Inside Llewyn Davis

Dave Van Ronk, the Real Llewyn Davis

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 12.04.13 in Spotlights

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.”

[A companion list of essential Dave Van Ronk songs can be found here. — Ed.]

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. When Dylan recorded his eponymous 1962 debut album, he lifted intact Van Ronk’s arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun,” which Dave was planning to cut himself in a few weeks. Van Ronk had to drop it from his repertoire, which led to a temporary falling-out with his protégé (who himself had to quit doing the song when the Animals’ electric version became one of the biggest hits of 1964).

You can hear some of Van Ronk’s haggard phrasing in Dylan’s early, acoustic recordings; countless other Village folkies, from Danny Kalb of the Blues Project to Peter, Paul and Mary counted the man as an influence. (Van Ronk was actually invited to join Peter, Paul and Mary when the trio was being put together by Albert Grossman, but he declined and the gig went to Noel Stookey.) Always more of an interpreter than a writer, he became one of the first to record songs of Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman, helping to usher folk music into the singer-songwriter era, and he mentored such latter-day folkies as Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega. He was a raconteur and would-be stand-up comic, a well-read but down-to-earth intellectual who introduced Dylan to the French Symbolist poets, an appreciator of fine wines and whiskies and a proud, defiant Village lefty who espoused Trotskyism, joined the Libertarian League and the Socialist Equality Party and was one of just 13 demonstrators arrested during the 1969 Stonewall Riots that kicked off the gay liberation movement. The apartment of he and his wife was the gathering-place for many a folk scenester.

If you look back over Van Ronk’s ’60s albums, you might not be overly impressed: “See See Rider,” “Trouble in Mind,” “Stackalee,” “Candy Man,” “Bout a Spoonful,” “Dink’s Song” — this is the same material every other folkie (and, later, folk-rocker) was cutting. But Van Ronk invariably did ‘em first, and even when the vocals on his albums were subpar, the other Village folkies knew these songs from his spellbinding live show, where his charisma and humanity shone through much more brightly. That’s why the songs passed from him to the others in the first place, and then on down into the American songbook (often as electrified folk-rock). As much as anyone, Van Ronk defined the folkie canon.

Born in Brooklyn in 1936 and raised there and in Queens, Van Ronk was a high school dropout who came to the Village in his teens to play ukulele, banjo and guitar and sing with trad jazz (read: Dixieland) bands. It was through that music that he found his way into blues, especially the Piedmont blues of the Reverend Gary Davis and the songster style of Mississippi John Hurt. He fell in with the Washington Square crowd early on, and was soon finger-picking guitar and singing in the dingy Village bars and coffeehouses, but he made his big bucks shipping out with the Merchant Marines. His first album, Dave Van Ronk Sings Ballads, Blues and a Spiritual, was released by Folkways in 1959, and he contributed to several Folkways compilations. But he didn’t really hit his stride until the 1963 Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger. By then, he’d begun to harness his bellowing vocals and to sing with finesse and emotional breadth; his simple, syncopated guitar work was becoming fuller and more complex, richer in tone and texture. For the rest of the ’60s he continued to refine his style, usually (but not always) recording solo, cutting some of the same songs over and over. He also sharpened his performing style, introducing songs with well-honed stories about the role models who first sang them, poking fun at himself and the Village scene in general.

So why didn’t Van Ronk become famous along with the songs? Probably because his own vocal style was so much harsher than that of most of his followers. Except for Dylan (who turned out to be in a class by himself, and was also a writer) the Village folkies who were successful at the time — think Peter, Paul and Mary, most obviously — had much smoother, sweeter styles than did Van Ronk. So, for that matter, did most of those who made it in folk-rock soon after (among them, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Byrds, the Mamas and Papas). Van Ronk had an expressive voice that conveyed a wide range of emotions, no doubt — probably the first lesson Dylan learned from him was that you needn’t have a “good” voice, in the conventional sense, to be a communicative singer — but it wasn’t the kind of instrument that was going to have broad appeal via the radio. Van Ronk simply got lost in the shuffle.

But now he’s getting another chance, thanks to Inside Llewyn Davis. The movie is inspired largely by Van Ronk’s The Mayor of McDougal Street, which was actually written largely by Elijah Wald, the nonpareil blues and roots music writer who as a teenager had taken guitar lessons from Van Ronk, and wound up practically living on his mentor’s couch over the next 25 years. He and Van Ronk had but one chapter and a few random other sections written at the time of the latter’s death on February 10, 2002, from complications in post-operative treatment of colon cancer. Wald researched the rest of the book and wrote it in Van Ronk’s voice. “I knew his voice so well,” Wald says. “I could never have done this with anyone else, and would never have even tried. But with him it worked.”

The Coen brothers movie is not “about” Van Ronk, and doesn’t even have a Van Ronk character. But some scenes are taken from the book, only they involve Llewyn Davis rather than Van Ronk, and some of the latter’s music is used. Mostly, the movie attempts to capture the Village mise en scene in the period just before Dylan arrives, which had been Van Ronk’s original intent with his book had he been able to see it through (he never intended it to be memoir or autobiography). Smithsonian Folkways has gotten in on the swell by releasing the three-disc Down in Washington Square, which gathers everything from some of his earliest recordings to his very last ones; 16 tracks are previously unissued.

Mayor of MacDougal Street ends in 1969, which is when Van Ronk believes the Village began circling the drain; by then, the music biz had picked the scene clean, MacDougal Street was a tourist destination with sawhorses at either end to block off cars, and real estate speculators were running the whole show. But his own career didn’t end, even if it also didn’t get bigger. According to Wald, Van Ronk went through a period in the early ’70s when he became bitter about not having “made it,” but he soon snapped out of that. Though he didn’t enjoy the fame and fat bank accounts of protégés like Dylan, he continued performing and recording, still usually solo, and was writing, or at least recording, his own songs more than ever (some had actually been written years before). 1994′s Going Back to Brooklyn was the only album in his long career containing all original material; most of the time he alternated between spirituals and other traditional tunes and songs pulled from American pop, rock and jazz. Filtered through Van Ronk, the songs all fit together remarkably well. In later years he spent more time at home giving guitar lessons than he spent on the road, which enabled him to remain a local legend, the walking talking personification of an elusive, magical time. In short, he transcended the role of mayor to become the grand old man.