Dave Van Ronk

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Dave Van Ronk
Dave Van Ronk.jpg
Dave Van Ronk performs at the 1968 Philadelphia Folk Festival.
Background information
Birth nameDavid Kenneth Ritz Van Ronk
Born(1936-06-30)June 30, 1936
Brooklyn, New York City, New York, United States
DiedFebruary 10, 2002(2002-02-10) (aged 65)
New York City, New York, United States
Genres Folk, ragtime, blues, country blues
InstrumentsGuitar, piano
Years active1959–2002
Labels Folkways

David Kenneth Ritz Van Ronk (June 30, 1936 February 10, 2002) was an American folk singer. An important figure in the American folk music revival and New York City's Greenwich Village scene in the 1960s, he was nicknamed the "Mayor of MacDougal Street".

American folk music revival

The American folk music revival began during the 1940s and peaked in popularity in the mid-1960s. Its roots went earlier, and performers like Josh White, Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy, Richard Dyer-Bennet, Oscar Brand, Jean Ritchie, John Jacob Niles, Susan Reed, Paul Robeson and Cisco Houston had enjoyed a limited general popularity in the 1930s and 1940s. The revival brought forward styles of American folk music that had, in earlier times, contributed to the development of country and western, jazz, and rock and roll music.

Greenwich Village Neighborhood of Manhattan in New York City

Greenwich Village often referred to by locals as simply "the Village", is a neighborhood on the west side of Manhattan, New York City, within Lower Manhattan. Broadly, Greenwich Village is bounded by 14th Street to the north, Broadway to the east, Houston Street to the south, and the Hudson River to the west. Greenwich Village also contains several subsections, including the West Village west of Seventh Avenue and the Meatpacking District in the northwest corner of Greenwich Village.

MacDougal Street Street in Manhattan, New York

MacDougal Street is a one-way street in the Greenwich Village and SoHo neighborhoods of Manhattan, New York City. The street is bounded on the south by Prince Street and on the north by West 8th Street; its numbering begins in the south. Between Waverly Place and West 3rd Street it carries the name Washington Square West and the numbering scheme changes, running north to south, beginning with #29 Washington Square West at Waverly Place and ending at #37 at West 3rd Street. Traffic on the street runs southbound (downtown).


Van Ronk's work ranged from old English ballads to 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, and Joni Mitchell. Bob Dylan recorded Van Ronk's arrangement of the traditional song "House of the Rising Sun" on his first album, which the Animals turned into a chart-topping rock single in 1964, [1] helping inaugurate the folk-rock movement. [2]

Blues is a music genre and musical form which was originated in the Deep South of the United States around the 1870s by African Americans from roots in African musical traditions, African-American work songs, and spirituals. Blues incorporated spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts, chants, and rhymed simple narrative ballads. The blues form, ubiquitous in jazz, rhythm and blues and rock and roll, is characterized by the call-and-response pattern, the blues scale and specific chord progressions, of which the twelve-bar blues is the most common. Blue notes, usually thirds, fifths or sevenths flattened in pitch are also an essential part of the sound. Blues shuffles or walking bass reinforce the trance-like rhythm and form a repetitive effect known as the groove.

Gospel music is a genre of Christian music. The creation, performance, significance, and even the definition of gospel music varies according to culture and social context. Gospel music is composed and performed for many purposes, including aesthetic pleasure, religious or ceremonial purposes, and as an entertainment product for the marketplace. Gospel music usually has dominant vocals with Christian lyrics. Gospel music can be traced to the early 17th century, with roots in the black oral tradition. Hymns and sacred songs were often repeated in a call and response fashion. Most of the churches relied on hand clapping and foot stomping as rhythmic accompaniment. Most of the singing was done a cappella. The first published use of the term "gospel song" probably appeared in 1874. The original gospel songs were written and composed by authors such as George F. Root, Philip Bliss, Charles H. Gabriel, William Howard Doane, and Fanny Crosby. Gospel music publishing houses emerged. The advent of radio in the 1920s greatly increased the audience for gospel music. Following World War II, gospel music moved into major auditoriums, and gospel music concerts became quite elaborate.

Rock music is a broad genre of popular music that originated as "rock and roll" in the United States in the early 1950s, and developed into a range of different styles in the 1960s and later, particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom. It has its roots in 1940s and 1950s rock and roll, a style which drew heavily from the genres of blues, rhythm and blues, and from country music. Rock music also drew strongly from a number of other genres such as electric blues and folk, and incorporated influences from jazz, classical and other musical styles. Musically, rock has centered on the electric guitar, usually as part of a rock group with electric bass, drums, and one or more singers. Usually, rock is song-based music usually with a 4/4 time signature using a verse–chorus form, but the genre has become extremely diverse. Like pop music, lyrics often stress romantic love but also address a wide variety of other themes that are frequently social or political.

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. [3]

American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers American not-for-profit performance-rights organization

The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers is an American non-profit performance-rights organization (PRO) that protects its members' musical copyrights by monitoring public performances of their music, whether via a broadcast or live performance, and compensating them accordingly.

Life and career

Van Ronk was born in Brooklyn to a family that was "mostly Irish, despite the Dutch name". [4] He moved from Brooklyn to Queens around 1945 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.[ citation needed ]

Brooklyn Borough in New York City and county in New York state, United States

Brooklyn is a borough of New York City coterminous with Kings County, the most populous county in the U.S. state of New York and the second-most densely populated county in the United States. It is New York City's most populous borough, with an estimated 2,504,700 residents in 2010. Named after the Dutch village of Breukelen, it borders the borough of Queens at the western end of Long Island. Brooklyn has several bridge and tunnel connections to the borough of Manhattan across the East River, and the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge connects it with Staten Island.

Queens Borough in New York City and county in New York, United States

Queens is the easternmost of the five boroughs of New York City, coterminous with Queens County. It is the largest borough geographically and is adjacent to the borough of Brooklyn at the southwestern end of Long Island. To its east is Nassau County. Queens also shares water borders with the boroughs of Manhattan and the Bronx. The borough of Queens is the second largest in population, with an estimated 2,358,582 residents in 2017, approximately 48 percent of them foreign-born. Queens County also is the second most populous county in the U.S. state of New York, behind Brooklyn, which is coterminous with Kings County. Queens is the fourth most densely populated county among New York City's boroughs, as well as in the United States. If each of New York City's boroughs were an independent city, Queens would be the nation's fourth most populous, after Los Angeles, Chicago, and Brooklyn. Queens is the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world.

Barbershop music type of vocal harmony

Barbershop vocal harmony, as codified during the barbershop revival era (1930s–present), is a style of a cappella close harmony, or unaccompanied vocal music, characterized by consonant four-part chords for every melody note in a predominantly homophonic texture. Each of the four parts has its own role: generally, the lead sings the melody, the tenor harmonizes above the melody, the bass sings the lowest harmonizing notes, and the baritone completes the chord, usually below the lead. The melody is not usually sung by the tenor or baritone, except for an infrequent note or two to avoid awkward voice leading, in tags or codas, or when some appropriate embellishment can be created. One characteristic feature of barbershop harmony is the use of what is known as "snakes" and "swipes". This is when a chord is altered by a change in one or more non-melodic voices. Occasional passages may be sung by fewer than four voice parts.

His first professional gigs playing tenor banjola 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 trad jazz revival had already passed its prime, and Van Ronk turned to performing blues he had stumbled across while shopping for jazz 78s, 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.[ citation needed ]

Trad jazz

Trad jazz, or "traditional jazz", was a form of jazz played in Britain during the 1950s and 1960s. British musicians such as Chris Barber, Acker Bilk, Kenny Ball, Ken Colyer, and Monty Sunshine tried to revive the New Orleans jazz that started in America in the early 1900s. Bands were arranged in the New Orleans format of trumpet, trombone, clarinet, banjo, double bass, and drums. Musicians in the band of Acker Bilk wore clothing from the period. Repertoire of bands included jazz versions of pop songs and nursery rhymes. The brief revival ended in 1965.

Furry Lewis blues guitarist and songwriter

Walter E. "Furry" Lewis was an American country blues guitarist and songwriter from Memphis, Tennessee. He was one of the first of the blues musicians active in the 1920s to be brought out of retirement and given new opportunities to record during the folk blues revival of the 1960s.

Mississippi John Hurt American country blues singer and guitarist

John Smith Hurt, better known as Mississippi John Hurt, was an American country blues singer and guitarist.

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. At one point, he was considered for a folk-pop trio with Peter Yarrow. Van Ronk's voice and style were considered too idiosyncratic and the role eventually went to Noel Paul Stookey (who became the "Paul" in Peter, Paul and Mary).[ citation needed ]

Jazz is a music genre that originated in the African-American communities of New Orleans, United States. It originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and developed from roots in blues and ragtime. Jazz is seen by many as "America's classical music". Since the 1920s Jazz Age, jazz has become recognized as a major form of musical expression. It then emerged in the form of independent traditional and popular musical styles, all linked by the common bonds of African-American and European-American musical parentage with a performance orientation. Jazz is characterized by swing and blue notes, call and response vocals, polyrhythms and improvisation. Jazz has roots in West African cultural and musical expression, and in African-American music traditions including blues and ragtime, as well as European military band music. Intellectuals around the world have hailed jazz as "one of America's original art forms".

Folk music Music of the people

Folk music includes traditional folk music and the genre that evolved from it during the 20th-century folk revival. Some types of folk music may be called world music. Traditional folk music has been defined in several ways: as music transmitted orally, music with unknown composers, or music performed by custom over a long period of time. It has been contrasted with commercial and classical styles. The term originated in the 19th century, but folk music extends beyond that.

Peter Yarrow American singer

Peter Yarrow is an American singer and songwriter who found fame with the 1960s folk music trio Peter, Paul and Mary. Yarrow co-wrote one of the group's greatest hits, "Puff, the Magic Dragon". He is also a political activist and has supported liberal causes that range from opposition to the Vietnam War to the creation of Operation Respect, an organization that promotes tolerance and civility in schools.

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", [5] 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 [6] ). 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". [7] Although Van Ronk was less politically active in later years, he remained committed to anarchist and socialist ideals and was a dues-paying member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) almost until his death.

Van Ronk was among 13 people arrested at the Stonewall Inn June 28, 1969—the night of the Stonewall Riots, which is widely credited as the start of the gay rights movement. Van Ronk had been dining at a neighboring restaurant, joined the riot against the Stonewall's police occupation, and was dragged from the crowd into the building by police deputy inspector Seymour Pine. [8] [9] [10] The police slapped and punched Van Ronk to the point of near unconsciousness, handcuffed him to a radiator near the doorway, and decided to charge him for assault. [11] Recalling the expanding riot, Van Ronk said, "There were more people out there [outside the building] when I came out than when I went in. Things were still flying through the air, cacophony—I mean, just screaming and yelling, sirens, strobe lights, the whole spaghetti." [12] The next day, he was arrested and later released on his own recognizance for having thrown a heavy object at a police officer. [13] City records show he was charged with felony assault in the second degree [14] and pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of harassment, classified in 1969 as a violation under pL 240.25.

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, [15] 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".[ citation needed ]

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.[ citation needed ]

In 2004, a section of Sheridan Square, where Barrow Street meets Washington Place, was renamed Dave Van Ronk Street in his memory. [16]

Cultural impact

Van Ronk can be described as an irreverent and incomparable guitar artist and interpreter of black blues and folk, with an uncannily precise ability at impersonation. 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, for which he credits Tom Paley as fingerpicking teacher, is noteworthy for both syncopation and precision. 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 Dylan and similar artists 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." In his autobiography Bob Dylan states, "I'd heard Van Ronk back in the Midwest on records and thought he was pretty great, copied some of his recordings phrase for phrase. [...] Van Ronk could howl and whisper, turn blues into ballads and ballads into blues. I loved his style. He was what the city was all about. In Greenwich Village, Van Ronk was king of the street, he reigned supreme." [17]

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".[ citation needed ] His song "Last Call" is the source of the title of Lawrence Block's book When the Sacred Ginmill Closes.[ citation needed ]

The Coen brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis follows a folk singer similar to Van Ronk, and incorporates anecdotes based on Van Ronk's life. [18] [19]

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). [20] Van Ronk's trademark stoneware jug of Tullamore Dew was frequently seen on stage next to him in his early days.

Critic 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 (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 (Bob) Dylan.


Studio albums


Compilation albums

As guest


Van Ronk was author of a posthumous memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street (2005) written with Elijah Wald. [5] Anecdotes from the book were used as a source for the film Inside Llewyn Davis . [18] [19]

Van Ronk and Richard Ellington collected and edited The Bosses' Songbook: [32] Songs to Stifle the Flames of Discontent, Second Edition – A Collection of Modern Political Songs and Satire (Richard Ellington, publisher: New York, 1959). This originally 50¢ staple-bound paperback of lyrics in 1959 carried an asking price of $265 on AbeBooks.com (accessed February 6, 2015); the booklet is downloadable as two files. [23] [24]

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  1. Larry Rother. "For a Village Troubadour, a Late Encore", The New York Times, December 5, 2013.
  2. Eric Von Schmidt and Jim Rooney (June, 1994), p. 261. Baby, Let Me Follow You Down: The Illustrated History of the Cambridge Folk Years.
  3. Chris Morris (February 12, 2002). "Influential Folk Artist Dave Van Ronk Dies", Billboard Bulletin; archived at AllBusiness.com; accessed June 21, 2016.
  4. Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll. p. 255, Pearson: 1987; ISBN   0137822936
  5. 1 2 Dave Van Ronk, Elijah Wald (2005). The Mayor of MacDougal Street. New York: Da Capo Press. p. 230. ISBN   978-0306814792.
  6. 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.
  7. "He Was A Friend of Mine (Just A Hand To Hold)". Grateful Dead Lyric & Song Finder. Archived from the original on July 8, 2011. Retrieved August 13, 2010.Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  8. Bausum, Ann (2015). "Chapter 5: Revolution". Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights (1st ed.). Viking. pp. 50–51.
  9. Lucian Truscott IV (July 3, 1969). "Gay Power Comes to Sheridan Square" (Transcript). Village Voice. Retrieved August 14, 2010. page scans
  10. Carter, David (2010). Stonewall: The riots that sparked the gay revolution. St. Martin’s Griffin. ISBN   0312671938.
  11. Howard Smith (July 3, 1969). "Full Moon over the Stonewall". The Village Voice. Retrieved July 2, 2019.
  12. Carter, David (2010). Stonewall: The Riots That Started the Gay Revolution (1st ed.). Griffin. p. 174.
  13. 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.
  14. Criminal Court of the City of New York, docket number A9798: original charge against Van Ronk: pL 120.05
  15. Terri Thal Dave Van Ronk's Ex-Wife Takes Us Inside Inside Llewyn Davis Archived 2015-02-25 at the Wayback Machine , Village Voice, December 13, 2013.
  16. Dave Van Ronk street naming ceremony & pictures by Otto Bost. Archived 2008-07-03 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved July 9, 2008.
  17. Dylan, Bob (Oct 11, 2004). "Chapter 1: Markin' Up the Score". Chronicles: Volume One (illustrated ed.). Simon & Schuster. pp. 15–16. ISBN   0743272587.
  18. 1 2 Russ Fischer (June 25, 2011). "The Coen Bros. New Script is Based on the 60′s NYC Folk Scene". slashfilm.com. Retrieved June 25, 2011.
  19. 1 2 "the Coens mined the work "for local color and a few scenes": Wald, Elija. "The World of LLewyn Davis". Inside Llewyn Davis official site. CBS Films. Retrieved September 24, 2013.
  20. Van Ronk & Wald (2005). pp. 113-114.
  21. Chris Welch (April 5, 2002). "Dave Van Ronk". Obituary. London: The Independent. Archived from the original on April 24, 2011. Retrieved August 12, 2010.Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  22. 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 ..."
  23. http://www.sds-1960s.org/TheBossesSongbookPart1.pdf
  24. http://www.sds-1960s.org/TheBossesSongbookPart2.pdf