January 21, 1999 interview by Dave Conlin Read
We spoke with Dave Van Ronk the day before he was to perform at the Eighth Step Coffeehouse in Albany, NY. After congratulating him on receiving ASCAP’S Lifetime Achievement Award, we mentioned that Ramblin’ Jack Elliott had been honored recently at the White House. Typically, Dave was ready with an anecdote:
“Yeah, at the reception he tried to convince Clinton to sneak off and come with him to a Dylan concert. Bobby was in DC giving a concert that night, and Jack was trying to get Clinton to ditch his secret service and come with him to the concert.”
the importance of teaching to Dave Van Ronk
You give the lie to the adage that “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” You’ve been a teacher your entire career; how has teaching affected your career as an artist?
“You can’t teach without learning. The first thing you have to do when you start teaching is to organize what you know. In the course of organizing what you know into a coherent body, you discover that you know alot more than you thought you thought you did.
“Also, you discover gaps and holes which you can set about filling. So, in systematizing what you’ve picked up here and there and in fragmented ways – incorporating it into a coherent whole – you learn a great deal.
“And students are a stimulus. I’ve had students sort of gang up on me, and get me to work out this or that or the other piece, pieces I wouldn’t have done. And in one or two cases, things have subsequently become mainstays of my repertoire.
“For example, the Entertainer – the classic rag, which I was just reviewing with a student this week. Much more than just a useful performance piece, as it turned out, it became a seminal piece in learning more and more about how to play guitar in drop-D-tuning.
“In terms of spinoffs, that led to possibly ten or fifteen different arrangements. And that was because 2 or 3 of my students wanted to learn how to play the piece. Initially, I didn’t want to work that out – it seemed to me like a great deal of work for a very, very small gain. I was wrong. Things like that are constantly happening.”
Dave Van Ronk moved from jazz to blues
You began your career as a jazz musician; how did your move to the folk scene come about?
“My committment to jazz also led, on the side, to listen to country blues. And since I was already playin the guitar – I had a guitar in my hand – I wanted to figure out how people like john Hurt and Lemon Jefferson did what they did. To begin with, it was a side-line. Most of what I was actively performing was working in the rhythm section of a traditional jazz band.”
“As the folk music revival gained momentum in the mid-50s, my emphasis gradually shifted, so that by 54-55 or 55-56, I was primarily working as a solo entertainer.”
Dave’s musical education
Would you call yourself self-taught?
“To a certain extent. I studied jazz guitar with a man named Jack Norton in Queens in the early 50s. I learned a great deal from him. Then in the mid-50s I met Rev. Gary Davis, although at that point I had learned to finger-pick, sort-of, with an assist from Tom Paley. So I could do some finger-picking already when I met Gary Davis, and I learned a great deal from him, too.”
His brilliant songwriting in addition to his great muicianship?
“Very much so.”
Cocaine Blues, Rev. Gary Davis, Jackson Browne
At a recent Tanglewood concert, Jackson Browne talked about Rev. Gary Davis.
“Jackson recorded Cocaine Blues and he thought it was mine when he learned it. Eight months after he recorded it, he came down to catch me at aclub in Los Angeles. He came back to the dressing room and he said, “You know, I recorded that song of your’s “Cocaine Blues,” and I’d like to know where do I send the royalties?”
“So I said, ‘What you do, is you send them to Rev. Gary Davis’ estate and you get out of here, unless you want to see a grown man cry.'”
Dave Van Ronk’s advice to a young musician today
If you were to addressing the young up-and-coming singer/songwriter, What would you say to someone who wants to go on to have a 50 year career?
“The way you have a career is by doing it – you just have to keep on performing, any possible pretext. The main problem people have now is there are so many performers, and so few places to work it’s very hard to It takes a very long time for a performer to get enough stage experience to be knowledgeable about stagecraft.
“That’s the one thing you can’t practice at home; you can practice singing and you an practice the guitar all by yourself. But the only way you can practice stagecraft is on the stage witha n audience.
“It takes a long time the way things are set up currently for a young performer to get that experience. So the main thing that you have to do is to find every possible excuse to get on that stage.
Dave Van Ronk recommends the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music
What record would you recommend to someone wanting to learn folk music?
“The Harry Smith anthology, that’s where you start, there is no better collection of American traditional music anywhere. It cost a lot but there’s alot of music too – 80 or 90 cuts on that anthology. Familiarity with that will take you a long way.”