Wednesday, March 04, 2020

When The Tin Can Bended…. In The Time Of The Late Folk-Singer Dave Van Ronk’s Time

Happy Birthday To You-

By Lester Lannon

I am devoted to a local folk station WUMB which is run out of the campus of U/Mass-Boston over near Boston Harbor. At one time this station was an independent one based in Cambridge but went under when their significant demographic base deserted or just passed on once the remnant of the folk minute really did sink below the horizon.

So much for radio folk history except to say that the DJs on many of the programs go out of their ways to commemorate or celebrate the birthdays of many folk, rock, blues and related genre artists. So many and so often that I have had a hard time keeping up with noting those occurrences in this space which after all is dedicated to such happening along the historical continuum.

To “solve” this problem I have decided to send birthday to that grouping of musicians on an arbitrary basis as I come across their names in other contents or as someone here has written about them and we have them in the archives. This may not be the best way to acknowledge them, but it does do so in a respectful manner.   

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” Laura Perkins (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 soul-mate, his preferred term) 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 or in the fall before the New England weather lowers its hammer and the place gets a bit inaccessible. That later summer heat escape valve is a result of the hard fact that July, when they really would like to go there to catch a few fresh sea breezes, is not a time 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 robber-baron days etched Crane Castle to get away from the buggers, although on a stagnant wind day you might have a few vagrant followers, 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 Sam and Laura 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, not listened to for so long that the plastic containers needed to be dusted off before being brought along, on the car CD player. And is their wont while listening to some CD 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 had brought them together early on several years back 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. Laura, growing up “in the sticks,” in farm country in upstate New York had gotten the breeze at second-hand through records, records bought at Cheapo Records and the eternal Sandy's on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge 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 some 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 according a report he had heard on NPR. 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 imitating Woody's style something fellow Woody acolytes like Ramblin’ Jack Elliot never quite got over moved on, got all hung up on high symbolism and obscure references. Funny guys like Jack actually made a nice workman-like career out of Woody covers, so their complaints seen rather hollow now. That over 50s crowd would also know Dylan 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.

Sam continued along that line after Laura had said she was not sure about the connection and he said he meant, “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 about the desperate search for roots 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. For 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 you had 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 mine, 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 as you know we had heard several times in person, although unfortunately when his health and well-being were declining not when he was a young politico and hell-raising folk aspirant. 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 who ran for cover to “protect” their 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 CafĂ© 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 1980s 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 very 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 Sam 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 [Von Ronk's] 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 footnotes. 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 Laura laugh settled Sam continued “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. It turned out to be Von Ronk's version which you know I still play up in the third floor attic. 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 end day time.”

They both laughed. 

Laura then mentioned the various times that they 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.               

Sunday, March 01, 2020


Click in title to link to Wikipedia's entry for Entryism (regroupment, etc.). This source is presented as the starting point for looking at this question, especially as it directs to further links to the famous "French turn" policies of the Trotskyist movement in the 1930s. From there go to the Leon Trotsky Internet Archives for the articles mentioned in the Wikipedia entry. This is important material in thinking through the implications of creating a workers party in America in the first decades of the 21st century.



Recently there has been some discussion here in America about the need to create an umbrella 'left of the Democratic Party' organization, presumably that would encompass the Greens and other smaller left-wing propaganda groups. I have written elsewhere and my byline makes clear where I stand on the issue of the third party bourgeois Green Party. So my comments will be premised on the idea of the advisability or reasonableness of creating such an organization to the exclusion of that party.

To be honest, dear reader, I am not at all clear as to why a discussion of a left, apparently electoral, united front is in the cards today. If one means by left, at least some vaguely socialist program, then I would argue against such an alliance. One of the most notable features of the political landscape of the last couple of decades is that the mass of working people have forsaken for the most part, at least for now, the goal of socialism as a part of their daily existence. If that observation carries any truth internationally it holds doubly true for conditions in the United States.

And that is the nub of the matter. Despite the upsurge in protest activity in the wake of the American-led Iraqi invasion that activity has not generated any kind of mass movement away from the Democratic Party (the place here in America that a knowledgeable leftist would necessarily have to look to observe a break in the norms of bourgeois politics). Thus the creation of some conglomeration of already existing groups, basically propaganda groups with counterposed programs, assuming that the sectoral nature of most groups could be overcome has no objective basis for existence and in the nature of such things would be stillborn.Moreover, a strong argument can be made that such an organization would constitute an impediment to the formation of a mass workers party.

This discussion has made me think, however, that it would not be a bad idea to clear the air about this whole question of left-wing regroupment and entry tactics. For those not familiar with the concept a brief primer. Over the course of working class history various seismic shifts in the political landscape caused mainly by war, revolution or extreme economic dislocation, have created political realignments within the working class movement. Thus, the revolutionary movement is not stranger to this phenomenon.

Over the last 150 years or so there have been numerous realignment of the revolutionary forces beginning with Marx himself before, during and in the aftermath of the 1848 Revolutions. A very famous, influential and decisive regroupment occurred during the Russian Revolution when Trotsky’s Inter-District Organization fused with the Bolsheviks. Lesser examples would include the realignment of the socialist forces between reformism and revolution in the aftermath of that revolution, which formed the basis for the creation of most communist parties and the Communist International. More recent examples in America were the creation of the Socialist Workers Party as the dominant anti-Stalinist leftist organization in American in the aftermath of the labor upsurges of the 1930’s and later the realignment of the student revolutionary movement, based on Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), in the late 1960’s.

I have emphasized these particular examples for a reason. The most notable point is that these realignments came when there was some kind of societal upheaval. More important, from our perspective, is that there was a visible political motion to the left and revolutionary forces were there to take advantage of it. Observing today’s political landscape indicates to me that to merely pose the question of regroupment is to answer it. No, today the real tactics for leftist militants are centered on the united front –March separately (under one’s own banner and program) and Strike together (use collective effort to create political clout on the issue at hand).

If the question of revolutionary regroupment is obscure today then a related question, that of entry into larger leftist political formations, is downright peculiar. But since the question of regroupment was posed I might as well make a comment on this tactic as well. I would argue, as above, that the conditions for entry into larger left labor organizations would not be appropriate at this time, assuming that such organizations existed here in America, of course. The whole point of entry into a larger reformist labor organization is to split it into its reformist and revolutionary components leaving the old organization as a shell, taking the best elements out and making a speedier, faster, more effective revolutionary organization.

But, friends, this requires some kind of organization that is moving leftward. And here the example of the British Labor Party can serve as the consummate example. Despite rather lukewarm threats in the direction of radical positions over the past 100 years the British Labor Party has been, on the whole, an extremely stable reformist electoral organization. While there are good tactical reasons for revolutionaries individually to belong to that party that is a long way from committing one's organization to a full scale entry in order to oust the leadership of that party. History shows that every attempt to do so by British revolutionaries has done nothing but create frustrated, burned out militants. Why? What passes for momentary radical blips on the Labor Party radar soon pass. A long term entry, and that is what leftist organizations have tended to do, thus is the equivalent to political suicide.

To close the subject I will give an example of an entry that made sense in contrast to the sorry Labor Party entry history, although I am still not sure it was worth the price that the organization, the Socialist Workers Party (U.S.), ultimately paid for doing so. I have written on this entry elsewhere in discussing the work of the pioneer American Trotskyist James P, Cannon (see archives under History of American Trotskyism). In the mid-1930’s during the mass labor upsurges in America, which formed the basis for mass trade union organization, in response to the rising menace of international fascism and genuine revulsion at the Stalinist do-nothing policy against it there was both a massive recruitment to and a real left-ward bulge in the previously moribund American Socialist Party.

Leon Trotsky advised and Cannon agreed to, not without internal opposition, an entry into that party. Although the conditions imposed by the Socialist Party leadership in order for the Workers Party of the United States (successor to the Communist League)to gain entry were onerous the almost two years in that organization as an organized tendency before they were booted out gave the Socialist Workers Party something of a small mass base in the organized trade union movement. But in case the reader has wandered off the conditions then were of upsurge and leftward movement. I will take out my magnifying glass to find 1/100th of that condition today. Enough said for now.