Folk's Missing Link
"This song has changed since Gary used to do it," he used to growl, introducing "Cocaine." Which was, of course, part of the point, the method of transmission, of real folk music: If culture is a conservative mechanism, a cumulative record of human activity, change results from disconnections and accretions like Van Ronk's sharp-witted reactions to Davis's barbed blues, originally improvised add-ons drawn from his memory of lyrics the way a jazz musician pulls riffs from history and reworks them into his own voice.
Van Ronk was a die-hard collector of sources, living and recorded. As the liner notes to the 1962 album In the Tradition put it, "Dave Van Ronk has established himself as one of the foremost compilers of 'Jury Texts' regarding traditional tunes. (Jury Texts are when many verses are sung to one tune, usually with some new words appearing with each subsequent recording.) Here, in 'Death Letter Blues,' Van Ronk has arranged some of the most moving verses of this song into a dramatic slow blues." Behold the songster at work--a process found in early Armstrong, Guthrie and Robert Johnson.
Although the building blocks of oral culture are plastic, preservationists in a nonoral culture tend toward reverence, and thus simpler imitation--hence the folk revival's slew of earnest groups like the New Lost City Ramblers. As Van Ronk observed in a late 1970s interview in the folk music quarterly Sing Out!, "It was all part and parcel of the big left turn middle-class college students were making.... So we owe it all to Rosa Parks." While black rhythm-and-blues was revving white teens into rock and roll, black folk artists became heroes to young white collegians. The left cast a romantic, even sacramental aura over black (and white) folk art and its traditions, which implicitly stigmatized creative change; the central notion of folk-revival culture, authenticity, meant avoiding commercial trappings and replicating a recorded past.
Perhaps it was Van Ronk's deep study of that past that helped him avoid fixing it. In a late 1990s interview, asked about Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, he rightly called it the bible of his generation and noted dryly, "I sat up and took notice at how many tunes that, say, Doc Watson does that are on the Anthology.... Some he would have known [via oral tradition]. But you can tell. There are hundreds of possible verses. When someone does [lists three verses in order], you know they've been listening to Bascom Lamar Lunsford."
"One thing I was blessed with is that I was a very, very bad mimic," Van Ronk once observed. Which is another view of how oral tradition mixes conservation and creativity. Van Ronk's background allowed him to understand this uniquely.
He was born in Brooklyn on July 30, 1936, a Depression baby to a mostly Irish working-class family. His father and mother split, and he grew up in blue-collar Richmond Hill, Queens, where he went to Catholic school--or played truant--until the system gave up on him, at 16. In 1998 he told David Walsh, "I remember reading Grant's memoirs, the autobiography of Buffalo Bill. Lots of Mark Twain.... My brain was like the attic of the Smithsonian.... The principal...called me 'a filthy ineducable little beast.' That's a direct quote." Like Guthrie, Van Ronk became a formidable autodidact. While he hung out in pool halls he was listening to jazz--bebop, cool, then traditional, a k a New Orleans or Dixieland jazz, a style with its own cult of authenticity. He fell in love with Armstrong and Bessie Smith, along with Lead Belly and Bing Crosby, his major vocal influences.
Like Odysseus, Guthrie, Kerouac and Pynchon, Van Ronk decided to take to the sea. In 1957, he got a shore gig at the Cafe Bizarre in the Village. Odetta, the gospel-voiced black singer who gave the 1950s folk scene an interracial connection--as Lead Belly, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and Josh White had to the first Depression wave--heard him, liked him and convinced him to make a demo tape that she'd pass on to Albert Grossman, folk-music maven, Chicago club owner and future manager of Bob Dylan. Popping Benzedrine in the best Beat fashion, Van Ronk hitchhiked to Chicago in twenty-four hours, got to Grossman's club, found out the tape hadn't, auditioned, got turned down (Grossman was booking black songsters like Big Bill Broonzy, and Van Ronk accused him of Crowjimming), hitchhiked back to New York, had his seaman's papers stolen and thus decided that he would, after all, become a folk singer.
Given his sardonic realism, it was fittingly ironic that he and his wife, Terri Thal, became quasi parents for dewy-eyed collegiate folkies drawn by Guthrie's songs and Seeger's indefatigable college-concert proselytizing. Seeger's shows planted folk-music seeds on campuses across the country, but Smith's Anthology provided the rich soil for the next generation of folk musicians. "Cast your mind back to 1952," Van Ronk told one interviewer. "The only way you could hear the old timers was hitting up the thrift shops. When the Anthology came out, there were eighty-two cuts, all the old-time stuff. I wore out a copy in a year. People my age were doing the same." As did his musical stepkids.