth doing.

Two or three winters running I organized a Word Wizardry night, featuring the spoken word.

In January 1991, masterminded by sound-tech-turned-manager Tony Lombardi, Wintertide took the huge step of moving to Five Corners and becoming a year-round operation. Here’s the story I wrote about it for the Martha’s Vineyard Times, published on January 10, 1991. That’s Tony in the photo.

In the fall of 1991, the Martha’s Vineyard Times moved from its old location up State Road behind Woodland Market to its current home at Five Corners — literally right around the corner from Wintertide. Not only was I a Wintertide board member, regular volunteer, and occasional performer, I was the Times features editor. To put it mildly, the roles got blurred. Wintertide had very little money for advertising; I could put whatever I wanted in the paper’s Calendar (arts & entertainment) section.

These were the years of the Martha’s Vineyard Singer-Songwriters Retreat, conceived by singer-songwriter-impresario Christine Lavin and co-produced by Christine and Wintertide. Often I think that it’s been all downhill for the Vineyard since then, especially for the Vineyard’s arts-and-culture scene, though there have certainly been some high points in the years since. The recordings that came out of the retreat — Big Times in a Small Town from the 1992 edition and Follow That Road from 1993 — are still available and still wonderful.

It’s no coincidence that I left the Times just after the end of the second Singer-Songwriters Retreat, in October 1993: I loved my job, but it was burnout city, the pay wasn’t commensurate with the work involved, and the Times management wouldn’t put me on salary so I never got any benefits, like health insurance.

About a year later, I resigned from the Wintertide board and pulled way back. As a year-round operation, Wintertide taught me a lot about sustainability, or, more accurately, the lack of it. None of the lessons were unique to Wintertide either.

Wintertide hadn’t been at Five Corners all that long before volunteers and others started referring to it as “Tonytide,” about 25% out of affection and 75% out of frustration and somewhat darker feelings. Like many another visionary, Tony kept others on the peripheries of his vision, especially when he thought they might alter it in any way. Central to his vision was “all-volunteer.” This collided with the huge cost of renting the Five Corners location, coupled with all the challenges of the Vineyard’s seasonal economy. All attempts to put it on a sounder financial footing foundered on Tony’s vision.

As often happens when one person becomes identified with an organization (usually with his or her active encouragement), when that person moves on, the organization falls apart. When Tony decided to move on, the people who might have been willing and able to take it on had long since left. No one was waiting in the wings. There was no one on the bench. Wintertide fell into the hands of two guys who had no idea what it was about. It faltered and finally died.

Attempts to revive it, perhaps in its earlier winter-only incarnation, never got off the ground. Those who volunteered, performed, and/or attended events there still sigh for the good old days and wish they could come again. I catch myself doing this from time to time, but I’m also pretty sure that the exploding real estate prices of the very early 2000s and the accompanying demographic changes have put the kibosh on that.

At the same time, of all the grassroots arts that flourished in the late 1980s and well into the ’90s, the music scene remains the liveliest. You can still hear the echoes of Wintertide, and the music of some who performed there. In 2010 a “Wintertide Reunion” was held at Nectar’s (a nightclub at the old Hot Tin Roof location that no longer exists either). Googling, I found a letter to the editor about it, published in the M.V. Times for September 10, 2010. Before I got to the end of the first paragraph,  I realized that I’d written it.

It concludes:

Can the spirit of Wintertide be recreated in a nightclub like Nectar’s or a big nonprofit like the YMCA? Perhaps, but only if it remains connected to its do-it-yourself roots in Vineyard living rooms, church basements, and whatever other spaces can be improvised on this Island of very expensive real estate.

Tony Lombardi died last December. Long before then he was widely, but not quite universally, acclaimed a saint. His good works and legacy are undeniable, but as usual, the truth is more complicated.

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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1 Response to W is for Wintertide Coffeehouse #AtoZChallenge

  1. Well “E” is for effort! What a great thing for the community…


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