Friday, July 20, 2018

*The Folk Historian Struts His Stuff- The Music Of Folksinger (Oops) Jazz Vocalist Dave Van Ronk

The Folk Historian Struts His Stuff- The Music Of Folksinger (Oops) Jazz Vocalist Dave Van Ronk

Click on title to link to YouTube's film clip of Dave Von Ronk performing Josh White's classic "One Meatball". An appropriate song these days.


…and the tin pan bended, and the story ended- Dave Van Ronk, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Washington, D.C., 2004

Although this space is mainly dedicated to reviewing political books and commenting on past and current political issues literary output is hardly the only form of political creation. Occasionally in the history of the American and international left musicians, artists and playwrights have given voice or provided visual reminders to the face of political struggle. With that thought in mind, every once in a while I will use this space to review those kinds of political expression.

My musical tastes were formed, as were many of those of the generation of 1968, by ‘Rock and Roll’ music exemplified by the Rolling Stones and Beatles and by the blues revival, both Delta and Chicago style. However, those forms as much as they gave pleasure were only marginally political at best. In short, these were entertainers performing material that spoke to us. In the most general sense that is all one should expect of a performer. Thus, for the most part that music need not be reviewed here. Those who thought that a new musical sensibility laid the foundations for a cultural or political revolution have long ago been proven wrong.

That said, in the early 1960’s there nevertheless was another form of musical sensibility that was directly tied to radical political expression- the folk revival. This entailed a search for roots and relevancy in musical expression. While not all forms of folk music lent themselves to radical politics it is hard to see the 1960’s cultural rebellion without giving a nod to such figures as Dave Van Ronk, the early Bob Dylan, Utah Phillips, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and others. Whatever entertainment value these performers provided they also spoke to and prodded our political development. They did have a message and an agenda and we responded as such. That these musicians’ respective agendas proved inadequate and/or short-lived does not negate their affect on the times.

When I first heard folk music in my youth I felt unsure about whether I liked it or not. As least against my strong feelings about the Rolling Stones and my favorite blues artists such as Howling Wolf and Elmore James. Then on some late night radio folk show here in Boston I heard Dave Van Ronk singing ‘Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies’ and that was it. That old-time gravelly voice (even though I found out later that he was relatively young at that time) still commands my attention in the same way.

The last time I saw Dave Van Ronk perform after not seeing him for a fairly long period of time was not a particularly good night as he was pretty sick by that time. Moreover, his politics seemed to have crumbled over time from that of the hardened Trotskyist of his youth going out slay the benighted Stalinists for the soul of the working class. His dedication to leftist politics, as testified to by those who knew him like Tom Paxton, was well known and passionate. Although no one asks a musical performer to wear politics on his or her sleeves as a litmus test, given Dave Van Ronk’s status as a prime historian/activist of the folk revival of the 1960’s, this was disconcerting.

That folk scene, of which Dave was a central and guiding figure not fully recognized outside a small circle to this day, was not only defined by the search for root music and relevancy but by large political concerns such as civil rights, the struggle against war, and the need for social justice. Some of it obviously was motivated as well as simply a flat out need to make our own 'mark' on the world. Dave was hardly the first person from this period to lose his political compass in the struggle against injustice. I say this with sadness in his case but I will always carry that memory of that late night radio experience in my head. That said, please listen to this man reach under a song. You will not forget it either.


elijahwald said...

This is an old blog, and I'm not sure anyone will care, but Dave Van Ronk's politics most certainly had not mellowed with age. In his youth, and in his later years, he was an anarcho-syndicalist with Trotskyist leanings (or sometimes vice-versa), attached to the ideals of the IWW but aware that a more structured system would probably be necessary. He was paid up in his IWW dues till the end, and appeared at benefits for socialist groups whenever asked.

HOWEVER, with rare exceptions, he did not present his politics on stage or on record, either in the 1960s or in 2000. Whether one agrees with this choice or not, it was consistent. He was a fearsome arguer, and ready to put his body on the line when needed--though, as that body aged, his ability to walk picket lines diminished--till the end.

markin said...

Thank you for the information. If I am not mistaken you are the author or the co-author of the Mayor of Macdougall Street so I will accept your information in good faith. However, memebership in the Wobblies so long after the Russian revolution does not enhanced one's credentials as a militant. The same can be said of Utah Phillips. The days of Big Bill Haywood and Vincent St. John, yes. Later, no.

I will stand by my position as stated in the blog. In his youth Dave Van Ronk fought for the soul of the working class against the Stalinist- as a supporter of the Socialist Workers Party- those were his political salad days. On the other hand every day of his musical career was a salad day.