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.