Deckle edge

Dave Van Ronk
by Chris Flisher © 1993 /
(first published August 1993 Worcester Phoenix)

Dave Van Ronk
Within the limited scope of folk music, Dave Van Ronk is a giant. It is impossible to understand the folk music genre without first understanding the contribution of Van Ronk. This is the man who helped Bob Dylan establish himself, not to mention the hundreds of other lesser known artists who sought his guidance and direction through the years. His knowledge of traditional music is a boundless resource for folk musicians who seek him as a teacher, friend, and mentor.

Van Ronk is best known as an interpreter, uncovering and re-inventing little known blues, folk, jazz, country, and even cabaret songs. Rather than write his own material he usually latches onto obscure nuggets, imbuing each with his own distinctly original style. "I don't really think of myself as a song writer," says the folk legend from his home in Greenwich Village, New York. "But, if I get a good idea and a song comes of it, then I do it. I just don't sit down and say, 'Let's write a song.' No, I'm more of a singer and player."

As a singer, Van Ronk's delivery is anything but typical. In fact, he doesn't always sing—he bellows. His voice demands attention, arresting ears with a clamorous roar or a subdued sleepy moan, underlined with a throaty bark that defies comparison (except Tom Waits who was probably encouraged by Van Ronk, knowing someone could survive as a singer with voice like gravel). It is a fittingly accurate testimony to years of cigarettes, bourbon and hard living.

Aside from his singular vocal delivery, Van Ronk is a master guitar player known for his finger-picking style which continues to leave seasoned musicians in awe. To watch him is to witness a genuine stylist. No soft-strummed, three-chord ballads here. His rubbery fingers ply themselves to guitar strings with precision and deft technique, often filling his renditions with a multitude of notes and lengthy runs, while his body hulks, rocking back and forth, rapt in a musical stupor.

His song choices are equally unique and relevatory. "I have always liked songs that support the American fascination with outlaws. There is a romanticism in the underdog." says Van Ronk. Drug dealers, prostitutes, card sharks and outlaws often pepper his performances, supporting his own rebellious nature and regard for the obscure. While his repertoire is primarily traditional, deep in history, Van Ronk remains too close to the fringe for most tastes. "I don't think people really listen to music. I think musical tastes have very little to do with music. They have to do with sociological identification with a certain group and lifestyle that goes with it. Performers fill that slot by going with that," he observes. "I don't do that. All I really wanted to do was make a living out of this business. The idea of getting rich and famous did not appeal to me. I would not change my life and music for that."

Raised in Brooklyn in the late 1940s', the 57 year old Van Ronk was first influenced by traditional New Orleans jazz. As jazz evolved into the revolutionary sounds of bee-bop and free jazz, he turned his attention elsewhere. "I found free jazz tough to listen to," he recalls. "It was very hostile music. They [free jazz players] were playing tennis with the net down. How is it possible to play well when you can't tell if you've hit a klunker (meaning a bad note)." he adds. It was during this period that he began to experiment with different styles, including blues, jug band and folk. "I like the folk genre because I don't find it confining. There is an awful lot you can do within it."

A performer known for taking chances, Van Ronk's most recent release, Chrestomathy (meaning a selection of choice passages), is a 2-CD compilation of his recorded career, documenting the breadth of styles and genres he embraces. Jug band tunes, blues, and choice ballads including the definative version of Joni Mitchell's "Clouds" (a.k.a "Both Sides Now") sit comfortably next to the hilariously joyful "My Little Grass Shack (in Kealakekua, Hawaii)" and renditions of the dramatic cabaret songs of Bertholdt Brecht and Kurt Weil. All different, his songs frequently harbor aspects of his wry humor. With a wink of an eye, he sings them, never fully serious, baiting the devil in his listeners. "I like the ironic. A lot has to do with interpretation. It is quite possible to sing a song, tongue in cheek and not change your diction at all." he comments.

Discovering unknown songs, buried away on hard-to-find '78s is hardly the way to endear yourself to a society whose musical tastes are dictated by the major label record companies. That is not his purpose. A stubborn musical curmudgeon, he admits, "I like doing what I like doing and I don't like doing what I don't like doing. I'm rather pig-headed about that." Thankfully Van Ronk's tenacity outweighs his desire for success and listeners benefit from the wanderings of a genuine musical archetype.

NOTE: Sadly since this writing, Dave Van Ronk passed to the great beyond on February 10, 2002. He is gone, but not forgotten.

Chris Flisher

Deckle edge