In praise of Dave Van Ronk


I’ve been reading Dave Van Ronk’s memoir, The Mayor of McDougal Street (Da Capo Press), on account of it being the loose inspiration for the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, one of the best films about music and thwarted ambition that I’ve ever seen. Some incidents reappear in the film although Van Ronk was never quite as unlucky as Llewyn. It left me wishing that I’d read it before I wrote the folk chapters in 33 Revolutions Per Minute, and that I’d had the chance to interview him before his death in 2002. Frankly, the book is so funny, candid, insightful and unpretentious that it’s impossible to read it without wishing you could meet the guy. Here are my nine favourite passages, some of which are still relevant in different contexts in 2013, in order to encourage you to read it. (That said, dear publishers, if I quote too much here let me know and I’ll take it down asap.) Oh, and see the movie too.

On the 1950s jazz wars

The modernists were aesthetic Darwinists, arguing that jazz has to progress and that later forms must necessarily be superior to earlier ones. The traditionalists were Platonists, insisting that early jazz was “pure” and that all subsequent developments and dilutions and degenerations. This comic donnybrook dominated jazz criticism for ten or fifteen years, with neither side capable of seeing the strengths of the other, until it finally subsided and died, probably from sheer boredom. Before that point, though, a lot of otherwise sensible people had made asses of themselves.

On playing the banjo

So I switched over and quickly became one of the worst tenor banjo players on the trad scene. And to be the worst at tenor banjo, you’re really competing, because that’s a fast track.

On protest songs

For myself, I was always ready to go to a rally or a demonstration or a benefit for this, that, or the other cause, and to sing my songs, but I did very little political material. It did not suit my style, and I never did it that convincingly. I just did not have that kind of voice or that kind of presence. Also, although I am a singer and have always had strong political views, I felt that my politics were no more relevant to my music than they would have been to the work of any other craftsman. Just because you are a cabinet maker and a leftist, are you supposed to make left-wing cabinets?

On working for free (late 50s article)

I know several folksingers who have taken jobs without pay, not quite understanding that aside from its artistic nature, singing in front of an audience is work like any other job and that even if they do not need or want pay a great many of their colleagues do and that in any other line of endeavor their practices are referred to as scabbing and its practitioners are known as scabs.

On the young Bob Dylan

He had a lot of stories about who he was and where he came from, and he never seemed to be able to keep them straight. I think that’s one reason Bobby never gave good interviews: his thinking is so convoluted that he simply does not know how to level, because he’s always thinking of the effect that he’s having on whoever he’s talking to.

On drugs

The Cambridge drugs scene was actually a lot like the Cambridge folk scene, in that everything was intellectualized. Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert had created this enormous theoretical structure based on “expanding your mind,” and it was all a crock of pseudomystical horseshit and petit bourgeois rationalization to justify getting stoned.

On the New Left

Most of those people were not really radicals, just a bunch of very pissed-off liberals. They had no grounding, and indeed no interest, in theory, and their disdain for studying history and learning economics infuriated me. The core problem with the New Left was that it wasn’t an ideology, it was a mood—and if you are susceptible to one mood, you are susceptible to another.

On the issue of whether white singers should cover material by black artists

The whole debate was a tempest in a teapot, generated by critics who needed something to write about… Forty years later, on somber reflection, having fully studied the arguments on both sides, I have reached what I believe to be a measured and definitive judgment on the matter: Who cares?

On purists

It is like the old socialist I knew who was an editor of a newspaper in the early 1960s: A bunch of New Leftists marched into his office and presented him with a set of nonnegotiable demands, insisting that he change this, that, and the other thing about what he was printing. He listened to them as long as he could stand it and then just said, “I’ve been a socialist for fifty years. Do you know what you’re going to be ten years from now? You’re going to be dentists.”

1 Comment

  1. Yes, that’s a good enough digest for me; I’m off to check out Dave VR. I was partially aware of the guy beforehand but his perspective and context seems fresh and relevant.

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