Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Walking Museum of the Blues: Dave Van Ronk Remembered

As music luminaries prepare to strut their glitzy stuff at tonight’s Grammy Awards, I am thinking back to a 20th-century hopeful who was the antithesis of glitz and who died on this date in 2002....

Why now, in particular?” a bewildered Dave Van Ronk asked rhetorically, a few days after learning about his Grammy nomination for a 1995 album titled From...Another Time & Place. “I made something like 26, actually closer to 30 records but nobody noticed before.” Well, hardly nobody. The blues performer had been in the game for four decades at the time of our January 1996 pre-Grammy interview. He was a legend whose career had returned to the kind of cutting edge made possible by that curious what-goes-around-comes-around law of the universe.

Ironically, the Brooklyn native, a grizzled guy with a gravelly voice, found himself in the same awards category – Best Traditional Folk Album – as a longtime colleague from the same New York City borough, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. “That puts me in a helluva position,” Van Ronk quipped. “If I win, I’ll feel guilty. If I lose, I’ll tear his throat out.” Elliott won for South Coast but still has his throat intact at age 81. Van Ronk succumbed to complications from colon cancer treatment when he was 65. Both men gained fame, if not fortune, back in the salad days of the folk revival during the early 1960s, when Greenwich Village musicians were doing the hootenanny thing. Elliott, a self-styled hobo of the Wild West in cowboy garb, and Van Ronk, never a slave to fashion, were pals with a younger talent who went by the name of Bob Dylan.

The late Robert Shelton, a music critic for The New York Times, wrote in his 1986 Dylan biography, No Direction Home, that Elliott and Van Ronk were “arguably the best Village folksingers.” The author went on to suggest that the latter fellow was “a tall, garrulous, hairy man....Topped by light brownish hair and a leonine beard, which he smoothed down several times a minute, he resembled an unmade bed strewn with books, record jackets, pipes, empty whiskey bottles, lines from obscure poets, finger picks and broken guitar strings. He was Bob’s first New York guru. Van Ronk was a walking museum of the blues.”

Dave Van Ronk  and Ramblin' Jack Elliott
Shelton also dubbed him “the Mayor of MacDougal Street.” This designation served as the title of Van Ronk’s two posthumous efforts: a compilation album in 2005 and a memoir in 2006. The book currently is the inspiration for a new fictionalized cinematic account by the Coen Brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis. starring Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman and F. Murray Abraham. The siblings released a trailer late last month, possibly in anticipation of a May debut at the Cannes Film Festival. 

But in 2004 MacDougal, despite being the Village’s main drag, wasn’t the site for a renaming in Van Ronk’s honor. That’s actually a portion of Sheridan Square, at the corner of Barrow Street and Washington Place. The June 2004 dedication ceremony drew old compatriots like Odetta, Peter Yarrow, Danny Kalb and Tom Paxton. After a youthful fling with barbershop quartets, Van Ronk did jazz and scat singing before discovering blues greats such as Mississippi John Hurt and the Reverend Gary Davis in the 1950s. Odetta, in fact, encouraged him to begin performing in Village folk clubs during the same decade. “After the big revival of the early sixties, the mainstream was flirting with folk, ” recalled Van Ronk, who always resided in Lower Manhattan. “This was over by 1969. Ever since, it’s been steady. I don’t think it’s fundamentally changed in the last 30 years. This music is not gonna go away. I just did a concert in a Cambridge, Massachusetts club and some people in the audience weren’t even of drinking age. The range was 17 to 80 out there.” 

Bob Dylan, Suze Rotolo and Dave Van Ronk
A friend who had known Van Ronk for more than 30 years attested to his continuing appeal. “He’s always evolving,” contended the late Suze Rotolo, a New York visual artist who also designed CD covers. “Dave is an innovator. I love his voice and his interpretations. They’re uniquely his own, whether blues, folk or jazz. I think he’s one of the great singers and he tells wonderful stories.” One story Van Ronk didn’t mention during our interview was his 1969 arrest at the Stonewall Riots in New York City, considered the beginning of the gay rights movement. (In a torrent of homophobia police raided a popular bar, the Stonewall Inn, and beat up patrons, who fought back – something that had never happened before in the LGBT community.) Although apparently straight, he took a courageous stand long before there was much public acceptance of same-sex relationships.

From...Another Time and Place had its own backstory. Van Ronk couldn’t quite pin down just when he had made the album during one of several visits to Rome between 1986 and 1990. What’s so special about the release that made the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences take notice? “I must have been in especially good form, touring for weeks and months, playing every night,” he mused. “I was pretty sharp. I sang some thing I hadn’t done for years and changed some of the arrangements.” Among other selections, the album included Willie Dixon’s “Hootchie Kootchie Man,” “Lovin’ Spoonful” by Gary Davis; two traditional tunes with Dylan arrangements, “The Old Man” and “He Was a Friend of Mine;” and three Van Ronk originals, “Bad Dream Blues,” Losers” and the title song. “It was meant for Italian consumption but the album didn't do a thing there,” he explained. “I have rights to the master, however.” In 1995, Van Ronk found it stored among his things and asked himself “‘Oh, what have we here?’” 

He was nonchalant about the Grammy nomination. “I’m very pleased but it’s not like winning the lottery. I have a shelf full of awards. Every now and then, I look at them. If I win, I’ll put it with the others and, every now and then, I’ll look at it, too. After all these years, you take things in stride.” And Van Ronk took his music business longevity in stride, as well. “The fact that I was kicking around in the ‘60s is no big deal. John Lee Hooker and B.B. King were kicking around in the ‘40s.” Nonetheless, surely it would have been a memorable sight to witness two Grand Old Men of Folk, Van Ronk and Ramblin’ Jack, together at the Grammys. Although they do periodically run into each other, Van Ronk said he’d have no idea how to find Elliott – “They don’t call him Ramblin’ Jack for nothing.” – should he ever need to do so. But the awards ceremony was not on the itinerary for the Mayor of MacDougal Street. “Why should I go?” he asked. “For one thing, it’s in California and that’s 3,000 miles away, each way.”

I wondered if Van Ronk did decide to attend would he trade in his celebrated “unmade bed” look for a tuxedo? “I may wear a tux to watch it on TV. Have tux, won’t travel,” he said, roaring with his trademark raspy laughter. ”But who knows what Jack will do? If he wears a tux, I’d go to California to see that.” In August of 1996 Elliott told me that he and Van Ronk had done a gig together four days before the awards: “When Dave was on, I overheard him say, ‘If Jack wins this Grammy, I’ll tear his throat out.’ But when I won, he gave me a cigar that Bob Dylan had given him 25 years ago. A Cuban cigar. I smoked it and it tore my throat out. I couldn’t speak for a week after that.”

– Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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