Written by Elijah Wald
Back in the early 1960s, Greenwich Village was the center of a new kind of folk music scene, and Dave Van Ronk was the king of that scene. In the words of Bob Dylan, who often slept on Dave’s couch and learned a lot of his songs and guitar arrangements, Dave “reigned supreme.”
Dave recorded more than 20 albums in a career spanning five decades, but most modern music fans are probably hearing about him for the first time this year, thanks to the Coen Brothers’ movie, Inside Llewyn Davis. The Coens were inspired by The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Dave’s memoir of the Greenwich Village scene. Dave wanted his book to capture the flavor of the time and place rather than to focus attention on himself, and brought me on board as a writer who was also an old friend and onetime guitar student—my lessons typically flowed into dinner and oceans of Irish whiskey, and I often ended up crashing on the famous couch. But he died in 2002 before we could complete it, so I finished it on my own and it ended up being part history and part his story, all told with his raucous, wry humor.
The Coens mined our work for atmosphere and some incidents, but although Oscar Isaac, the actor who plays Llewyn, performs several of Dave’s songs and has some of the same experiences, he isn’t Dave—not by a long shot. For one thing, he is a doleful loner and loser, while Dave was the raucous, hilarious center of a musical revolution.
Most modern music fans are probably hearing about him for the first time this year, thanks to the Coen Brothers’ movie, Inside Llewyn Davis.
Back in the ’50s and ‘60s, most people thought of “folk music” as a healthy, intelligent, adult style—the sort of thing middle class college kids and intellectuals enjoyed, as opposed to the loud, abrasive, teenage rock n’ roll. The era’s folk stars were fun groups like The Kingston Trio or Peter, Paul and Mary, and beautiful women with lovely voices like Joan Baez and Judy Collins. That is still how a lot of people think of folk music, and it is more or less what Llewyn and his peers play in the movie—though Llewyn is more serious about it than the other characters. But Dave Van Ronk was not that kind of folk singer, which is why he inspired an iconoclastic genius like Dylan, and also why he never became a mainstream star.
Dave was a huge, bearded bear of a man, six foot three and well over two hundred pounds, and he had a voice that matched his looks. It was rough, raspy, and loud enough that he could sing over a full jazz band without using a microphone. That was how he started out in the early 1950s, singing the New Orleans style of Louis Armstrong and playing a tenor banjo. But much as he loved that music, it presented him with a major philosophical problem: “trad” jazz bands had very little work, were badly paid, and he was starving to death. So he picked up a guitar and started singing blues.
Dave’s early blues style was heavily influenced by his jazz experience and he was most comfortable singing songs by people like Bessie Smith and Jelly Roll Morton, who had been backed by pianos and trumpets rather than guitars. That meant he had to invent a guitar style to fit the music, and he found his model in a Harlem street preacher named the Reverend Gary Davis, a virtuoso player of gospel, ragtime, and blues. Dave combined his jazz growl with Davis’s complex fingerpicking style for performances like “Winin’ Boy Blues” from 1959 (recently reissued on Down in Washington Square, Smithonian/Folkways).
The guitar opened up a new world to Dave, because by 1960 the beatnik coffeehouses of Greenwich Village were being taken over by folksingers—and unlike the clean-cut, pop-folk stars who were hitting nationally, a lot of people on the local scene wanted to hear artists with the rough, authentic sound of real southern farmers and miners, not nice college kids. Dave had that sound in spades, and as he got deeper into the folk scene, he discovered new ways to use his voice and guitar. His most famous song of the early 1960s was “Cocaine Blues,” delivered with a knowing whisper and wry humor. Dave’s repertoire was also growing. He kept singing blues, but also used his blues chops on other kinds of songs, everything from British ballads and sea chanteys to the Berlin theater compositions of Bertolt Brecht. His music also got looser and more fun—his version of “One Meatball” from 1967 combines a mordantly comic lyric with an over-the-top scat singing break.
Dave was a huge, bearded bear of a man, six foot three and well over two hundred pounds, and he had a voice that matched his looks.
For a couple of years in the early 1960s, the Greenwich Village folk scene may have been the most exciting musical melting pot on the planet, but by the middle of the decade the Beatles had arrived in America and Dylan had switched to electric guitar. Dave admired the Beatles and he thought Dylan was doing the right thing, but his talents were not really suited to the new styles. He continued to be a major presence on the scene—a poster from the Café au Go-Go features him above Frank Zappa’s Mothers—and for a little while he formed his own rock band, the Hudson Dusters. He loved older, acoustic styles, but he also loved the idea of making a good living, and for a moment it looked like he might get a major national hit: one of his best friends was a new songwriter named Joni Mitchell, and he released a single of a song she called “Both Sides Now” but he called “Clouds,” which she agreed was the best version ever recorded. Unfortunately for him, the version that hit was a typically pretty reading by Judy Collins, and by the end of the 1960s the “great folk scare” was over.
Dave never had another shot at the big time, but instead of being discouraged he went back to doing what he did best, and worked at making it better. He began paying more attention to his own songwriting, creating intricate, funny variations on the blues tradition like his classic “Sunday Street” from the mid-1970s. The story of Inside Llewyn Davis is of a bitter misanthrope who is a good musician but keeps sabotaging his talent. It’s a good movie, and I think Dave would have enjoyed it, but it isn’t his story. He never became a star, but he kept doing what he loved. As he said at the end of his memoir: “I never made a fortune—as a matter of fact, I have often been deeply in dept—but damn it, this is what I wanted to do, and I have been able to do it for almost fifty years, and I haven’t had to do anything else, and what more can I ask? I wanted to be a musician, and I am a musician, and that’s what it’s all about.”