Only Live Music in This Crypt
Updated: Sep 3, 2021
A look at Columbia’s actual underground music scene
By Ruthie Gottesman
Outside, it is hailing and wind is howling on this wintery Friday night.Inside, though, the warm red glow of the light emanating from the basement of St. Paul’s Chapel invites lovers of music to gather for warmth at the Postcrypt Coffeehouse, and this is exactly where I find myself. The room is small— a plaque that hangs on the wall declares that the maximum occupancy to be 30 people—and people squeeze themselves into the nooks of the room, taking their seats at tables with flickering candles whose light dances on the stone walls. The chairs all face a humble, petite platform, on which an older man perches, slowly plucking the strings of a bandura. He speaks softly as though he is talking to a friend when he explains that the bandura is a Ukrainian folk instrument that has been traditionally played by blind musicians. Over his head, fairy lights snake their way around an exposed pipe. The dance of his fingers across the bandura’s 68 strings reflects in shadows across the instrument’s broad surface. With a shaky voice, he begins to sing about a war that took place a long time ago. When he finishes, everyone claps, and he bashfully smiles. The Crypt Manager thanks him for his time and reminds everyone that they are selling snacks and beverages at the bar, though nothing alcoholic.
Established in 1964, Postcrypt Coffeehouse is an entirely student run not-for-profit organization that hosts professional, amateur, and student artists from across the country. Typically, three performances take place every Friday and Saturday night from 8:30 to 11:30. The performers play music from a variety of genres, such as folk, jazz, and blues, but Postcrypt Coffeehouse has become a renowned venue especially for folk music since its inception. There are also open mic nights and comedy nights every so often. These performances always take place in the intimate setting of the basement of St. Paul’s Chapel. They are free to attend, and attract both students from Columbia as well as the locals of Morningside Heights.
Lawrence Chillrud, CC ’20, has been involved with Postcrypt ever since his first semester at Columbia, when he started volunteering at the performances. In order to get students involved, the Postcrypt managers invite students to sign up for a performance and assist with setting up, addressing the artists’ needs, and interacting with the attendees. Chillrud became the bar manager earlier this year. His responsibilities include going shopping and stocking Postcrypt every week with coffee, tea, cookies, and beverages. He says that being a manager is “pretty relaxed and a fun way to make the Crypt a bigger part of my life.”
Postcrypt was founded in 1964 by the University Chaplain at the time, Reverend John Cannon, with the help of a student, Dotty Sutherland. They transformed a dusty storage unit below St. Paul’s Chapel into a venue for performers. The name “Postcrypt” is a play off of the word “postscript,” and was chosen by Cannon as a nod to his favorite philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, whose best known work may be Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Sutherland and Cannon designed and created a mosaic countertop that is still used as the bartop today. The attendees of Postcrypt have been served beverages and snacks over this same mosaic piece for over 50 years, while up-and-coming folk acts, and some very famous faces perform on stage. Perhaps the most famous artist to take to the tiny platform was Jeff Buckley, famed for his cover of “Hallelujah.”
Dating back to its inception in 1960s, Postcrypt has a long history. Past student managers of the Crypt have come together to try to uncover its detailed past. Postcrypt’s old website’s history page begins with a note from a former bar manager from ‘92-’95 that reads, “As with many student-run organizations, the Postcrypt has a long and undocumented history. As the unofficial Postcrypt historian, I have tried my best to be accurate, but please correct me as necessary! This page will always be a work in progress.” Per his request, the page is filled with updates, including the dates that they were added. It seems to be an ongoing project for students to piece together the details of this intimate space that has been preserved for so long. Students keep track of all past performers, past bar managers, the origins of their furniture and signs, and old photos of students of the space. They gather this information through contacting alumni and former students.
Chillrud informed me that just like the mosaic countertop, which features images of the Last Supper and is Postcrypt’s only nod to its religious residence, not much has changed since 1964. The original stage continues to support artists and performers, even if it has been reinforced with fresh plywood, and much of the furniture is original to what Cannon and Sutherland purchased.The band Minus Ted, which used to perform every so often in the early years of Postcrypt, came back to perform this past January 2018. Band member Terry Pender is a Columbia alumni who is currently the Associate Director of Columbia University’s Music Center. He told the Postcrypt managers that he met his wife at Postcrypt in the 70’s. “It was really fun talking with him and hearing about how the Crypt evolved,” Chillrud told me, adding, “It apparently hasn’t changed much at all.”
When asked to tell about notable artists that he’s seen Postcrypt host during his time being involved, Chillrud struggled to narrow down his answer, gushing, “There are honestly so many!”. He named an acoustic songwriter Josey Blue, whom he recently heard while he was managing, saying that “He [Blue] had an awesome sound and was super personable.” Chillrud described how “there was this crazily intimate moment where he dedicated a song to someone he went to highschool with who had just died and he missed the funeral service as it was too far away.” Instead, Josey “was playing at the Crypt, so it was super intimate and kind of touching.” Many performances are often described in these terms. Because of the nature of the small space, Postcrypt lends itself to an intimate concert experience unlike any other.
Chillrud asked me to highlight that the Postcrypt sign was stolen in February and has not been seen since. “It’s super upsetting because it’s been a part of Postcrypt for decades,” Chillrud said. In the context of Postcrypt’s longevity, it is clear what an affront this is to the organization.
While the lives of Columbia students barreling ever onwards towards Wall Street, Postcrypt serves as a small space preserved in time. Head down the stairs of St. Paul’s on any Friday or Saturday night to experience it for yourself.