Dave Van Ronk
|Dave Van Ronk|
June 30, 1936|
Brooklyn, New York
|Died||February 10, 2002(aged 65)|
|Genres||Folk, ragtime, blues, country blues|
David Kenneth Ritz "Dave" Van Ronk (June 30, 1936 – February 10, 2002) was an American folk singer, born in Brooklyn, New York, who settled in Greenwich Village, New York, and was eventually nicknamed the "Mayor of MacDougal Street" .
He was an important figure in the acoustic folk revival of the 1960s. His work ranged from old English ballads to Bertolt Brecht, blues, gospel, rock, New Orleans jazz, and swing. He was also known for performing instrumental ragtime guitar music, especially his transcription of St. Louis Tickle and Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag.
Van Ronk was a widely admired avuncular figure in "the Village", presiding over the coffeehouse folk culture and acting as a friend to many up-and-coming artists by inspiring, assisting, and promoting them. Folk performers whom he befriended include Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Patrick Sky, Phil Ochs, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Guthrie Thomas, and Joni Mitchell.
Van Ronk received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) in December 1997. He died in a New York hospital of cardiopulmonary failure while undergoing postoperative treatment for colon cancer.
Van Ronk was born in Brooklyn to a family that was "mostly Irish, despite the Dutch name." He moved from Brooklyn to Queens in 1951 and began attending Holy Child Jesus Catholic School, whose students were mainly of Irish descent. He had been performing in a barbershop quartet since 1949, but left before finishing high school, and spent the next few years bumming around lower Manhattan and twice shipping out with the Merchant Marine.
His first professional gigs were with various traditional jazz bands around New York, of which he later observed: "We wanted to play traditional jazz in the worst way...and we did!" But the jazz revival did not take off, and Van Ronk turned to performing blues he had stumbled across and enjoyed years earlier, by artists like Furry Lewis and Mississippi John Hurt. Van Ronk was not the first white musician to perform African-American blues, but became noted for his interpretation of it in its original context. By about 1958, he was firmly committed to the folk-blues style, accompanying himself with his own acoustic guitar. He performed blues, jazz and folk music, occasionally writing his own songs but generally arranging the work of earlier artists and his folk revival peers.
He became noted both for his large physical stature and his expansive charisma, which bespoke an intellectual, cultured gentleman of many talents. Among his many interests were cooking, science fiction (he was active for some time in science fiction fandom, referring to it as "mind rot", and contributed to fanzines), world history, and politics. During the 1960s he supported radical left-wing political causes and was a member of the Libertarian League and the Trotskyist American Committee for the Fourth International (ACFI, later renamed the Workers League, predecessor to the Socialist Equality Party). Attracted to the commotion from a neighboring bar, and no stranger to police violence, he was at the famous Stonewall Riots during which he was grabbed by police, arrested, briefly jailed and charged with felony assault on a police officer. In 1974, he appeared at "An Evening For Salvador Allende", a concert organized by Phil Ochs, alongside such other performers as his old friend Bob Dylan, to protest the overthrow of the democratic socialist government of Chile and to aid refugees from the U.S.-backed military junta led by Augusto Pinochet. After Ochs's suicide in 1976, Van Ronk joined the many performers who played at his memorial concert in the Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden, playing his bluesy version of the traditional folk ballad "He Was A Friend Of Mine".
In 2000, he performed at Blind Willie's in Atlanta, clothed in garish Hawaiian garb, speaking fondly of his impending return to Greenwich Village. He reminisced over tunes like "You've Been a Good Old Wagon," a song teasing a worn-out lover, which he ruefully remarked had seemed humorous to him back in 1962. He was married to Terri Thal in the 1960s, lived for many years with Joanne Grace, then married Andrea Vuocolo, with whom he spent the rest of his life. He continued to perform for four decades and gave his last concert just a few months before his death. He found it amusing to be called "a legend in his own time".
Van Ronk died before completing work on his memoirs, which were finished by his collaborator, Elijah Wald, and published in 2005 as The Mayor Of MacDougal Street.
In 2004, a section of Sheridan Square, where Barrow Street meets Washington Place, was renamed Dave Van Ronk Street in his memory.
Cultural impact 
Van Ronk has been described[by whom?] as an irreverent and incomparable guitar artist and interpreter of black blues and folk, with an uncannily precise ability at improvisation. Joni Mitchell often said that his rendition of her song "Both Sides Now" (which he called "Clouds") was the finest ever.
He is perhaps underestimated as a musician and blues guitarist. His guitar work is noteworthy for both syncopation and precision. In its simplest form, it shows similarities to Mississippi John Hurt's, but Van Ronk's main influence was the Reverend Gary Davis, who conceived the guitar as "a piano around his neck". Van Ronk took this pianistic approach and added a harmonic sophistication adapted from the band voicings of Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington. He ranks high in bringing blues style to Greenwich Village during the 1960s, as well as introducing the folk world to the complex harmonies of Kurt Weill in his many Brecht-Weill interpretations, and being one of the very few hardcore traditional revivalists to move with the times, bringing old blues and ballads together with the new sounds of Dylan, Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. During this crucial period, he performed with the likes of Bob Dylan and spent many years teaching guitar in Greenwich Village, including to Christine Lavin, David Massengill, Terre Roche and Suzzy Roche. He influenced his protégé Danny Kalb and The Blues Project. The Japanese singer Masato Tomobe, American pop-folk singer Geoff Thais and the musician and writer Elijah Wald learned from him as well. Known for making interesting and memorable observations he once said, "Painting is all about space, and music is all about time."
Thanks to what he had learned from Davis, Van Ronk was among the first to adapt traditional jazz and ragtime to the solo acoustic guitar. His guitar arrangements of such ragtime hits as "St. Louis Tickle", "The Entertainer", "The Pearls" and "Maple Leaf Rag" continue to frustrate and challenge aspiring guitar players. He also did fine compositions of his own in the classic styles, such as "Antelope Rag".
Van Ronk was among the thirteen people arrested at the Stonewall Inn June 28, 1969--the night that the Stonewall Riots, which many cite as the start of the gay rights movement, began. The New York Times reported the next day that he was arrested and later parolled on his own recognizance for having thrown a heavy object at a patrolman. City records reveal he was charged with felony assault in the second degree and pled guilty to the lesser charge of harassment, classified in 1969 as a violation under pL 240.25. A June 29, 1969 article in the The New York Post, and a 1996 interview of eyewitness Steve Yates, reveal that Van Ronk was pulled by police from the crowd outside and dragged inside.
Personal characteristics 
Van Ronk refused for many years to fly and never learned to drive (he would use trains or buses or, when possible, recruit a girlfriend or young musician as his driver), and he declined to ever move from Greenwich Village for any extended period of time (having stayed in California for a short time in the 1960s). Van Ronk's trademark stoneware jug of Tullamore Dew was frequently seen on stage next to him in his early days.
Robert Shelton described Van Ronk as, "the musical mayor of MacDougal Street, a tall, garrulous hairy man of three quarters, or, more accurately, three fifths Irish descent. Topped by light brownish hair and a leonine beard, which he smoothed down several times a minute, he resembled an unmade bed strewn with books, record jackets, pipes, empty whiskey bottles, lines from obscure poets, finger picks, and broken guitar strings. He was Bob [Dylan]'s first New York guru. Van Ronk was a walking museum of the blues. Through an early interest in jazz, he had gravitated toward black music - its jazz pole, its jug-band and ragtime center, its blues bedrock... his manner was rough and testy, disguising a warm, sensitive core. Van Ronk retold the blues intimately... for a time, his most dedicated follower was Dylan."
Van Ronk releases 
Studio recordings 
- 1959: Van Ronk Sings Ballads, Blues, and a Spiritual (also released as Gambler's Blues and Black Mountain Blues) (Folkways Records)
- 1961: Dave Van Ronk Sings (also released as Dave Van Ronk Sings the Blues and Dave Van Ronk Sings Earthy Ballads and Blues) (Folkways Records)
- 1963: Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger
- 1963: Inside Dave Van Ronk
- 1964: Dave Van Ronk and the Ragtime Jug Stompers
- 1964: In the Tradition
- 1964: Just Dave Van Ronk
- 1966: No Dirty Names
- 1967: Dave Van Ronk and the Hudson Dusters
- 1971: Van Ronk
- 1973: Songs For Ageing Children
- 1976: Sunday Street
- 1980: Somebody Else, Not Me
- 1985: Going Back To Brooklyn
- 1990: Hummin' to Myself
- 1990: Peter and the Wolf
- 1992: Let No One Deceive You: Songs of Bertolt Brecht (Frankie Armstrong & Dave Van Ronk)
- 1994: To All My Friends in Far-Flung Places
- 1995: From... Another Time & Place
- 2001: Sweet & Lowdown
- 2005: The Mayor of MacDougal Street
Live recordings 
- 1982: Your Basic Dave Van Ronk
- 1983: St James Infirmary (released in 1996 as Statesboro Blues)
- 1983: Dave Van Ronk in Rome
- 1997: Live at Sir George Williams University (recorded in 1967)
- 2004: Dave Van Ronk: ...and the tin pan bended and the story ended... (Smithsonian Folkways)
- 2008: On Air (live 1993)
Compilations of previously released material 
- 1972: Van Ronk (includes Folksinger and Inside Dave Van Ronk in their entirety. Later released on CD as Inside Dave Van Ronk)
- 1988: Hesitation Blues (compilation)
- 1989: Inside Dave Van Ronk (compilation - includes Folksinger and Inside Dave Van Ronk )
- 1991: The Folkways Years, 1959 - 1961 (Smithsonian Folkways)
- 1992: A Chrestomathy
- 2002: Two Sides of Dave Van Ronk (includes all of In the Tradition and most of Your Basic Dave Van Ronk)
- 2012: Bluesmaster (includes all of Sings Ballads, Blues and a Spiritual and selections from Dave Van Ronk Sings)- Peaksoft PEA019
Van Ronk on compilations/other people's albums 
- 1958: Skiffle in Stereo (The Orange Blossom Jug Five)
- 1959: Fo'csle Songs and Shanties (by Paul Clayton) - Van Ronk sings on all songs.
- 1995: Peter, Paul and Mary, "Life Lines." Van Ronk sings on two tracks.
Van Ronk on various artist compilations 
- 1959: The Unfortunate Rake
- 1963: Newport Folk Festival 1963 The Evening Concerts Vol. 2(Various Artists- Van Ronk performs two songs: Candy Man and Hold On)
- 1964: Blues from Newport (Various Artists- Van Ronk performs two songs: That Will Never Happen No More and Gambler's Blues)
- 1964: The Blues Project (Various Artists – Van Ronk performs two songs: Bad Dream Blues and Don't You Leave Me Here)
- 1999: The Man from God Knows Where (Tom Russell- Van Ronk featured performing two songs: The Outcast and The Outcast (revisited))
- Chris Morris (February 12, 2002). "Influential Folk Artist Dave Van Ronk Dies". Billboard Bulletin. Archived at AllBusiness.com.
- Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll. Pearson: 1987 ISBN: 0137822936 pg 255
- Dave Van Ronk, Elijah Wald (2005). The Mayor of MacDougal Street. New York: Da Capo Press. p. 230.
- Robert Jackson Alexander (1991). International Trotskyism, 1929-1985: a documented analysis of the movement. Duke University Press. p. 552, para. 2. ISBN 978-0-8223-1066-2.
- David North (June 25, 1995). "The Workers League and the founding of the Socialist Equality Party". Archived from the original on August 15, 2000.
- Lucian Truscott IV (July 3, 1969). "Gay Power Comes to Sheridan Square" (Transcript). Village Voice. Retrieved August 14, 2010. page scans
- "He Was A Friend of Mine (Just A Hand To Hold)". Grateful Dead Lyric & Song Finder. Retrieved August 13, 2010.
- Dave Van Ronk street naming ceremony & pictures by Otto Bost. Retrieved July 9, 2008.
- Eskow, Dennis. "4 Policemen Hurt in 'Village' Raid: Melee Near Sheridan Square Follows Action at Bar", The New York Times, June 29, 1969, p. 33.
- Criminal Court of the City of New York, docket number A9798: original charge against Van Ronk: pL 120.05
- Carter, David. "An Analytical Collation of Accounts and Documents Recorded in the Year 1969 Concerning the Stonewall Riots", www.davidcarterauthor.com/downloads/1969%20accounts%20combined; accessed 06/23/12.
- Russ Fischer (June 25, 2011). "The Coen Bros. New Script is Based on the 60′s NYC Folk Scene". /Film. Retrieved June 25, 2011.
- Van Ronk & Wald (2005). pp. 113-114.
- Van Ronk & Wald (2005). p 88: "... The LP was issued as Fo'c'sle Songs and Chanties, by Paul Clayton and the Fo'c'sle Singers, and has remained in the Folkways ..."
- Chris Welch (April 5, 2002). "Dave Van Ronk". Obituary. London: The Independent. Archived from the original on August 12, 2010. Retrieved August 12, 2010.
- Dave Van Ronk – The Mayor of MacDougal Street, About the book. ElijahWald.com.
- Dave Walsh (May 7, 1998). "A Conversation with Dave Van Ronk". World Socialist Web Site. Archived from the original on October 19, 1999.
- Steven Wirz. Illustrated Dave Van Ronk discography
- Otto Bost (June 30, 2004). Dave Van Ronk Street Renaming Ceremony Photo essay. OttoFocus.net
- Charles Freudenthal (August 2005). Walking Down Dave Van Ronk Street. Anecdotes. e*I*21. (Vol. 4 No. 4)
- Lee Hoffman (2010). Lee Hoffman, My Folknik Days. Anecdotes. Gary Ross Hofmann.
- Dave Van Ronk Discography. Smithsonian Folkways.
- John Pareles (February 12, 2002). Dave Van Ronk, Folk Singer And Iconoclast, Dies at 65. New York Times.