Dave Van Ronk

Among the Great Joys is discovering and reading books that further enlarge what I already know about subjects I’ve been following for a while. As a lifelong collector of fugitive materials and odd bits of knowledge, my own personal landscape of such subjects is pretty well populated, and for some areas the prospect is highly articulated —musics being a case in point. My holdings threaten to overflow shelves and disk space, but there’s always room for more, and any given subdomain is always open for elaboration, via sound, print, video, and my own experiments.

Lately I’ve been reading two books that at first glance might appear to have very little in common: John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven and Dave Van Ronk’s The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir. The two are in very different registers: Gardiner’s is über-scholarly and quite long, while Van Ronk is breezy and colloquial. Both are loving recreations of past time and place, full of outward links and references to things and people one already has some familiarity with. Both are significant social/cultural documents all by themselves, and both provoke orgies of listening and further ferretings. I’ll try to tempt you to further explorations of Van Ronk in this post, and save Gardiner for later.

Van Ronk’s perspective on The Great Folk Scare of the early 1960s is Greenwich Village-centric, and sometimes at odds with the Cambridge-centric version that populates Baby, Let Me Follow You Down: The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years, but there are many viable versions of those realities. YouTube has lots of Van Ronk, and this clip gives a pretty good taste of what the written memoir is like:

Van Ronk’s book is full of quotable bits, stories and commentary both. For example, he says of jazz ear-training:

…There are people you can’t fool, people who can tell you, “No, that’s not Ben Webster, that’s Coleman Hawkins,” or “That’s not Pres, that’s Paul Quinichette,” and be right every time, and to do that, you can’t just groove with the music. You have to listen with a focus and an intensity that normal people never use. But we weren’t normal people, we were musicians. To be a musician requires a qualitatively different kind of listening… (pg. 10)

On toward the end of the book, Van Ronk offers this summary of the 60s folk era:

In fact, looking back on that period, very little of what got put down had much permanent value. There was a genuine artistic impulse, but the paradigms were flawed, and if you compare it to what was happening on Broadway in the 1930s, that scene was infinitely more creative and important than ours. The forms that were accepted as part of the folk matrix were too limited, both technically and in terms of staying power, and the ideology of the scene allowed for a great deal of sloppiness, which meant that nobody had to push themselves. Most of the songwriters were writing well below their abilities, and people who were capable of learning and employing more complicated harmonies and chord structures confined themselves to 1-4-5 changes. Some of them were enormously talented, but they were like an enormously talented boxer who insists on fighting with one hand behind his back. The result was that we produced a Bob Dylan, a Tom Paxton, a Phil Ochs, a bit later a Joni Mitchell –but we did not produce a Johann Sebastian Bach or a Duke Ellington…(pg 212-213)

I’m anticipating the release of the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis a few days hence –it’s rooted in Van Ronk’s book, and I expect to love the film.

So I’m once again plunged into thinking about the ‘folk’ side of my musical interests, though I’m not much closer to a solution to the problem of organizing and interpreting their vastness.

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