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Dave Van Ronk, Urbanite
by Gary Alexander

This article was first published in June, 1998 shortly before
Dave Van Ronk's appearance at the Tinker Street Cafe, Woodstock.
Dave will be appearing at the Rosendale Cafe, Sat, March 17 [2001].

Never one to rely on the kindness of idioms, Dave Van Ronk has been known to pivot a bit, this way and that, from blues to folk; jugband to pop; dixieland to rock. But, undeniably, the legendary center of that pivot has always been the close-to-the-bone essence of the man, that voice, and his guitar. All of which he brings to the Tinker Street Cafe this weekend.

When a wave of country blues revivalists hit the scene in the early sixties; mostly earnest young white talents like John Hammond, Jr., Tom Rush, Geoff Muldaur, Dave Ray, Hoyt Axton, Spider John Koerner, Bob Dylan and others; paying tribute to the form created by Robert Johnson, Hambone Willie Newbern, Lightnin' Hopkins, Barbecue Bob, Blind Boy Fuller and a slew of other inventive black artists; they found the road already paved on the hootenanny circuit by a goateed picker with a honey-wet sandpaper rasp and finely haggled guitar styling that he teaches to a few fortunate students unto this very day.

Van Ronk was already making a splash when he opened for Odetta at the Cafe Bizarre on West 3rd Street in 1957. He was on the scene and well entrenched as respected icon to welcome, individually, the new contenders as they drifted into the New York coffeehouse arena. (Can you think of anyone who covered a Dylan tune before Van Ronk cut "He Was a Friend of Mine" on his 1962 Folksinger album?) Calling the development of his style "a question of accretion," Van Ronk recalls "When I was starting to do vocals, my two main influences were Louie Armstrong and Bessie Smith, with a little bit of Leadbelly thrown in. It just kept developing. At this point, as a vocalist and as a guitarist, I really don't think I sound much like anybody." To which we must add 'Else' and 'Amen.'

"One thing I was blessed with is that I was a very, very bad mimic," he laughs in a burst like a deep crackle of electricity. "For all I tried, I could never quite do it." What he did do never actually topped the charts but his flow of albums were (and continue to be) items of special appeal to fellow musicians and connoisseurs, filled with soul-wrenching renditions of traditional songs, his own compositions and those by other artists, performed with an idiosyncratic and unmistakable, once heard, articulation.

"The most recent (album) to come out is a live concert I did in Montreal in, would you believe?, '68," Van Ronk responds to a question. "It's been in the can since then, so you can imagine my surprise. It just came out on Justintime Records in Canada and we're working on some kind of leasing arrangements with a label here...I can't really keep up with my old things. They keep getting sold to new companies and being reissued. It's gotten so that every time I decide to make a new album, three of my old ones come out." He laughs like a cluster of grated wood chips galing out of the mouth of a cave. "I've reached a point where I'm playing catch-up with myself."

Van Ronk at Tinker Street Cafe

Van Ronk has won ASCAP's Lifetime Achievement Award but keeps coming on like he's just getting started; like gigging all over this country and Europe, this year. His double-CD of tunes written by friends and recorded with his old buddy Sam Charters, To All My Friends In Far Flung Places (Gazelle), earned him a Grammy nomination a couple of years ago, prompting a visit to the event, which he mentioned when asked if he's still in touch with the old Village crowd of bygone glory: "Very, very rarely. We don't travel in the same circles. Every once in a while; a phone call or something. I was out to the Grammies, the last time they had them in L.A., and there was a whole bunch of people out there but, you know, when there came time after the show, I didn't get to see any of them."

Although Far Flung Places was his last studio release, he continues to bop in and out to lay down a track of this or that..."I'm going in next Thursday to cut one number for this album of songs about New Jersey...No, no; I'm not doing a whole album about New Jersey- one tune...I'm doing a lot of that kind of stuff. I did, would you believe?, "Froggy Went A'Courtin'" with Ann Hills a month or three ago. But, as I say, (old albums) keep coming out without my lifting a finger and it keeps on pushing back my plans for doing a new one. There are two more coming out this fall that were originally on Philo and out of print for 10 or 12 years, which I'm glad to see- I like them. They're good albums. But, the shift over from LP to CD spurred a great deal of reissuing all across the board. When that dies down, and it is dying down, I'll go into the studio and make a fresh one."

When he does, Van Ronk plans to issue it on his own label. He sings what has become a familiar refrain from veteran artists when the subject of major labels comes up; "I'm not really interested in talking to anybody at this point...unless somebody comes with a wheelbarrel full of money or something like that. I have no incentive."

Van Ronk adds tunes to his act "in fits and starts. I'll put in 2 or 3 at once and sometimes I'll recycle things that I haven't done in 10 or 15 years that will all of a sudden appeal to me again...I probably have a half dozen of what I call signature tunes; everybody has signature tunes; like "Green Green Rocky Road" that, if I do a full night without getting to it, will get me a lot of flak from people in the audience. "St.James Infirmary" is another one. If I don't do that once in the course of an evening, I get pissed-off fans afterward."

What attracts him to a number in the first place? "A song has to have something of its own character. It'll either be in the lyrics or in the music; a chord progression or melody that isn't quite like anything else or a set of lyrics that I find particularly arresting. But that's strictly a matter of taste. Something can knock my socks off and leave everybody else absolutely cold. That's happened to me." Last September, while playing an outdoor stage at the Concord Hotel, a sign blew down behind him as he concluded a thumpingly brisk and humorous number. He had continued without blinking and dismisses the incident when mentioned with "That was nothing. I had a stage collapse on me in California. I was playing a little coffeehouse in Formosa Beach and it was not the most stable riser I ever worked on. The guy that was on before me was a 350-pounder and he used a sort of doven when he was singing, too. I was sitting there watching him sway, watching the stage sway but he got off and he was perfectly alright." Van Ronk laughs like the escaping gush of a gas and gravel-filled tractor tire punctured by Freddy Kruger's sweeping hand. "I got on and, in those days I was well under 200 pounds but it didn't make any difference. The damn thing just collapsed off to one side. I'd like to say that I kept on singing but I did not."

A bone of contention; a local press release for this appearance refers to Van Ronk's niche as being "urban blues." But there's something wrong if he reminds you of Paul Butterfield, Muddy Waters or any of that citified Chicago sound. For all of his pivots, Van Ronk remains largely a city boy who kills with country blues; "I'm a born and raised Brooklyn boy. I've spent long stretches of time elsewhere. I actually owned a house in Saugerties, briefly in 1976, up near Big Pink, but I never moved in...I was thinking of it but what happened was we couldn't get moved and then there was an early snow. The driveway was totally blocked and we couldn't get anybody to clear it. This went on for about 3 or 4 weeks and it seemed like every 2 or 3 days there was more snow. Everybody up there who did that kind of thing was up to his ears in work and we just could not get the driveway cleared to move in. All this while I'm thinking 'hmmm' and it suddenly dawned on me- hey, I don't want to live in Saugerties. Then we sold the house."

But don't take it personally, Saugerties. There's a little further shading to his decision when he talks about another pondered move; "What it is- I spent a few weeks just outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and I was thinking about moving there. But, after two weeks, I stopped noticing the scenery. It was just the backdrop. But I never stopped noticing the absence of amenities. Where's the corner saloon? Where's the museum? Where's the nightclub?"

Dave Van Ronk, urbanite, took a reflective breath and continued with "I go to the opera 2 or 3 times a year...all that kind of thing. And, living in less than a world-class city, you're cut off from all of that. I don't want that (sense of isolation)." Opera, Dave? "Oh yeah. Italian, not German. Can't stand Wagner. The Russians are okay," he adds. And then he laughs like Dave Van Ronk.

-Gary Alexander

Gary Alexander is an independent journalist and scholar whose focus of interests range through a variety of disciplines. Under various names, he has written (and ghost written) upon history and current event; science and technology, as well as music and the arts in books and for national periodicals. While particularly attentive to the subtle and complex impact upon cultural imagination and contemporary structures of presumption which activity in the above mentioned topics tend to have, Alexander treats his topics with a slightly more than occasional resort to humor.

Posted on March 7, 2001

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