Sure everybody, everybody over the age of say fifty to be on the safe side, knows about Bob Dylan. About how he, after serving something like an apprenticeship under the influence of Woody Guthrie in the late 1950s, became if not the voice of the Generation of ’68, my generation, which he probably did not seriously aspire in the final analysis, then the master troubadour of the age. (Troubadour in the medieval sense of bringing news to the people and entertaining them as well.) So, yes, that story has been pretty well covered. But of course that is hardly the end of the story since Dylan did not create that now hallowed folk minute of the early 1960s but was washed by it when he came East into the Village where there was a cauldron of talent trying to make folk the next big thing, big cultural thing for the young and restless of the post-World War II generations. And one of the talents who was already there, lived there, came from around there was the late Dave Van Ronk who deservedly fancied himself a folk historian as well as musician.
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. 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.
He told a funny story, actually two funny stories about the folk scene and his part in 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, On The Road, 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 if you can believe that. The crush 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 nasal folk singer for a couple, maybe three songs, and if that did not clear the high art poetry house then that folk singer was a goner. A goner until the folk minute of the 1960s who probably in that same club played for the “basket.” And so the roots of New York City folk. 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. Eager young students 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 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 would then be cited by some other young and eager student complete with the appropriate footnote. Nice touch, nice touch indeed on that one.
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 is featured on a recent Tom Rush documentary No Regrets) 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 were spoofs on some issue of the day. I saw him perform many times over the years and had expected to see him perform as part of Rosalie Sorrels’ farewell concert at Saunders Theater at Harvard in 2003. He had died a few weeks before. I would note when I had seen him for what turned out to be my last time he did not look well and had been, as always, drinking heavily and his performance was subpar. But that is 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.