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
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
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.