Thursday, January 2, 2014

Folkie Flashback: The Music Scene On Screen And Off

Washington Square Park, New York City, 1960s

Mired in controversy worthy of a folk song that laments bruised feelings, raw memories and hard travelin’, Inside Llewyn Davis is intended to capture the spirit of the times 53 years ago in Greenwich Village. The titular protagonist (Oscar Isaac) is based on the late musician Dave Van Ronk and performs his signature songs.The screenplay is loosely adapted from his posthumous 2005 memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, by co-directors Joel and Ethan Coen. Although I have yet to catch up with the movie myself, I keep hearing that the character comes across as a talented but misanthropic loser.

Van Ronk’s first wife, Teri Thal, denounced the film in a recent Village Voice story. “I didn't expect it to be almost unrecognizable as the folk-music world of the early 1960s,” she wrote. “Llewyn Davis a not-very smart, somewhat selfish, confused young man for whom music is a way to make a living. It's not a calling, as it was for David and for some others.”

Terri Thal and Dave Van Ronk
Thal concludes: “The inept Llewyn Davis arranged some of those songs? Sang them as well as Oscar Isaacs does? I don't believe it. That schmuck couldn't make that music.”

Inside Llewyn Davis attempts to chronicle the days just before a guy newly-arrived from Minnesota changed the entire equation after cleverly tapping into the zeitgeist. Something was happening and you did know what it was, didn’t you, Mr. Dylan? Later, his lyrics for “Tangled Up in Blue” perfectly captured the Village life he found in early 1961: “There was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air...

Dylan’s trek east followed in the footsteps of Oklahoma-born Woody Guthrie, who had relocated to New York in 1940 at the behest of Pete Seeger. Together, they formed the Almanac Singers, which was dedicated to anti-fascist, anti-racist and pro-union material. Revolution definitely seemed in the air for that generation; many of them either joined or flirted with the Communist Party, as was the fashion
When the Almanac Singers disbanded three years later, Guthrie and Seeger made albums for Folkways Records, a label founded by Moses Asch (The Coen brothers cast Jerry Grayson as a very similar fellow). That’s how “This Land is Your Land” crashed into the national consciousness.

Van Ronk came in on the next wave, beginning in the mid-1950s. His Greenwich Village indoctrination began, as it did for most aficionados back then, at Sunday afternoon gatherings in Washington Square Park. “One thing I need to emphasize is that the folk scene at that point was a lot more varied than it became later on,” he suggested in his memoir. “We were a small enough group that the bluegrass players knew the flamenco guitarists, the flamenco people knew the blues singers, the blues singers knew the ballad scholars, and all of us knew the Irish musicians. And there was a great cross-pollination.”

Bob Dylan, Suze Rotolo and Dave Van Ronk

My own experience in that milieu began during the fall of 1958. While still high school students, every weekend my friend Suze Rotolo and I fled our hometowns in Queens and on Long Island, respectively to relish the bohemian demimonde of Lower Manhattan. On Sundays, we’d meet up with pals from our leftie summer camp to frolic in the park, where the folk idiom was gestating and heated political debates raged. Traditional and roots music vied with protest songs for our attention. 

As red-diaper babies, we worked for civil rights and against the atomic bomb but revolution was merely a dimly-understood fantasy. Meanwhile, we were adolescent girls and boys who just wanted to have fun. I fondly recall an evening that, obnoxious yet sweetly innocent, we belted out folk melodies like “This Little Light of Mine” on the subway after a Sunday in Washington Square.

Drawn to excitement rather than education, I was reluctant to leave for college in September 1960. The Village seemed much more thrilling than campus life in rural Vermont. Some contend that the Coen siblings have depicted a dystopia; that part of the city was pure heaven in my estimation. Music in the cafes at night? Absolutely. In the warmer months, the park remained a Sunday mecca for an inordinate number of people playing guitars or banjos. 

A guy unknown to me then, Bob Yellin was in the latter category, jamming bluegrass tunes there with two other young men. And the park also is where, in late May of 1960, this trio was recruited to join the opening night lineup of a new Village club called Gerde’s Folk City. The place quickly became as popular as already established venues such as the Cafe Wha? and The Gaslight, which is featured prominently in Inside Llewyn Davis

A year earlier, Yellin played banjo on a Folkways album of sea shanties recorded with Van Ronk, then already among a handful of emerging artists. “He was not dour at all, but a scruffy curmudgeon-type, with an incredible sense of humor, very articulate,” recalls Yellin, a Vermont resident since 1985. “There was a sandpaper side to him, which goes along with his singing voice.”

The Greenbriar Boys (Bob Yellin at left)
Who could ever forget Van Ronk’s definitive renditions of “House of the Rising Sun” and “St. James Infirmary”? He was described by Robert Shelton, The New York Times music critic who had “discovered” Dylan, as “a tall, garrulous, hairy man of three-quarters, or more accurately, three-fifths Irish descent…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.” 

He also was a fiercely anti-communist Marxist, always trying to reprogram commie-lite Suze, who remained close to him for four decades. Her own 2008 autobiography, A Freewheelin’ Time, traced their ongoing dialogue: “It did no good to tell him it wasn’t my battle....Even in the last conversation I had with him, just days before he died in 2002, among other things he said to me was, ‘I’ll see you soon, and I’ll straighten out your politics.’”

As with his progressive opinions, Van Ronk was unyielding in the enjoyment of alcohol. In the 1970s, he did some albums for Philo Records in Vermont. Bill Schubart, a cofounder of the label, remembers one memorable night with him in the Village: “At his apartment we drank a fifth of Stolyichnaya Vodka and a bottle of Pere William (wine), then left to get some port at the White Horse Tavern. I woke up the next morning on his couch and Dave was already having coffee.”

The Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem

In our early forays to the Village, Suze and I were too young for booze but somehow managed to frequent the Whitehorse, a former longshoremen’s bar where poet Dylan Thomas essentially drank himself to death in 1953. During our era there, The Clancy Brothers held court. We were in the thrall of all things Irish. Their movie cameo, which is created by actors, includes harmonizing on the anti-British anthem, “The Auld Triangle.” It’s sung a cappella in voice-over by the contemporary Punch Brothers, Marcus Mumford (a Brit) and Justin Timberlake. Llewyn Davis makes a snarky comment about the Clancys’ trademark cable-knit sweaters. 
He’s hired to headline at The Gaslight with a Dylanesque figure as the opening act the interloper destined, of course, to skyrocket to fame and leave Llewyn still struggling. In real life, at the end of September in 1961 Dylan was the warm-up for The Greenbriar Boys at Gerde’s, which prompted Shelton’s glowing review of him in The Times. By late November, Bobby had been given a solo concert at Carnegie Hall and begun recording his first album for Columbia. Less than a year later, Albert Grossman (F. Murray Abraham as Bud Grossman in the movie) signed on as his manager.

Suze had become Dylan’s girlfriend and muse. She’s seen walking with him through the snow on the iconic cover of his 1963 Freewheelin’ album, which cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel used as the visual template for the New York winter of discontent facing Llewyn Davis. 

There may have been an aura of inevitability in Dylan’s ascent, which many believe spelled doom for the so-called folk revival. I know that, for me, his appeal was instantaneous.

Although my parents won the argument about whether I should attend college or hang out forever in the Village, I spent every possible vacation there. So, by chance, my first encounter with Dylan took place during the Easter break in 1961. I was strolling along MacDougal Street with Judy, a high school classmate then a freshman at New York University. We wandered into the Folklore Center, a store that sold records and acoustic instruments. In the back room, a rosy-cheeked boy in a black corduroy cap was strumming his guitar. We chatted with him for a while about this and that. All of 18 then, we surmised that he couldn’t be any more than 15.

A few days later, on April 5, Judy invited me to attend a meeting of her NYU Folk Music Club. Some new singer who had recently hit Manhattan would be playing – his first paid gig in the city, earning only $20 – at this gathering of about six people, primarily sitting on the floor. It was the kid from the Folklore Center, introduced to us as Bob Dylan.

The kid was charmingly rough around the edges. “He is consciously trying to recapture the rude beauty of a Southern field hand musing in melody on his back porch,” Robert Shelton wrote several months later in his Times review. “All that ‘husk and bark’ are left on his notes and a searing intensity pervades his songs.”

Moreover, Dylan looked a bit like James Dean (my girlhood crush, his boyhood role model) and demonstrated a similar jittery persona. We’d been wrong about his age. The fact that he was a few years older than we were only added to the considerable mystique. With severely limited eloquence, I once told an interviewer about my initial impression: “Whenever he sat still, he wouldn’t be able to sit still – just moving, always moving. It was fascinating. All that nervous energy.”

Bobby often played harmonica behind troubadour Fred Neil during “hootenannies” at the Cafe Wha?, which soon became my regular destination. That’s also where Dylan met Van Ronk. Along with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (Adam Driver approximates him in the movie), they were three amigos until the wages of fame transformed them into frenemies.

Van Ronk truly knew how to deliver ‘husk and bark’ yet never got the acclaim awarded the ambitious newcomer. Nonetheless, Dave’s legacy extends far beyond his less dazzling success and many hard-travelin’ miles ahead of the fictitious Llewyn Davis.

Whether blessed/cursed by international adoration or not, most of those idiosyncratic souls who flocked to the Village were trailblazers. Everyone was sort of stumbling his or her way into a new paradigm, eschewing the conformist 1950s to explore a future that could only be defined through trial and error. What youngsters don’t make silly mistakes? I like to think we were schmucks and non-schmucks thrown together for a great adventure. And it’s not easy to maintain equilibrium when you’re freewheelin’.

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.


  1. The film is a mess a waste of my money and time . The Coens filled the film with one dimensional characters that are like worthless jewelry in a pawn shop. Instead of Iconic artist's that were the seed of the past five decades of singer songwriter music.

  2. Really excellent account! Thank you. I look forward to reading more of your work.