Folk's Missing Link
Van Ronk once said of Seeger, "What am I supposed to say about the guy who invented my profession?" By the late 1950s that profession had migrated far from Lead Belly and Guthrie, songsters who lived the lives they chronicled, and far from Seeger's fierce anticommercialism and romantic faith in a pure, true folk culture. History intervened. Seeger had refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and had doggedly resurfaced in the post-McCarthy era. Still, less threatening figures like Burl Ives became the commercial faces of folk music. As Joe Klein noted in Woody Guthrie: A Life, the folk revival offered record companies an exit from payola scandals and the racial and sexual fears that had generated mainstream disapproval of rock and roll. The patina of integrity and authenticity covering white collegiate folk music helped the labels repolish corporate images.
Starting in 1957, the Kingston Trio cleaned up old tunes like "Tom Dooley" and "Tijuana Jail" and scored several top-25 hits. Neat folk groups proliferated, feeding into the Village and Cambridge, Massachusetts, where young men and women donning recently acquired rural accents and denims recycled the Anthology's songbook and hoped to catch a label's ear.
In 1959, when Bobby Zimmerman was leaving behind his piano à la Jerry Lee Lewis for college and the Anthology's lures, Van Ronk made his first records, now compiled on The Folkways Years (Smithsonian/Folkways); they unveil a songster misclassified. Van Ronk once said, "I never really thought of myself as a folk singer at all. Still don't. What I did was to combine traditional fingerpicking guitar with a repertoire of old jazz tunes." Here he does a Gary Davis-derived staple of his repertoire, "Hesitation Blues," and more blues and gospel. His big, rough voice and guitar dexterity are self-evident, as is his improvisational feel.
In 1964, he yanged with Dave Van Ronk's Ragtime Jug Stompers (Mercury), recording high-energy versions of tunes like "Everybody Loves My Baby" with a wild and ragged Dixieland outfit. This was his recurrent jazz-folk dialectic. On his solo album Sings the Blues (Folkways), Van Ronk's coarse voice and nimble fingers got looser--like the irrepressible Davis's--and thus he found himself.
"It was more academic than it is now," Van Ronk remembered in the 1970s:
It was 'de rigueur,' practically, to introduce your next song with a musicological essay--we all did it. There was a great deal of activity around New York--not so much you could make money at. But there were folk song societies in most of the colleges and the left was dying, but not quietly. So there was a great deal of activity around Sing Out! and the Labor Youth League, which wasn't affiliated with the old CP youth group, you understand. There was a lot of grassroots interest among the petit-bourgeois left.
Spoken like the sly observer who once told an interviewer from the International Committee of the Fourth International, "I've always liked Trotsky's writings as an art critic."
By 1961 Bobby Zimmerman was Bobby Dylan and had arrived in New York, Van Ronk was an insider on the Village folk scene and the two gravitated toward and around each other, thanks partly to what Van Ronk called the take-no-prisoners quality of Dylan's music and personality. Ramped up by commercial success, the postwar folk revival's peak loomed over debates about authenticity. "All of a sudden," Van Ronk recalled a few years back, "there was money all over the place."
He settled into the Gaslight, a hub for noncommercial folkies. Several other pass-the-hat beat-folk coffeehouses, like Cafe Wha?, opened. By 1962 Dylan had settled in down the block, at the grander Gerde's Folk City. Izzy Young of the Folklore Center, part of the older folk-revival wave, had set up a folk-music showcase, WBAI had broadcast the shows and club owner Mike Porco, realizing he had a salable product, ousted both, lining his bar with record covers and his seats with young beatniks. Porco's Monday night Hoots were the dollar-admission descendants of both Young's and Seeger's earlier informal loft gatherings, and he showcased rediscovered legends like John Lee Hooker with Dylan as the opener. Tom and Jerry--later known as Simon and Garfunkel--and Judy Collins cut their teeth there. Kids flocked to this semi-underground. Jug bands emerged as the college-beatnik equivalent of the 1950s blue-collar rockabilly outbreak in the South, and street-corner doo-wop in the North, prefiguring the 1960s garage-band explosion after the Beatles and electric Dylan. The link: Everyone felt empowered to make music. These were folk musics.
The Newport Folk Festival, the crowning triumph of the postwar folk revival, was first organized in 1959 by jazz impresario George Wein and Albert Grossman, and graduated the purer wings of the folk movement to big-time concerts; Seeger himself was involved. "I never liked those things," Van Ronk characteristically recalled. "It was a three-ring circus.... You couldn't even really hear what you came to hear. Put yourself in my position, or any singer's position: How would you like to sing for 15,000 people with frisbees?" Along with his own musical catholicity, that may be why, even after the Dylan-goes-electric blowup at the 1965 festival, Van Ronk remained a Dylan defender.
"Nervous. Nervous energy, he couldn't sit still," is how he spoke of young Bob to David Walsh in 1998:
And very, very evasive.... What impressed me the most about him was his genuine love for Woody Guthrie. In retrospect, even he says now that he came to New York to 'make it.' That's BS. When he came to New York there was no folk music, no career possible.... What he said at the time is the story I believe. He came because he had to meet Woody Guthrie.... Bobby used to go out there two or three times a week and sit there, and play songs for him. In that regard he was as standup a cat as anyone I've ever met. That's also what got him into writing songs. He wrote songs for Woody, to amuse him, to entertain him. He also wanted Woody's approval.... [Dylan's music] had what I call a gung-ho, unrelenting quality.... He acquired very, very devoted fans among the other musicians before he had written his first song.