Dave Van Ronk’s The Mayor of MacDougal Street is a constructed autobiography, pieced together by the singer’s friend and admirer Elijah Wald after Van Ronk died of cancer in 2002. Elijah Wald is a roots-music scholar who has also written books like How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. Eleven years later, the book he produced from interview recordings and memoir fragments would have given Van Ronk the pleasure of seeing his name pop up in lights as a primary source for the new Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis.
Dave Van Ronk would have relished the irony, because his failed flirtations with fame became legendary by the time he died. Flirtation with fame provides the primary plotline for Inside Llewyn Davis, a movie I got excited about when I first heard of its Dave Van Ronk connection, and enjoyed very much when I finally got to see it.
I don’t always love a Coen Brothers movie (especially, for instance, when it’s a Coen Brothers movie of a Cormac McCarthy novel), but I do always love the music in a Coen Brothers movie. Inside Llewyn Davis is a bonanza of great folk tunes, and the soundtrack is especially rewarding for displaying the wide variety of musical styles of the early 1960s folk boom: Irish brother groups, sea shanty singers, “early music” experts, Appalachian authentics, Beat poets, corny comedians, harmony crewcut groups. Despite the great music, Inside LLewyn Davis isn’t quite as spectacular a snapshot of 1960s Greenwich Village culture as their previous O Brother Where Art Thou? was of 1930s Mississippi Delta blues and bluegrass culture. It’s a sadder and smaller movie than O Brother, but the film’s connection to Van Ronk’s Mayor of MacDougal Street amounts to a surprising honor for this little-known but important musician.
Inside Llewyn Davis is not actually based on Van Ronk’s memoir, though the memoir is cited and referenced often. It’s a good guess that the Coen Brothers played up the Van Ronk connection to throw off the scent left by the movie’s frequent nods towards Bob Dylan; just as O Brother Where Art Thou was really about Robert Johnson’s Delta crossroads milieu, one suspects that the original idea of Inside Llewyn Davis may have been to make a film about Bob Dylan’s early New York City milieu. (The Welsh name “Llewyn Davis” is another indication of the Dylan origination.) But it’s not easy to get film rights for Bob Dylan material, so the filmmakers might have chosen Van Ronk’s book as a good workaround that could bring them to the same place.
The hidden connection is especially evident in the movie’s gorgeous Greenwich Village street settings, which strongly resemble the charming cover of Freewheelin Bob Dylan. I hope this will earn Inside‘s production designer Jess Gonchor an Oscar. (Personal note: Jess Gonchor happens to be my step-cousin, and I knew him as a kid, though strangely I don’t remember ever talking to him about movies! I haven’t seen him in years, but I hope I’ll see him soon on TV waving a golden statue.)
The story of Llewyn Davis’s degrading failure to invent himself as a superstar does come directly from Mayor of MacDougal Street. The memoir shows many similarities between Llewyn Davis and Dave Van Ronk, as well as many differences.
Like Llewyn Davis, Van Ronk hated squeaky-clean commercial folk acts like the Kingston Trio. He once turned down an invitation to join Peter, Paul and Mary. Like Oscar Isaac, the movie’s musically talented star, Van Ronk played a sweet, syncopated, chiming fingerpicking blues style that is commonly known as either ragtime guitar or Piedmont style. (Oscar Isaac doesn’t play the Piedmont blues quite as well as Van Ronk in real life, but who does?) Also, like Llewyn Davis, Dave Van Ronk liked cats.
But there are gigantic differences too. Unlike Llewyn Davis, Dave Van Ronk was a cheerful and gregarious extrovert, a natural entertainer with a comically gruff manner and bearish physique. Unlike Llewyn, he was married and had his own New York City apartment (he did not sleep on other folksinger’s couches — they slept on his). Van Ronk’s first wife Terri, who he remains happily married to through most of Mayor, has expounded on the difference between Llewyn Davis and Von Ronk in this helpful Village Voice piece.
Dave Van Ronk was a few years older than Bob Dylan, and was already established on the Greenwich Village folk music scene when young Dylan showed up in 1961. Van Ronk welcomed Dylan into the scene, after which Dylan famously stole his older friend’s clever arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun” to feature on his first album. The story of this theft is well known, but in fact many other songs from Dylan’s delightful first album were also swiped from Van Ronk’s setlists, and Dylan would continue to add ingredients from the Dave Van Ronk musical stew (Brecht/Weill, Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Willie McTell, Bing Crosby) to his own songbook for years. Dylan also, arguably, took many of his wild vocal stylings (growling and elongating, fumbling for beats, alternating between animalistic shouts, yowling bends and sudden tender falsettos) from his older friend.
But Dave Van Ronk’s musical influence doesn’t end with Bob Dylan. I’ve been a Hot Tuna freak all my life, but I discovered only in recent years that much of the Hot Tuna songbook was picked up from Dave Van Ronk — including my favorite Tuna song (though Jorma and Jack do play it better). The Allman Brothers picked up Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” from a Dave Van Ronk record. The Grateful Dead picked up Rev. Gary Davis’s “Samson and Delilah” from Van Ronk, the Doors the rock arrangement of Brecht’s “Alabama Song”. All of this indirect influence casts an interesting light on the sad sack saga of Inside Llewyn Davis: while Dave Van Ronk never got to be a star, he did enjoy much appreciation and respect from his peers. We can also presume that Van Ronk got to dine out on the Bob Dylan “House of the Rising Sun” story quite often over the decades.
Dave Van Ronk considered himself a professional blues singer, and appraised himself a fairly good one. He was enthused by jazz, enchanted by Broadway’s golden age, amused by rock and roll, strangely disinterested in country/western, and mockingly dismissive of the oxymoronic idea of commercial folk music (though he allowed his third album to be called “Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger” at the height of the craze in 1963). Mayor of MacDougal Street is packed with the intelligent musings of an expert ethnomusicologist. Here, he narrates a childhood experience with a local music teacher in Briarwood, Queens:
To be a musician requires a qualitatively different kind of listening, and that is what he was teaching us.
He used to play tricks on us. I remember one time he put on a Count Basie record, and it was one of those arrangements with a recurring theme, a riff going on and it builds and builds. By about the third chorus it was raising the roof, and Jack said, “Watch what’s the rhythm section’s doing during that chorus.”
Two of three of us said, “Well, they’ve sped up a little, haven’t they?”
He said, “Let’s set a metronome and see.”
So we backed up a couple of choruses, set the metronome so that it was keeping the same time as the band, and listened to what happened. It turned out that we were right in a way, because the tempo did change. By that chorus the rhythm section had slowed down slightly — just a little, but you could tell from the metronome. So it was just the opposite of what we had thought: the tempo had slowed, and that was creating this fantastic tension.
Early chapters cover the political years of the rising folk music movement in Greenwich Village (Van Ronk calls himself a Marxist, but found political lyrics boring and rarely sang protest songs), while later ones cover the wave of wealth and fame that followed the folk music explosion of the early 1960s. He has affectionate words for Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and especially Phil Ochs, his fellow Dylan “left-behind”, who tragically committed suicide after his career sputtered in the 1970s. Van Ronk’s high regard for Phil Ochs is surprising but fitting, and the Phil Ochs stories in this book help us to remember that, while Van Ronk was not actually destroyed by his failure to achieve commercial success, Phil Ochs was.
Another musician and songwriter who earns Van Ronk’s highest praise is Joni Mitchell, who was also the adoring constant subject of Graham Nash’s memoir, recently reviewed here. With all these other memoirists singing her praises, will Joni Mitchell write her own autobiography soon?
Some of the book’s best stories are about classic blues songwriter Rev. Gary Davis, who Van Ronk performed and traveled with frequently, and whose “Cocaine Blues” became one of Van Ronk’s most well known songs:
Sometime in the mid-seventies, I ran into Jackson Browne on the street, and he said, “Hey, Dave, I just recorded one of your songs.” At that point things were pretty slow and the royalties from a Jackson Browne record would have made a big difference, so I was very happy, and I said, “Man, that’s nice. Which one?” And he said, “Cocaine Blues.” I said, “Jackson, that’s a Gary Davis song, and here’s who you contact to send the royalties to his estate. Now get away from me before you see a grown man cry.”
Towards the end of Mayor of MacDougal Street, Van Ronk tries to gain perspective on the life he’s lived:
This habit of showing up just in time to miss an incandescence seems to be a signature trait of mine. I am like a bellwether: “Uh-oh, here come Van Ronk. The party must be over.” There have been a couple of exceptions, but when people burble at me, “Oh what a colorful life you’ve led!” I am tempted to tell them, “Look, I’ve known people who were busted with Emma Goldman, worked the river boards with Louis Armstrong, beat Marcel Duchamp at chess, bunked with Bix, hopped freights with Joe Hill, and shot grouse with Leon Trotsky. That’s colorful.” On the other hand, I have a sneaking suspicion that when Pericles hit Athens, everybody told him: “Boy! You should have been here last year, the joint was really jumping.” You takes what you can get.
It’s funny that Van Ronk was mainly a singer and not a songwriter, because he sure has a way with words. Here’s a typical passage, a watercolor painting of New York City in snow:
The winter of 1960-61 was a real momzer — snow up to your ear balls and colder than a grave digger’s butt. Terri and I were living in Chelsea and it seemed to take forever to slog through the drifts down to MacDougal. But there was something very cozy about it. Partly because of the weather, it was to be the last time from that day to this that we had the neighborhood to ourselves. The tourist avalanche of the next summer was undreamed of, and on the street or in the joints, you hardly saw a soul you didn’t know.
This footnote appears after Van Ronk mentions that Phil Ochs was “one of the last jacket-and-tie holdouts” among the folk-singing crew:
I never understood how anyone could sing while wearing a tie. I wore a suit for concerts a few times in the 1950s because that was considered the appropriate attire, but I always felt as if my tie was strangling me. Save the noose till after the show …
Here’s another footnote in the same format — apparently footnotes are where Van Ronk details the things he never understood:
I never understood why everyone wanted to move out to Woodstock. I liked the Village, and I still like it, and I would not like to live anywhere else. The country is a city for birds.
I had a chance to see Dave Van Ronk perform live once, though at the time I barely knew who he was, except that I knew the story of how Bob Dylan swiped “House of the Rising Sun”. This was in 1995 at a book party and reading arranged by Kerouac scholar Ann Charters at St. Marks Church in New York City.
It happens that Ann Charters is married to Sam Charters, Dave Van Ronk’s close friend and musical collaborator (they were in a jug band together) and a legendary Delta Blues expert. This must be why Dave Van Ronk made an appearance with his guitar at this event. When they announced his name, all I knew about him was the “Rising Sun” story, and I had never heard him sing.
Then I heard Dave Van Ronk pluck his pretty notes and shout his gravelly words, and within microseconds I forgot about the Dylan gossip and simply enjoyed soaking in some transcendent, hilarious, inventive music. I’ve been a Dave Van Ronk fan ever since.
Here he is performing “Candy Man”, a Rev. Gary Davis song, in Philadelphia in 1981.
And here’s his “St. James Infirmary”, also known as “Gambler’s Blues”, at the Barns at Wolf Trap in Northern Virginia in 1997.