I was in high school in the 1960s when I first saw Dave Van Ronk at the Gaslight, one of those little cellar clubs that used to line a Greenwich Village that now lives in myth and legend. I didn’t understand what he was doing. It seemed like a jumble whose elements I recognized–folk tunes, ragtime, early jazz, Delta blues–but they didn’t gel into what I thought was coherence. It was really only my expectations, though, that were exposed. I felt like Dr. P in Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, scanning deconstructed faces for that single telltale feature that would reveal who I was looking at. I didn’t know how to think about it. I couldn’t have been more confused if Louis Armstrong had ambled onto The Ed Sullivan Show and followed “Hello Dolly!” with “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
Two things, however, I got: Van Ronk was a hellacious guitar picker, and he was the only white guy I’d ever heard whose singing showed he understood Armstrong and Muddy Waters. He roared and bellowed like a hurricane; he could be threatening, and tender as the night. And he was funny. Not cute funny–really funny. He did bits from W.C. Fields, whose movies, like those of the Marx Brothers, were just being revived. He did “Mack the Knife” with a suddenly acquired tremolo I later found out was Marlene Dietrich’s. He finished with “Cocaine,” which he’d adapted from the Rev. Gary Davis, his friend and teacher, adding his own asides (“Went to bed last night singing a song/Woke up this morning and my nose was gone”). Decades later, Jackson Browne revived the tune, his band parsing Van Ronk’s solo guitar.
There are many Van Ronk undercurrents flowing through American pop culture. The acclamation that followed his death from colon cancer early this year strangely mirrored his ghostly omnipresence during life. He was a missing link: an authentic songster who voiced folk-made music. At his artistic core, he reconnected jazz to folk-music forms that he, like his avatar Woody Guthrie, pursued, learned and kept alive–and, with the wit and humor that kept homage from freezing into reverence, dared to reimagine.
A big, burly guy whose personality was as oversized as his voice, Van Ronk never crossed over to commerciality, never got mainstream-famous. In those ways, he was a true exemplar of the folk-revival aesthetic: becoming too visible or successful equaled selling out. He followed the time-honored American path into this culture’s musical heart: He studied sources and learned from living African-American performers. Those sources included Piedmont ragtime pickers like Blind Blake and Blind Boy Fuller and Delta deep-bluesmen like Son House, as well as parlor music. Then there was the Rev. Gary Davis. He’d dazzled 1940s Harlem street corners with his stylistically wide-ranging guitar and whooping singing, careening from biblical shouts to leering lipsmackers, and by the 1960s had become a teacher who drew Village hipsters to his small brick house in Queens. This was the era when Moondog, the eccentric jazz poet, took up his post near the Museum of Modern Art and did, well, whatever he felt like doing that day.
Maybe it’s not surprising that I was so confused by these figures that I didn’t guess until later that I’d seen some of the last stages of America’s oral culture.
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The acceleration of technological change has inevitably altered the oral process of folk-art transmission. In the twenty-first century it seems that, for better and worse, technology has probably rendered the Van Ronks oddly superfluous, apparently redundant. In evolution, if not architecture, form follows function. The concept of folk music hatched by Charles Seeger and the Lomaxes, and embodied by Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and Pete Seeger, has, in the age of mass recording, lost the daily uses that made it folk art. Where once songsters were the repositories and transmitters of our polyglot national folk heritage, where Van Ronk’s generation of amateur and semipro musicologist-sleuths sought out records tossed into people’s attics and garages to find artists obscured by the mists of time, now, thanks to the omnipresent, profitable avalanche of record-company CD reissues, almost anything they dug up is readily available. Of course, the artists and their cultures are not.
So our easy connection with the cultural past is shaped by the recording studio, with its time constraints and pressures and implicit notion of a fixed performance guarded by copyright–and the possibility of paying publishing royalties that are the core of the music industry’s economy. That inevitably alters performances from folk art, where borrowing and repetition are demanded. Thus we’ve lost the idiosyncratic twists to the oral/aural tradition that an artist of Van Ronk’s caliber introduces, casually and yet integrally, however much they appear like asides.
“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.
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.
Van Ronk was the first to record a tune Dylan claimed to write, “He Was a Friend of Mine,” on Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger in 1962 (the album has been reissued as part of Inside Dave Van Ronk [Fantasy]). Three years later, the Byrds redid it on Turn! Turn! Turn!, whose title cut remade Seeger’s setting of Ecclesiastes into folk rock, the new sound Dylan had kicked into high gear during his 1965 tour.
Van Ronk once observed, “The area that I have staked out…has been the kind of music that flourished in this country between the 1880s and, say, the end of the 1920s. You can call it saloon music if you want to. It was the kind of music you’d hear in music halls, saloons, whorehouses, barbershops, anywhere the Police Gazette could be found.” That’s not exactly a full description of what he did over thirty albums and countless performances. Better to think of him as a songster, an older, more encompassing sort of folk artist. Lead Belly and the Reverend Davis are outstanding examples of this type; they drew from multiple local and regional traditions that, in the early days of radio and phonograph, still defined American musical styles. Dance tunes, blues, ragtime, ballads, gospel–anything to keep the audiences on street corners or in juke joints interested and willing to part with some cash. This was, after all, performance. Entertainment was its primary goal; improvisation, found in the vocal-guitar interplay and instrumental backing as well as verse substitutions and extrapolations or shortenings, played to audience reaction.
In 1962, with the Red Onion Jazz Band, Van Ronk cut In the Tradition, which, along with the solo Your Basic Dave Van Ronk Album, cut in 1981, will be included on the forthcoming Two Sides of Dave Van Ronk. This somewhat odd couple makes a wonderful introduction to the breadth, depth and soul of this songster’s legacy. The smoothly idiomatic Red Onions pump joyful New Orleans adrenaline and Armstrong trumpet into a raucous “Cake Walking Babies From Home”; a sinuous “Sister Kate,” that dance hit built from an Armstrong melody; and Dylan’s caustic “All Over You.” Amid the Dixieland are solos: a stunning version of Son House’s “Death Letter Blues” (later recorded by Cassandra Wilson), Lead Belly’s “Whoa Back Buck,” the virtuosic ragtime “St. Louis Tickle,” signature pieces like the gentle “Green, Green Rocky Road” and “Hesitation Blues.” The tunes drawn from Your Basic Dave Van Ronk Album show no diminishing of talent and a continuing breadth of perspective: Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” (sung with a tenderness that scorches periodically into Howlin’ Wolf) and “St. James Infirmary” share space with tunes by Davis and Mississippi John Hurt.
In 1967 he cut Dave Van Ronk & The Hudson Dusters (Verve Forecast), a cross of jug band and electric folk music that foreshadowed The Blues Project, the improvising garage band that Van Ronk pupils Danny Kalb and Steve Katz later formed. There was doo-wop, Joni Mitchell (whose Clouds becomes anguished, thanks to Van Ronk’s torturous voice breaks used with interpretive skill, a move he learned from Armstrong and Bessie Smith) and the balls-to-the-wall garage rock “Romping Through the Swamp,” which sounds akin to Captain Beefheart.
Recorded in 1967, Live at Sir George University (Justin Time) is time-capsule Van Ronk on guitar, plus vocals, doing pieces of his repertoire: “Frankie and Albert,” “Down and Out,” “Mack the Knife,” “Statesboro Blues” and “Cocaine,” of course–all masterful, each distinct.
By then the folk boom, whose audience was bleeding into folk-rock, electric blues and psychedelia, stalled and ended. Van Ronk continued (except for a hiatus in the 1970s) to perform and record and gather new-old material. And he had time, before his death, to deliver some acid reflections.
On 1960s folkies:
The whole raison d’être of the New Left had been exposed as a lot of hot air, that was demoralizing. I mean, these kids thought they were going to change the world, they really did. They were profoundly deluded…. Phil Ochs wrote the song “I declare the war is over,” that was despair, sheer despair.
On 1980s folkies:
You’re talking about some pretty damn good songwriters. But I’d like to hear more traditional music…. With the last wave of songwriters you get the sense that tradition begins with Bob Dylan and nobody is more annoyed with that than Bob Dylan. We were sitting around a few years ago, and he was bitching and moaning: “These kids don’t have any classical education.” He was talking about the stuff you find on the Anthology [of American Folk Music]. I kidded him: “You got a lot to answer for, Bro.”