The headline February
10 announcing Dave Van Ronks death in Reuters
said, "Folk Pioneer," but I always thought of him as more
than that. First and foremost I thought of him as a blues
singer, even though he did old traditional ballads, and
later on tackled Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman songs
as well as writing a few of his own.
Even though he was a native
of Brooklyn, Van Ronk will always be associated with Greenwich
Villagethe way it once wasand had a personality
that was the definition of hip in its original sense.
Big, bearded, sloppy in his dress, his music was anything
but sloppy. He set the standard for New York City guitar
pickers in the mid-60s. His guitar work was clean
and intricate without being flashy. I remember friends
figuring his licks to "Cocaine" (to this day the definitive
version of that song) and other songs from his albums.
And that guitar style had its influence down the line
on other musicians. When the first Hot Tuna album came
out, and people I knew were raving, my reaction was, they
listened to Dave Van Ronk.
Van Ronk was one of the
first "folk" musicians to truly take the blues seriously,
not just play a blues as another folk song. He went back
and figured out the guitar parts, bringing the music of
Blind Willie McTell, Blind Lemon Jefferson and many others
to a new generation of listeners. Yes, later on others
would delve even deeper, but he got the ball rolling.
He also seemed to delight in making musical connections,
recording with a Dixieland band in the early 60s,
doing "Mack the Knife" with a jug band (still one of the
best versions Ive heard of that song) or combining
the songs of Joni Mitchell, Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton,
Leroy Carr, Blind Blake and Bing Crosby on one album and
making it a unified whole.
As important as his guitar
work was, it is his singing for which hell be remembered.
He had a voice to match his big, bearish looks. Initially
it sounds like hes singing in a hoarse growl somewhat
reminiscent of Louis Armstrong. Listen closer and the
growl is almost gentle, even tender, alternating between
going at full force, and quietly coaxing and caressing
whatever words he was singing. Sometimes, while scatting
Van Ronk could take it to extremes, but even his earliest
recordings reveal a master in full dynamic control of
what he was doing. Most important of all, he always sang
like he meant it with plenty of heart and soul to spare.
And while his early records will always mean the most
to me because of their associations with that time in
my life, his later recordings reveal he had turned his
vocal mastery into his own personal art form.
Van Ronks influence
on Bob Dylan is incalculable. He was friend, mentor and
teacher, letting the young Dylan sleep on his couch, and
not only teaching him guitar licks, but about poetry,
literature, politics and more than likely how to get along
in New York. Dylan took Van Ronks arrangement of
"House of the Rising Sun," recorded on his first album
before Van Ronk had a chance to, which eventually led
to The Animals making it a hit. Van Ronk, to his credit,
didnt let it get in the way of their friendship.
I always counted Van Ronk among the severely missing in
the 30th Anniversary tribute to Dylan at Madison
Though he was an undeniable
part of the New York folk scene, Van Ronk managed to stay
above the petty arguments and squabbles that would often
dominate the pages of Sing Out! and Broadside
magazine. His response to the electric versus acoustic
controversy was to record an album with a (sort-of) rock
band, the Hudson Dusters. While that album is probably
his least impressive work, it does have its usually very
funny moments. And it also has my all-time personal favorite
Van Ronk track, "Dinks Song." This song, originally
collected by John and Alan Lomax is a strange hybrid of
a ballad and a blues. Van Ronks singing here is
beyond amazing, and more than 30 years and hundreds of
listens later, it hits me as hard as the first time I
As great as Van Ronks
many recordings were, he was best experienced in person.
A big man with a big guitar, hed sit on a stool
and within seconds of singing be soaked in sweat. He had
a dry, but extremely funny sense of humor and a whiskey
and cigarettes wheeze of a laugh that seemed to go on
long after he actually stopped laughing. I was lucky enough
to see him many times throughout the years. The last time
was the most curious of at all, at J.C. Dobbs, Philadelphias
main rock and roll bar at the time. Dobbs was the last
place I expected Van Ronk to be playing. It was the main
hangout for local musicians, and had a kind of charming,
dumpy atmosphere. Even though the place had been fixed
up over the years, the feeling that it was actually a
dump never left. Van Ronk played on a Sunday afternoon.
There was always something about Van Ronk that seemed
perfect for a Sunday afternoon, and I was concerned if
people would show up because Dobbs was not exactly a place
the folk audience in Philly went to. Small tables and
chairs were put out on what was normally the dance (usually
the standing) floor. Dave came out, sat down, and proceeded
to essentially hypnotize the audience for a couple of
hours. Even the rock musicians (who were always)
at Dobbs and are the most cynical of music critics were
Dave Van Ronk never sold
a lot of records, was on a major label that didnt
matter (Mercury) briefly, and never made it past the club
and coffee house circuit. Over the 50 plus years hed
been recording and performing there were undoubtedly years
where he probably made more money teaching guitar in his
Greenwich Village apartment than he did from performing
or records. But there is no doubt that the New York folk
scene wouldnt have been the same without him.
My favorite one is probably
his most famous, Folksinger (originally on Prestige
and now available on Fantasy). It starts with "He Was
A Friend of Mine," which the Byrds later turned into a
tribute to JFK, has the definitive "Cocaine," a great
cover of Reverend Gary Davis "Samson and Delilah,"
and "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me," which the Grateful Dead later
did as "Been All Around This World."
The cover shot today is
still classic. Van Ronk sitting in front of the original
Folklore Center on MacDougal Street, wailing beneath the
fire escapes and the Folklore Center sign. Somehow that
photo captures both him and the Village.
"I never thought of myself
as a folksinger at all. Still dont.
What I did was to combine traditional fingerpicking guitar
with a repertory of old jazz tunes. This then is the statement
not of a folk musician, but of a kind of jazz singer manquê.
I like to think I was starting to get the hang of it."
liner notes to The Folkways Years 1969-61