In the popular mythology the American folk music scene passed from the hills of Appalachia and Mississippi Delta cotton fields to Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, The Almanacs, and The Weavers and then, after an interim of nearly a decade was transmitted by the dying Guthrie and lanky sage Pete Seeger directly to the new avatars—Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, et al. Usually left out is the defiantly bohemian and countercultural scene of New York’s Greenwich Village—often thought of as the exclusive home of the Beats and Jazz—and the genial giant of a man who helped create and nurture a that tradition but encouraged innovation within it.
Dave Van Ronk was literally a towering figure in American folk music but is almost unknown to all but the most hard core folkies. There have been blips of renewed interest in him, all confined to relatively rarified intellectual circles. First there was his highly readable and entertaining posthumously published memoir, The Mayor of McDougal Street which finished by his friend and fellow folk singer Elijah Wald which was published in 2005. That, in turn, inspired the 2013 film by Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis. That film won praise for its portrayal of the Greenwich Village scene, but criticism from Van Ronk’s friends because the title character based on him was radically different than the man himself.
He was born as David Kenneth Ritz Van Ronk in Brooklyn on June 30, 1936. Despite his last name, he had just enough Dutch genes to connect him viscerally to New York back to its founding colonial era. Mostly he was Irish, a descendent of the hordes of despised immigrants of the 19th Century. His working class family had risen only moderately and then were set back by the Great Depression. They moved to Queens and put their son into the heavily Irish Holy Child Jesus Catholic School. Despite or because of a keen intellect and inquiring mind he dropped out of school before graduation.
By 17 he was on his own and drifted to the Village, a very scruffy place in those days, but hospitable to various fringes. He supported himself with odd jobs like dishwashing and shipped out three times as a merchant seaman. It was while hanging around the Village that he was exposed to folk music at the weekly Sunday gatherings and sing-a-longs in Washington Square Park. He was soon joining in with his own guitar, learning a vast repertoire of songs and honing his skills
Van Ronk was already interested in music, but not so much in the Big Band sound and crooners who dominated the radio. Instead, he was instinctively drawn to music of earlier eras. In 1949 he began singing in barber shop quartets. When he became interested in the revival of traditional New Orleans style jazz, he picked up the tenor banjola—an instrument with the neck of a 5-string banjo and the body of a mandolin. He was soon playing professionally around town in traditional bands—popularly labeled Dixieland, a name disparaged by most of its practitioners.
That inevitably led to an interest in rag time, which he began to interpret on the guitar “as if it were a piano.” He created guitar arrangement for rag classics like St. Louis Tickle and Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag which brought him as a solo act the Village coffee house scene.Van Ronk at the beginning of his career.
Van Ronk’s life and music really changed when he discovered traditional blues while rifling through the platters at a used record shop. The vitality of the music and its authenticity immediately grabbed him. His most important influence was Rev. Gary Davis, but he was also influenced by Furry Lewis, Mississippi John Hurt, and Brownie McGee. Other white singers, including Seeger, had dabbled in the blues, but Van Ronk was the first to inhabit the music with complete naturalness. His deep, husky voice and ability to wail were perfect. His respect for the music was total.
By the late ‘50’s Van Ronk was already the leading figure in the somewhat provincial world of Village folk music. Although blues were a particular forte, his performances were filled with all kinds of genre-busting music—those pure old Appalachian Childe Ballads, sea shanties, work songs, jazz, old time popular and vaudeville music, and topical ballads. He mastered them all. He even had a record deal with Folkways which guaranteed a bit of prestige but not big selling popular success.
He had established residence in the rambling apartment on Sheridan Square where he lived for the rest of his life. It was open to all his many friends for jams or a place to crash on the couch which hosted many notable, including Dylan for most of his first year in New York. When he wasn’t playing in coffee houses, he sat in the audience to support his friends or hung out drinking Tullamore Dew and playing the raconteur with the customers at saloons like McSorley’s. His appetite for all things, food, drink, women, life itself was insatiable.
Van Ronk was also curious. Despite his lack of formal education, he read widely, deeply, and seriously. He was interested, naturally, in history, but he also taught himself to be a gourmet cook, collected native art from New Guinea and the Pacific Northwest. He enjoyed science fiction and even contributed his own original stories to fanzines later in life. Many thought that they were good enough to have found a more professional home.
Radical, even revolutionary politics was a particular passion. He shunned the doctrinaire Communists and former Communists who had long dominated the Village radicalism. On one hand he was offended by their slavish attachment to the Moscow line of the moment on the other hand he found them both stodgy and rendered timid by the traumas of the Red Scare. For a while his friend Roy Berkley, the Trotskyite Troubadour, brought him into the orbit of the American Committee for the Fourth International (ACFI), later renamed the Workers League, dissident Trotskyite sect.
But Van Ronk was at heart an anarchist and a syndicalist. He became active in and a leading member of the Libertarian League—not to be confused with the current right wing use of the word with anarchist luminaries like Sam Dolgoff and Murray Bookchin. The Libertarian League promoted “equal freedom for all in a free socialist society.” Dolgoff introduced him to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the famed but then faded revolutionary union. He took out a Red Card and became prominent among younger members in the New York Branch. In 1959 he and fellow Wobbly Richard Ellington collaborated on the fabled satire, The Boss’s Song Book. Van Ronk kept up his IWW dues for the rest of his life.
In the ‘60’s and after he performed at numerous benefits for the peace movement and civil rights, but his anarchism was not welcomed by some elders and caused friction with others, including Pete Seeger with whom he was sometimes at odds and never close to despite their similar interests. In one of his most famous activist moments, Van Ronk helped Phil Ochs organize the 1974 An Evening for Salvador Allende to protest the bloody coup d’état that overthrew and killed the Socialist Chilean President.
With long time house guest Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo in 1963.
At the end of the ‘60’s groups like the Kingston Trio and the Chad Mitchell Trio emerged out of college campuses and began selling records like rock stars. That drew the attention of major labels to the Village folk scene in search of new talents, and in turn lured youngsters from across the country—and Canada—to try their hand in the scruffy coffee houses and clubs. Van Ronk welcomed them and mentored them, most famously Bob Dylan. Despite the mythology of the extremely ill Woody Guthrie passing his baton to the kid from Minnesota, Van Ronk was his real mentor, friend, and promoter. He likewise helped Ochs, Tom Paxton, and Joni Mitchell. Up in Cambridge teenage Joan Baez idolized him. All these people, and other friends went on to greater popular success. Van Ronk did not begrudge them but did wish that he could do the same. He moved to the more pop oriented Verve label and his albums sold modestly, but steadily. He was held back by his reluctance to long leave his beloved Village, which by this time had bestowed the unofficial title of the Mayor of McDougal Street. He might dash off for a weekend festival or for a quick trip up to Cambridge and Boston, but he would not, for the most part, tour extensively, which was necessary to bring his music to a wider audience.
Once, when Chicago, was making its bid to be a second front for folk music, Van Ronk took his famous trip to the Windy City to audition at the famous Gate of Horn where Bob Gibson, Hamilton Camp, Josh White, and others were making their mark. Inexplicably, the club turned him down, a bitter disappointment. The experience became a central part of the Coen Brother’s film.
Van Ronk often seemed to have just plain bad luck, narrowly missing opportunities to break out into national stardom. In 1961 he was the first choice of manager Albert Grossman for the folk/pop trio he was trying to put together Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers. But Grossman decided that Van Ronk was too idiosyncratic, independent, and his voice not sweet enough for the sound he envision. Instead, Noel Stookey became Paul.
His pal Bob Dylan recorded his arrangement of the old New Orleans blues House of the Rising Sun without his permission and before he could record it himself. He saw the same arrangement become a huge hit for The Animals. Dylan’s casual betrayal temporarily cooled their relationship, although they reconciled.
In 1964 was asked to form a jug band to cash in on the popularity of Jim Kweskin and enlisted some of the best and most versatile pickers in the city for the project including, Sam Charters, Barry Kornfield, Artie Rose, and Danny Kalb. Despite the talented line up and glowing reviews Dave Van Ronk and the Ragtime Jug Stompers failed to become a hit.Van Ronk's electric folk/rock album.
It was not Van Ronk’s last stab at a band. In 1967 with Kornfield this time as producer he formed an electric—and eclectic—folk rock band called Dave van Ronk and the Hudson Dusters. The song selection was all over the place—the kitschy ‘50’s novelty rock song Ally Oop, Jimmy Van Heusen’s Swing on a Star, Dink’s Song as collected and arranged by Bess and Allen Lomax, and Rev. Gary Davis’s Cocaine. But the album also contained versions of two songs by a young favorite—Joni Mitchell—Chelsea Morning and Both Sides Now, which Van Ronk had renamed, to Mitchell’s displeasure Clouds. She had not yet recorded either song and was herself not well known. Despite her resentment over the title switch, Mitchell always said that the cut on this record was her favorite version of her most iconic song. Once again, critics were impressed and the album sold moderately well, but did not break out. The band dissolved, Verve dropped him, and Van Ronk returned to solo work.
He did not issue another album until 1971, the simply titled Van Ronk for Polydor. This album included more Mitchell, Leonard Cohn’s Bird on the Wire, Randy Newman’s I Think It’s Going to Rain Today, Jacques Brell’s the Port of Amsterdam, Bertolt Brecht’s Legend of the Dead Soldier, as well as two rare—for him—original songs. It was a moody, moving masterpiece growled with deep emotion that ended with the ironic choice of Johnny Mercer’s and Harold Arlen’s Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive. Another critical darling that the public didn’t get.
On last near miss was his discovery of the song The Gambler by country music songwriter Don Schlitz. He recognized it as a potential hit. But his new label, Philo, was both dedicated to a hard core folk audience and unwilling to promote a single. Van Ronk had to take a pass. In 1979, of course Kenny Rogers—previously a mid-pack country singer—broke out to superstardom and a #1 hit on three Billboard Charts.
By this time, the Folk revival had long petered out. Many of his friends and the musicians he had mentored left the Village for Woodstock, California, and Nashville. Van Ronk, viscerally attached to the city and Village, refused to follow them. He remained the Mayor of McDougal Street, but it was not the same.
On the eve of his birthday, June 28, 1969, Van Ronk was drinking with friends when he went outside the bar to find out what kind of disturbance was going on. He found police and the Gay patrons of the Stonewall Inn in a near pitch battle following a vice raid. Ever ready to lend a hand to the underdog and oppressed, he joined the melee. A towering, burly man with a leonine head of hair and shaggy beard, he became a target for the cops who overpowered him and dragged him inside the Inn to be arrested. He was charged with throwing a rock at police, which he denied. He was one of 13 arrested on the first night of the rebellion which became the rallying cry of the Gay Liberation Movement.Van Ronk and first wife and manager Terri Thall.
Van Ronk lived with Terri Thal for 11 years, the last 7 as husband and wife after they met in 1957. She became his manager and accomplice, and was the first manager for Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton and others. After they parted on amicable terms, he had another long term relationship before marrying Andrea Vuocolo in 1988. They remained devoted the rest of his life.
Despite waning fame, and eventually health problems, Van Ronk never really retired. He continued to perform where he could and made more albums. He had a small but devoted following. Old friends like Dylan would occasionally visit his old apartment. His last public concert was in Atlanta, not New York City, a few months before his death.
Van Ronk in Utah Phillips’ clown nose at the Parting Glass in Saratoga Springs, NY, after Lena Spencer’s 1989 memorial service. With Anna McGarrigle, Phillips, and Roy Bookbinder.
On February 10, 2002, he died of heart failure in a New York City hospital following surgery for colon cancer.
Two years later in perhaps the tribute that would have meant the most to him, the block the street in front of his long-time apartment was officially named Dave Van Ronk Street.