How important a figure was Dave Van Ronk on the Greenwich Village folk scene in its heyday? Consider the description of Bob Dylan, who was befriended by Van Ronk upon his arrival in New York in 1961, in his own memoir, Chronicles: “He was passionate and stinging, sang like a soldier of fortune and sounded like he paid the price. Van Ronk could howl and whisper, turn blues into ballads and ballads into blues. I loved his style. He was what the city was all about. In Greenwich Village, Van Ronk was king of the street, he reigned supreme.”
Van Ronk helped Dylan get his earliest gigs, took the newcomer into his core group of Village folkies and let him crash on the Van Ronk couch for months at a time, was fascinated with the kid’s self-mythologizing stories even though he quickly concluded that most were bullshit, and watched him grow as a performer: “…The more I heard him perform, the more impressed I was with what he was doing,” he writes in The Mayor of McDougal Street, his memoir of Village life in the ’50s and ’60s, which inspired much of the new Coen brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis, released in theaters this month. In honor of the film and Van Ronk’s legacy, here are 10 of his best songs.
“House of the Rising Sun”
This is basically the version Dylan swiped, and is never-before-released; Van Ronk recorded it with a different arrangement in the '60s.
Many consider this talky-singy blues Van Ronk's signature song. But he learned it from his own chief mentor, the Reverend Gary Davis, who being a man of the cloth declined to perform it himself.
“Clouds (From Both Sides Now)”
Joni Mitchell once said this (also with the Dusters) is the best interpretation of one her songs ever done, and it's hard to argue. Van Ronk at his most resigned, and eternally sorrowful.
“God Bless the Child”
Van Ronk sometimes introduced this Billie Holiday chestnut as the "truest" song ever written, and he certainly sang it that way — which never stopped him from swinging it ever so slightly.
“St. James Infirmary”
The song descends from the traditional "The Unfortunate Rake" and was first recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1928; Van Ronk takes it from a whisper to a shout while providing intricate, yet understated, guitar backing.
“St. Louis Tickle”
"St. Louis Tickle" shows Van Ronk as a jazzy, ragtime guitarist, deliberate and nimble.
Leave it to Van Ronk to fashion a philosophical drinking song into something resembling a sea shanty. His friend Lawrence Block, arguably America's greatest living detective writer, titled his Matt Scudder novel When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes after a phrase in this song.
“Mack the Knife”
More Brecht (its composer) than Armstrong or Darin (its popularizers), this spooky interpretation is by Van Ronk's short-lived jug band the Ragtime Jug Stompers, who — as their name suggests — were at least as much rag as jug, and a delightfully loose and careening bunch.
Ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax recorded an African American woman singing this heartbreaking ballad in a migratory levee-builders' camp in Texas in 1908, and it went on to become a folk-revival favorite, done by Dylan, Pete Seeger, Fred Neil and others. Van Ronk cut it several times, and while many will consider this assertion heresy, his best vocal was with his one-album-only rock band; the Hudson Dusters give him a soft but rich cushion and his mature vocal is arguably the most stirring and otherworldly he ever recorded.
Another ragtime guitar piece, with a serio-comic lyric looking back on the Village club that amounted to Van Ronk's second home, as well as his principal employer.