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Talk of the Town

New Book And Compilation Resurrect The Late Folk Hero Dave Van Ronk

Emily Flake

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 6/29/2005

Tom Russell’s new Hotwalker (Hightone) is a strange mix of song and spoken word, memoir, and tribute, that salutes his bohemian heroes: Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Lenny Bruce, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. But the most heartfelt number is called “Van Ronk,” a portrait of Dave Van Ronk holding court in his apartment on Sheridan Square in lower Manhattan.

“I sat on his couch a few times, and it was better than any $100 shrink or hooker,” Russell says over a wistful fiddle and mandolin. “His second wife, Andrea, is a beautiful little woman who played classical harp, and Dave would direct her to play records as we sat there and drank. Then he’d tell us to shut up and listen, and if we didn’t listen, Van Ronk would [say,] ‘Play that god-damned thing again, Andrea, play it. Now listen to this god-damned thing, you people . . . “

Many songwriters had sat on that couch—Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs, Paul Simon, Tom Paxton, Eric Andersen, Noel Stookey, and hundreds more—but Van Ronk never achieved the fame of some of his protégés. His own songwriting gifts were too modest and his voice was too much of a bearish growl, but he was a marvelous interpreter and made dozens of fine records. Moreover, he was the Neal Cassady to Dylan’s Kerouac, and his influence can be heard in hundreds of so-called folk singers. The general public may not remember Van Ronk, but his fellow musicians still speak of him with awe. Dylan, for example, wrote warmly of his one-time mentor in 2004’s Chronicles: Volume One:

Van Ronk was from Brooklyn, had seaman’s papers, a wide walrus mustache, long brown straight hair which flew down covering half his face. He turned every folk song into a surreal melodrama, a theatrical piece—suspenseful down to the last minute. Dave got to the bottom of things. It was like he had an endless supply of poison and I wanted some.

This year Van Ronk’s own book appears. The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir was half-finished when he died of cancer in 2002, but his collaborator, journalist Elijah Wald, pulled together the notes and dozens of interview transcripts from other journalists and created a book that brims over with details about the legendary Greenwich Village folk revival of the early ’60s, or the “Folk Scare,” as Van Ronk preferred to call it, and the pages ring with Van Ronk’s distinctive voice.

That voice was marked by both a generous enthusiasm and a knife-edged skepticism. American folk of the ’50s and ’60s had its fair share of geniuses and honorable craftspeople, but also an equal number of charlatans and commercial compromisers. All four qualities could often be found in the same performer, and Van Ronk is not shy about saying which is which. He writes quite a bit about Dylan, for example, with a mixture of admiration for his talent, laughter at his self-mythologizing, anger at his ripoff of Van Ronk’s arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun,” and sympathy for the impossible pressure that fame exerted.

Van Ronk describes the first time he met his most famous protégé at a Café Wha? open-mic:

Fred [Neil] was on stage with his guitar and up there with him, playing harmonica was the scruffiest-looking fugitive from a cornfield I do believe I had ever seen. “Where did he pick up that style of harp blowing? Mars?”

Then Fred relinquished the stage and the kid did a couple of numbers on his own. As I remember, they were Woody Guthrie songs, and his singing had the same take-no-prisoners delivery as his harmonica playing. We were impressed. After the set, Fred introduced us. Bob Dylan, spelled D-Y-L-A-N. “As in Thomas?” I asked innocently. Right. I may have rolled my eyes heavenward.

Van Ronk’s skepticism is even sharper when he discusses the whole folk movement, because he believes most of it had little to do with folk music. Folk music, he says quite reasonably, is an oral tradition of songs recycled and altered by nonprofessional musicians for members of their own community. It’s not a movement of professional musicians writing new songs for their next record, even if they do accompany themselves on acoustic guitar. “I have heard everyone from Paxton to Suzanne Vega refer to themselves as folksingers,” he writes, “though the last time Tom sang a folk song was roughly 1962, and I doubt Suzanne has ever sung one in her life.”

Most of the book is devoted to the 1957-’67 “Folk Scare,” when so-called folk music became the Next Big Thing for a brief moment, made stars of a handful, and launched modest but long-term careers for many more, Van Ronk included. He chronicles the whole thing from the perspective of his Sheridan Square apartment, which served as the movement’s clubhouse. He tells the story with lots of anecdotes and uninhibited opinions, which betray an admiration for the movement’s passions and an impatience with its pretensions.

Van Ronk himself was something of an odd duck on the scene. His own compositions always made up a minority of his sets, and his background in jazz gave his music a muscular syncopation that most of the singer/songwriters sadly lacked. A Wobbly radical, he was to the left of most of the protest singers, yet he rarely sang political songs onstage. And the blues always outweighed the Anglo-Celtic-Appalachian songs in his repertoire.

Released simultaneously with the book is a new album, also called The Mayor of MacDougal Streetø(Rootstock/Multicultural/Lyrichord). Wald compiled this collection of unreleased rarities, ranging from Van Ronk’s earliest 1957 demos through his favorite jazz numbers to solo versions of “Bird on the Wire” and “Both Sides Now” from a late-’60s concert. These are like the rarities disc added to a box set; they’re invaluable for the die-hard fan but not the best introduction for the uninitiated.

Much of Van Ronk’s catalog is out of print, but the best starting point for exploring his music is a pair of two-CD packages released by Fantasy, each containing two complete Prestige albums from the ’60s. Inside Dave Van Ronk contains his masterpiece, a 1962 collection of acoustic blues called Folksinger, and 1965’s Inside Dave Van Ronk, a collection of Anglo-Celtic-Appalachian songs. Two Sides of Dave Van Ronk contains In the Tradition, recorded with the Red Onion Jazz Band, and Your Basic Dave Van Ronk, which includes such staples of his set as “Cocaine,” “Candy Man,” “St. James Infirmary,” and “Gaslight Rag.” To hear his later work, check out 1976’s Sunday Street (Philo) or 1995’s From . . . Another Time and Place (Alcazar).

“Do yourself a favor one of these days and put your ear to the ground over there near Sheridan Square,” Russell says later in his song “Van Ronk.” “Listen to him, god damnit, listen. He’s still there. . . . I can hear him coughing, singing, barking, lecturing, laughing, ranting, and raving in heaven or hell or purgatory, oblivion, nirvana, wherever they send the real good ones after they pass on through.”

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