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Remembering Dave Van Ronk

Inside Llewyn Davis, the 2013 Coen Brothers movie based on Dave Van Ronk’s memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street, inspired me to tell the story of a few encounters with Van Ronk over the course of almost 25 years. We met at the Rusty Nail Saloon, Sunderland, MA twice in the mid and late 1970s and then did an interview before a concert at the Eighth Step Coffeehouse in Albany, NY in 1999.

I had been turned on to Van Ronk my first week at college in 1967, when an upperclassman told me that I looked like him. I hadn’t heard of Van Ronk, so I borrowed his copy of Gambler’s Blues, and loved it right off the bat. Before long I added Gambler’s Blues and Dave Van Ronk Sing the Blues to my record collection, which already held 5 or 6 Bob Dylan LPs.

Dave ReadI wasn’t aware of the relationship between Dylan and Van Ronk until I read Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography, by Anthony Scaduto several years later. In it, Scaduto reports that Dylan recorded Van Ronk’s version of House of the Risin’ Sun without asking permission. Even to a Dylan freak, that seemed pretty rude. In the fall of 1975, both of them made appearances in my neck of the woods – Van Ronk played a mid-week show at the Rusty Nail Saloon in Suderland, MA and Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue played back-to-back shows in Springfield.

Beside Dave Van Ronk at the Rusty Nail Saloon

The latter was announced about one week in advance and the rumors were that Dylan’s musical cronies were showing up and playing. Van Ronk’s concert was a couple days before and so when I arrived and saw him sitting alone at the bar, I was excited to say hello and ask if he’d be appearing with Dylan later that week.

He had a glass of whiskey in front of him and was holding his guitar in his lap, slowly moving his palm along it, as if he were warming it up. I said hello, told him I was a big fan, and asked about the Dylan shows. His reply, made in a polite and not unfriendly manner, was that he didn’t want to talk about Dylan. Oops, I thought, and left Van Ronk alone with his pre-concert routine.

I thoroughly enjoyed the show, surprised that he was so entertaining, with a dimension of personality that I hadn’t noticed listening to the records. But I couldn’t help myself later, seeing him getting ready to leave the club; after saying great show, nice to meet you, I asked him to verify Scaduto’s House of the Risin’ Sun report. Dave stopped in his tracks, stared into the vacuum of my eyes, and said, “I told you I do not want to discuss that man.”

Besides feeling like an idiot, and not a litle rude myself, that was all the verification I needed. I attended both Rolling Thunder Revue shows in Springfirld, but didn’t get a chance to run the story by Dylan. (Story about the Rolling Thunder Revue.)

Meeting Dave Van Ronk again

The second meeting occurred 3 or 4 years later, by which time I had made the acquaintance of young woman who became an ardent fan, even though she bore no resemblance to Dave Van Ronk, none whatsoever. Since she also was a guitar player, her esteem may have been more genuine than mine, a mere doppelganger. We got to the club early and saw Van Ronk by himself at the far end of the bar, just the same as before. Instead of approaching with a head full of ideas, this time I was content to introduce my friend to Dave, and tell him that she was a guitar player too. He seemed genuinely charmed and within a few minutes, the three of us were sharing a booth close to the stage.

My recollection of the ensuing three hours is a little fuzzy, except that it was about as much fun as you could have, newfound friends, talking and laughing over round after round of whiskey. He did 3 or 4 sets and eventually the show had the feel of a conversataion between him and her. He ended with a charming dedication to her, but I cannot recall if it was Teddy Bear’s Picnic or Chicken is Nice?

During the 1980s, I saw him again at various clubs in the Hudson Valley and the Berkshires. Those shows were before full houses and neither the opportunity nor the inclination to approach Van Ronk presented itself again. He did seem to be aging poorly, though.

Dave Van Ronk concert and interview

By the late 1990s, I’m writing a music column in a local newspaper and running a website, which credentials were enough to get me into a concert that he would be giving at the Eighth Step Coffeehouse in Albany, NY. We did a telephone interview from his Greenwich Village apartment the day before. (Interview with Dave Van Ronk.)

Dave Van Ronk listening to Garth Hudson in Albany, NYI brought a tape recorder and a camera to the concert, but didn’t get much use out of either. The camera jammed up so I only got a couple eerie double exposures, and I left the tape recorder alone because I didn’t want to be intrusive. Instead, I scribbled notes furiously in the dim light as Dave gave a brilliant 2+ hour concert, which could’ve doubled as a lecture on the history of music in America. And Garth Hudson was in the house, to do a few songs by himself and to accompany Dave on accordian on a few others.

Dave was hale and hearty, appearing way better than he had in the 80s. It’s none of my business, but maybe he’d quit drinking? That was the last time I saw Dave Van Ronk. The sadness of his untimely death in 2002, however, is assuaged by several factors:

  1. He was at the top of his game late in life;
  2. He’d received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP);
  3. He got props from Dylan in Chronicles, Vol. 1;

Also of consolation is the fact that his posthumous CD, “Dave Van Ronk…and the tin pan bended and the story ended,” seems like a replica of the concert he gave at the Eighth Step Coffeehouse. Here’s hoping that Inside LLewyn Davis turns out to be deserving of it’s association with the story of Dave Van Ronk, whose influence extends far beyond the tenure and jurisdiction of the Mayor of MacDougal Street.

Dave Van Ronk @ Amazon.com

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Dave Van Ronk interview, Jan. 21, 1999

January 21, 1999 interview by

Dave Van Ronk Eighth Step Coffeehouse Jan. 1999
Dave Van Ronk Eighth Step Coffeehouse Jan. 1999
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 of American 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.”