Thursday, December 10, 2015
When The Tin Can Bended…. In The Time Of The Late Folk-Singer Dave Van Ronk’s Time
When The Tin Can Bended…. In The Time Of The Late Folk-Singer Dave Van Ronk’s Time
From The Pen Of Bart Webber
Sometimes Sam Lowell and his “friend” (really “sweetie,” long time sweetie, paramour, significant other, consort or whatever passes for the socially acceptable or Census Bureau bureaucratic “speak” way to name somebody who is one’s soulmate, his preferred term) Laura Perkins whose relationship to Sam was just described in parenthesis, and righteously so, liked to go to Crane’s Beach in Ipswich to either cool off in the late summer heat. July when they really would like to go there to catch a few fresh sea breezes not being a period to show up at the bleach white sands beach due to nasty blood-sucking green flies swarming and dive-bombing like some berserk renegade Air Force squadron lost on a spree who breed in the nearby swaying mephitic marshes the only “safe haven” then is to drive up the hill to the nearby Crane Castle to get away from the buggers as the well-to-do have been doing since there were well-to-do and had the where-with-all to escape the summer heat and bugs at higher altitudes. By the way I assume that “castle” is capitalized when it part of a huge estate, the big ass estate of Crane, now a trust monument to the first Gilded Age, not today’s neo-Gilded Age, architectural proclivities of the rich, the guy whose company did, does all the plumbing fixture stuff on half the bathrooms in America including the various incantations of the mansion.
Along the way, along the hour way to get to Ipswich from Cambridge they had developed a habit of making the time more easy passing by listening to various CDs, inevitably not listened to for a long time folk CDs, so long that the plastic containers needed to be dusted off before brought along, on the car CD player. And is their wont to comment on this or that thing that some song brought to mind, or the significance of some song in their youth. One of the things that brought them together early on was their mutual interest in the old 1960s folk minute which Sam, a little older and having grown up within thirty miles of Harvard Square, one the big folk centers of that period along with the Village and North Beach out in Frisco town, had imbibed deeply and which Laura, growing up “in the sticks,” in farm country in upstate New York had gotten second-hand through records and a little the fading Cambridge folk scene when she had moved to Boston in the early 1970s to go to graduate school.
One hot late August day they got into one such discussion about how they first developed an interest in folk music when Sam had said “sure everybody, everybody over the age of say fifty to be on the safe side, knows about Bob Dylan, maybe a little younger too if some hip kids have browsed through their parents’ old vinyl record collections now safely ensconced in the attic although there are stirrings of retro-vinyl revival of late. Some of that over 50 crowd and their young acolytes would also know about how Dylan, after serving something like an apprenticeship under the influence of Woody Guthrie in the late 1950s singing Woody’s songs in his style something fellow Woody acolytes like Ramblin’ Jack Elliot never quite got over when he moved on but who has actually made a nice workman-like career out of Woody covers, became if not the voice of the Generation of ’68, their generation, which he probably did not seriously aspire in the final analysis, then the master troubadour of the age.”
He continued when Laura said she was not sure about the connection, “troubadour in the medieval sense of bringing news to the people and entertaining them by song and poetry as well if not decked in some officially approved garb like back in those olden days where they worked under a king’s license if lucky, by their wit otherwise but the “new wave” post-beatnik flannel shirt, work boots, and dungarees which connected you with the roots, the American folk roots down in the Piedmont, down in Appalachia, down in Mister James Crow’s Delta. So, yes, that story has been pretty well covered.”
Laura said she knew all of that although not that Ramblin’ Jack had been an acolyte of Woody’s but she wondered about others, some other folk performers who she listened to on WUMB on Saturday morning when some weeping willow DJ put forth about fifty old time rock and folk things a lot of which she had never heard of back in Mechanicsville outside of Albany where she grew up. Sam then started in again, “Of course that is hardly the end of the story since Dylan did not create that now hallowed folk minute of the early 1960s. He had been washed by it when he came to the East from Hibbing, Minnesota for God’s sake (via Dink’s at the University), came into the Village where there was a cauldron of talent trying to make folk the next big thing, the next big cultural thing for the young and restless of the post-World War II generations. Us, but also those in little oases like the Village where the disaffected could put up on stuff they couldn’t get in places like Mechanicsville or Carver where I grew up. People who I guess, since even I was too young to know about that red scare stuff except to follow your teacher’s orders to put your head under your desk and hand over your head if the nuclear holocaust was coming, were frankly fed up with the cultural straightjacket of the red scare Cold War times and began seriously looking as hard at roots in all its manifestations as our parents, definitely mind, yours were just weird about stuff like that, right, were burying those same roots under a vanilla existential Americanization. How do you like that for pop sociology 101.”
“One of the talents who was already there when hick Dylan came a calling, lived there, came from around there was the late Dave Van Ronk who we have heard several times in person, although unfortunately when his health and well-being were declining. You know he also, deservedly, fancied himself a folk historian as well as musician.”
“Here’s the funny thing, Laura, that former role is important because we all know that behind the “king” is the “fixer man,” the guy who knows what is what, the guy who tells one and all what the roots of the matter were like some mighty mystic (although in those days when he fancied himself a socialist that mystic part was played down). Dave Van Ronk was serious about that part, serious about imparting that knowledge about the little influences that had accumulated during the middle to late 1950s especially around New York which set up that folk minute. New York like I said, Frisco, maybe in small enclaves in L.A. and in precious few other places during those frozen times a haven for the misfits, the outlaws, the outcast, the politically “unreliable,” and the just curious. People like the mistreated Weavers, you know, Pete Seeger and that crowd found refuge there when the hammer came down around their heads from the red-baiters and others like advertisers wo ran for cover to “protect” there precious soap, toothpaste, beer, deodorant or whatever they were mass producing to sell to a hungry pent-ip market. Boston and Cambridge by comparison until late in the 1950s when the Club 47 and other little places started up and the guys and gals who could sing, could write songs, could recite poetry even had a place to show their stuff instead of to the winos, rummies, grifters and conmen who hung out at the Hayes-Bickford or out on the streets could have been any of the thousands of towns who bought into the freeze.”
“Sweetie, I remember one time but I don’t remember where, maybe the Café Nana when that was still around after it had been part of the Club 47 folk circuit for new talent to play and before Harry Reid, who ran the place, died and it closed down, I know it was before we met, so it had to be before the late 1970s Von Ronk told a funny story, actually two funny stories, about the folk scene and his part in that scene as it developed a head of steam in the mid-1950s which will give you an idea about his place in the pantheon. During the late 1950s after the publication of Jack Kerouac’s ground-breaking road wanderlust adventure novel that got young blood stirring, not mine until later since I was clueless on all that stuff except rock and roll, On The Road which I didn’t read until high school, the jazz scene, the cool be-bop jazz scene and poetry reading, poems reflecting off of “beat” giant Allen Ginsberg’s Howl the clubs and coffeehouse of the Village were ablaze with readings and cool jazz, people waiting in line to get in to hear the next big poetic wisdom guy if you can believe that these days when poetry is generally some esoteric endeavor by small clots of devotees just like folk music. The crush of the lines meant that there were several shows per evening. But how to get rid of one audience to bring in another in those small quarters was a challenge. Presto, if you wanted to clear the house just bring in some desperate “from hunger” snarly nasally folk singer for a couple, maybe three songs, and if that did not clear the high art be-bop poetry house then that folk singer was a goner. A goner until the folk minute of the 1960s who probably in that same club then played for the “basket.” You know the “passed hat” which even on a cheap date, and a folk music coffeehouse date was a cheap one in those days like I told you before and you laughed at cheapie me and the “Dutch treat” thing, you felt obliged to throw a few bucks into to show solidarity or something. And so the roots of New York City folk according to the “father.”
Laura interrupted to ask if that “basket” was like the buskers put in front them these days and Sam said yes. And asked about a few of the dates he took to the coffeehouses in those days, just out of curiosity she said, meaning if she had been around would he have taken her there then. He answered that question but since it is an eternally complicated and internal one I have skipped it to let him go on with the other Von Ronk story. He continued with the other funny story like this-“The second story involved his authoritative role as a folk historian who after the folk minute had passed became the subject matter for, well, for doctoral dissertations of course just like today maybe people are getting doctorates in hip-hop or some such subject. Eager young students, having basked in the folk moment in the abstract and with an academic bent, breaking new ground in folk history who would come to him for the “skinny.” Now Van Ronk had a peculiar if not savage sense of humor and a wicked snarly cynic’s laugh but also could not abide academia and its’ barren insider language so when those eager young students came a calling he would give them some gibberish which they would duly note and footnote. Here is the funny part. That gibberish once published in the dissertation would then be cited by some other younger and even more eager students complete with the appropriate footnote. Nice touch, nice touch indeed on that one, right.”
Laura did not answer but laughed, laughed harder as she thought about it having come from that unformed academic background and having read plenty of sterile themes turned inside out.
“As for Van Ronk’s music, his musicianship which he cultivated throughout his life, I think the best way to describe that for me is that one Sunday night in the early 1960s I was listening to the local folk program on WBZ hosted by Dick Summer, who was influential in boosting local folk musician Tom Rush’s career and who was featured on that Tom Rush documentary No Regrets we got for being members of WUMB, when this gravelly-voice guy, sounding like some old mountain pioneer, sang the Kentucky hills classic Fair and Tender Ladies. After that I was hooked on that voice and that depth of feeling that he brought to every song even those of his own creation which tended to be spoofs on some issue of the day.”
Laura laughed at Sam and the intensity with which his expressed his mentioning of the fact that he liked gravelly-voiced guys for some reason. Here is her answer, “You should became when you go up to the third floor to do your “third floor folk- singer” thing and you sing Fair and Tender Ladies I hear this gravelly-voiced guy, sounding like some old mountain pioneer, some Old Testament Jehovah prophet come to pass judgment come that day.”
They both laughed.
Laura then mentioned the various times that had seen Dave Von Ronk before he passed away, not having seen him in his prime, when that voice did sound like some old time prophet, a title he would have probably secretly enjoyed for publicly he was an adamant atheist. Sam went on, “ I saw him perform many times over the years, sometimes in high form and sometimes when drinking too much high-shelf whiskey, Chavis Regal, or something like that not so good. Remember we had expected to see him perform as part of Rosalie Sorrels’ farewell concert at Saunders Theater at Harvard in 2002 I think. He had died a few weeks before. Remember though before that when we had seen him for what turned out to be our last time and I told you he did not look well and had been, as always, drinking heavily and we agreed his performance was subpar. But that was at the end. For a long time he sang well, sang us well with his own troubadour style, and gave us plenty of real information about the history of American folk music. Yeah like he always used to say-“when the tin can bended …..and the story ended.
As they came to the admission booth at the entrance to Crane’s Beach Sam with Carolyn Hester’s song version of Walt Whitman’s On Captain, My Captain on the CD player said “I was on my soap box long enough on the way out here. You’re turn with Carolyn Hester on the way back who you know a lot about and I know zero, okay.” Laura retorted, “Yeah you were definitely on your soap-box but yes we can talk Carolyn Hester because I am going to cover one of her songs at my next “open mic.” And so it goes.