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This article by Richard Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on September 16, 1998. All rights reserved.
Season Preview: Folk Music
Before Bruce Springsteen, before Bonnie Raitt, before Joan Baez, and even before Bob Dylan, there was Dave Van Ronk. Other than Pete Seeger, Oscar Brand, and Odetta, there aren't many folksingers who have been around the New York music scene as long as Van Ronk.
Like a mad painter or an obsessed sculptor, Van Ronk is on a never-ending quest for perfection in his songwriting and guitar playing. And as anyone who has seen him in concert can attest, he damn near reaches that perfection within his own arena of expertise.
The guitarist, singer, and songwriter, born in 1936, began performing in traditional jazz bands when he was in high school in Brooklyn. After performing with Odetta in 1957, he decided to pursue folk and blues music professionally. Through the revival of folk music in the 1960s, he was perhaps most responsible for turning white audiences on to the simple yet complex beauty of African-American blues.
In concert, accompanying himself on guitar, he plays mostly original songs that transport listeners to another time and place: New Orleans in the 1930s, Memphis in the 1940s, or the Mississippi of the '20s. His voice can be alternately sweet and high or raspy and growling, and his guitar playing is subtle and economical, yet complex. His guitar style is of the less-is-more school: with just a few well-chosen guitar chords and finger-pickings, he is able to pull off complex blues and ragtime tunes. Add to this mix his great abilities as a storyteller and humorist -- he's a voracious reader, even though he never graduated from high school -- and you have all the component parts for a genuine folk-blues singing legend.
Van Ronk's most recent albums, "From Another Time and Place" (Alcazar Records), and "Going Back To Brooklyn" (Gazell Productions), are a good indication of what he does so well in concert: a few traditionals, like "Kansas City Blues," and "Long John," but also, on "Back To Brooklyn," his unique, humor-filled songs, songs like "Losers," "Gaslight Rag" (an ode to a now-defunct Greenwich Village club), and "Garden State Stomp."
"Garden State Stomp," inspired by a flat tire he suffered back in the early 1980s on his way to a gig at the blues club, the Stanhope House, is a crafty recitative of three dozen New Jersey town names, accompanied by a pleasant enough guitar melody. Like a lot of New Yorkers, he likes to poke fun at New Jersey. He picks up on the funny town names like Bivalve, Buckshootem, Turkey Foot, Cheesequake, and Wannamassa, and sets them into a rhyming scheme, and always draws laughs with the way he enunciates the industrial, state prison town, "Rahway."
During his formative years in the mid-1950s, he learned from the best: Odetta, whom he cites as a major influence, and later on, Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt. Van Ronk's version of Hurt's "Candy Man," helped put him on the folk festival map in the 1960s, and led to the career in folk and blues music he enjoys today.
Asked about his most important inspirations, Van Ronk says they would include New Orleans pianist and composer Jellyroll Morton and trumpeter Louis Armstrong. "You'd have to add into that mix a whole bunch of people like Gary Davis and Bessie Smith and Mississippi John Hurt," Van Ronk explains. "A lot of Morton's stuff has been reissued any number of times, and there's one record of his called `New Orleans Memories' where he sings and talks about the tunes," he says, adding that the record had a huge impact on him as a teenager.
In retrospect, he realizes his first "big break"' -- such as it was in the folk music world of late 1950s New York -- was the chance to record for Folkways Records, Moses Asch's legendary label now operated by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. "That was in 1959, and I knew at that point I wanted to do this professionally," he explains.
"Not only that, but I wanted my first record to be on Folkways, 'cause that's where the big kids were playing in those days -- Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, and others, and that's where I wanted to be. I was very fortunate in that I got just what I wanted, starting out."
Asked about the much-talked-about Greenwich Village coffee house and folk music scene of the early 1960s, Van Ronk contends it existed all through the 1950s, when he first made the big move west to lower Manhattan from his parents' home in Brooklyn as a wide-eyed, but tough, 16-year-old kid. "It was an established scene when I came here in 1953 and 1954," he explains. Van Ronk's first album, "Ballads, Blues and a Spiritual," released in 1959 on Folkways, established his credentials at the time of the first Newport Folk Festivals.
One of his most memorable shows came early on in his folk singing career, he recalls. "In 1963, I did a solo show at Carnegie Hall. It wasn't extremely well attended, the producer kind of blew it on the advertising," he recalls. "But I didn't care about that. It really spoiled me! I had two grand pianos in my dressing room."
Asked about his own vast influence on what now amounts to three generations of singer-songwriters, Van Ronk is typically self-effacing. When not on the road, he had supplemented his income since 1960 by offering guitar lessons from his Greenwich Village flat. When Christine Lavin first moved to New York City in 1980, she sought Van Ronk's help with her guitar playing. Danny Kalb, who later co-founded the legendary 1960s group, the Blues Project, is another former student.
In the early 1960s, Van Ronk was one of several folksingers who took a then 20-year-old Bob Dylan under his wing, after the young Dylan made the trek from his Minnesota home to try to make his mark as a folk and blues singer in New York City.
"There were three or four of us who took turns lending Dylan couches, and we were among the chosen fortunate few," he recalls, again laughing heartily. (Van Ronk has one of the greatest laughs in all folk music.) Although he doesn't take himself too seriously, he takes his art very seriously, particularly the craft of songwriting. He still learns from everybody, and he's always admired Joni Mitchell's ability to write a good song, even though Canadian-raised Mitchell came on the American folk music scene years after Van Ronk had established himself as a performer.
Now, at 62, Van Ronk says he tours almost exclusively in three-week trips that allow him to check back at his New York apartment to pay bills and catch up with other business. "For the next six weeks, I'm pretty much gone. I'm back in the city after three weeks, long enough to change my socks and then I'm gone again," he explains. "But I don't do these marathon, 10-week tours anymore, and I don't have to, thank God. Three weeks is tops. I don't see the need to prolong the agony any more than that. I mean, you can get from one coast to the other in five hours, there's no point in doing that kind of thing anymore," he adds.
"When you're looking at a gig, one of the first things you have to factor in there is how much of a schlep it is. That's why people who go to Alaska get paid so much money, 'cause you can't get people to go to Alaska for anything less than a lot of money," he says, quaking with laughter.
For audiences not familiar with folk music, Van Ronk is a good place to start. While his raspy, growling voice can be off-putting to some, his mix of original blues and folk songs -- peppered with a few soul-drenched traditional blues and gospel tunes, and great, funny stories -- is what the folk tradition is all about.
"I do jazz-tinged blues and blues-tinged jazz, and it's always a potpourri, but very much centered around jazz-flavored material," he says. "Every now and again I'll throw in something that's really folky if I like, like `I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,' if I feel like it."
Such a perfectionist is Dave Van Ronk, he freely admits he doesn't get much pleasure out of listening to his own records, which now number nearly 30, produced over 35 years of performing professionally.
"I almost never listen to my own records," he explains, "but when I do listen to them, it's work. I only hear what's wrong, like, `Okay, this needs to be fixed' and `Don't do that again.' That kind of thing."
"For pleasure, I listen to other people's records," he says, resounding once again with that hearty laugh.
-- Richard J. Skelly
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