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Big Dave

Before Dylan, Dave Van Ronk was the bull goose

June 1st, 2016

BY ED GOLDBERG

The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir
by Dave Van Ronk, with Elijah Wald
Da Capo Press, 2005

One night on MacDougal Street, one of the major thoroughfares in Greenwich Village, I was listening to Dave Van Ronk at the Gaslight, a cellar folk club much mentioned in this book. It was, maybe, 1962. The cliche description of Van Ronk as a “bear of a man” was both easy and correct.

He was big, broad, bearded, and lank-haired; his head almost hit the top of the proscenium. Two drunk high school kids sat at one of the minuscule tables and kept up a loud conversation during Dave’s set. He warned them twice, but they resumed chattering before long. vanronkFinally, Dave set down his guitar, stepped off the stage and grabbed the bigger of the two by the collar. “I told you to shut up!” he growled, then cold-cocked the kid. His shocked buddy dragged him out of the club and up the stairs to the street, accompanied by the applause of the other patrons. Dave then resumed the stage and continued as if nothing had happened. There were giants in the earth in those days.

Before Bob Dylan became god almighty in the Village folk scene, Van Ronk was the bull goose. Everyone loved Pete Seeger, who had already achieved elder statesman status. Woody Guthrie was in the hospital in the clutches of Huntington’s Disease. Cisco Houston was dead, Burl Ives damaged by his friendly testimony before HUAC, the Weavers blacklisted, and old-timers like John Jacob Niles never more than a footnote in popular culture.

The late Fifties saw a folk revival, but it was strictly a good news/bad news thing. The music was performed by groups like the Kingston Trio and the Brothers Four, essentially pop acts working folk music rather than rock & roll. I will never badmouth the Kingston Trio. It was through them and Harry Belafonte that I first heard songs by Guthrie, Seeger and Leadbelly, and calypsos, murder ballads, and other examples of the folk repertoire.

And even I could tell that the Kingstons had more going for them than the other pop folkies. But there was the other, more authentic stream called “ethnic,” so self-described. Van Ronk was the first ethnic folksinger I heard, and he made a lasting impact on me. Through him, I found others: Tom Paxton, Pat Sky, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, then Dylan. This memoir takes us not just through Van Ronk’s life, unruly, rough, principled and dedicated to the music, but through the Village scene that nurtured it.

A New York kid, he was born in Brooklyn in 1936 and lived in a couple of boroughs before settling in the Village, in lower Manhattan. His formal education ended at fifteen when he was caught in a pool hall by a truant officer. Coming from a musical family, he absorbed everything available at the time, from Fifties pop on the radio to Dixieland jazz. He hated his piano lessons, but loved the ukulele and taught himself to play. At a summer camp he also hated, he found the words and music to “St. James Infirmary Blues” in a music book and was smitten.

He formed a vocal quartet with friends, singing everything from barbershop to Weavers songs. He acquired a guitar by trading a pile of Captain Marvel comics (!) for it, and found a teacher back in Queens who had played with jazz bands and collected a bunch of adolescent jazz hounds around him.

Van Ronk’s first gigs were playing with New Orleans revival bands in the early Fifties. He switched to banjo for authenticity. There was a renewed interest in the New Orleans style, emanating from San Francisco, and in reaction to both Dixieland, a bleached-out travesty of the real thing, and bebop, anathema to the proponents of “real jazz.” The name-calling got pretty vicious over who was playing jazz. Van Ronk sided with the so-called moldy figs.

Then someone told him about the folk scene in Washington Square Park on Sundays. He saw the Village for the first time, and heard music that would change his life.

It is tempting to take you through Van Ronk’s whole history, but space and patience call for some kind of self-editing. Suffice it to say that he quit music and shipped out on merchant vessels for several years. Always inclined to the left point of view, Van Ronk was a lifelong and committed leftist, of the Trotskyist (yay!) persuasion. He took his politics as seriously as his music, something I didn’t know before I read this book.

Just as fiercely partisan in the factionalized world of lefty activism as in the music world, he takes us into his various associations and allegiances. The adherents of each faction regarded themselves as the saviors of the working class, and their opposite numbers as traitors to same. All this may sound bizarre, but I have been in a room with Socialist, Socialist Labor, and Socialist Worker people, and the only lapse from a cockfight metaphor was the lack of blood. Of course, I didn’t stay that long.

Van Ronk’s musical development is treated here with equal passion. An acolyte at first of the demigods of ethnic folk, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Leadbelly, Guthrie, Mississippi John Hurt, and most especially the Rev. Gary Davis, who became his friend and mentor and was the major influence on his style, Van Ronk then went on to mentor, befriend, and develop the crop of folkies who came to New York in the early Sixties, not excluding the skinny kid from Minnesota, who spent many nights on Van Ronk’s couch and survived by sitting at his table.

Indeed, Davis’s mark was so profound that I was sure Van Ronk was black before I saw an album cover. Many others were also so fooled. When he arrived on the Village scene, there was one folk center, run by the inestimable Izzy Young, and no real performance space for the young ethnics. In a few years, you couldn’t throw a stone on Bleecker or MacDougal without hitting a folk club. Or a folk musician. And Van Ronk was the “mayor” of this city within a city within the Big Apple.

A lot of this may sound like inside baseball to the casual fan, but to anyone who wishes to learn about the hip scene (Van Ronk’s snide and hilarious take on Beats and hippies and dilettantes reflects his influence from W.C. Fields and Groucho Marx) in Greenwich Village in the Fifties and Sixties, the history of the folk scene, and the colossal presence of the giant Van Ronk can hardly do better than this book.

Van Ronk died in 2002, way too young, and the book was completed by his co-author. I miss him, without ever having known him. I felt a loss when I learned of his death. Not only is this book a story of a life and a culture, but it is in a small way the story of my own youth and passions when ethnic folk ruled my world.

Not an exercise in smarmy nostalgia, Van Ronk’s tale dovetails nicely with Dylan’s conciliatory recent memoir, Chronicles, in that he is less apt to forgive what he considered true stupidity or crassness. I have not yet read the book detailing the scene from Mimi and Richard Farina’s point of view, but the truth about that creative, competitive yet cooperative ferment that gave us Dylan, the Byrds, the Lovin’ Spoonful, even the Monkees may only emerge from a kind of memoir triangulation.

Van Ronk’s reminiscences are a good place to start. I recommend this book highly. •

From the August 2006 issue.

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Black Lamb Review of Books, Book Reviews, Books and Authors, Goldberg | Link to this Entry

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