Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Mayor of McDougal Street

a Memoir
Dave Van Ronk
with Elijah Wald

This book was originally envisioned as a history of the Greenwich Village folk music scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Dave and Elijah were planning to collaborate on it, using Elijah's research skills, and Dave's memory and rye sense of humor. Soon after work began, with only a few scribbled notes on Dave's part and a couple of hours of interviews under Elijah's belt, Dave was diagnosed with cancer and went into a rapid decline. Rather than abandon the project Elijah used all of the written and filmed interviews and recorded stage patter he could find from Dave's career to put together the book in Dave's own words.

Since I have them, let me tell my own two Dave Van Ronk stories. In 1970, I think it was, I saw Dave perform at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. He sang Cocaine Blues among other songs and with his gravely Brookynese voice his slouching posture and his scruffy appearance he was so effective that I wondered how he had managed to survive so long. Dave would have been 34 years old at the time.

Back in the late '90s I had the privilege of doing sound for Dave at a concert. I was used to spending an hour or more tweaking the EQ for people like Tom Rush and Livingston Taylor, eventually getting everything back to just about the way I started, to satisfy them with their sound. Dave sat down on his stool, strummed a few chords, sang about half a chorus of a song and mumbled, "That sound pretty good to me," got up and went to the green room. I don't envy Elijah's listening to hours of concert recordings for the stage patter. Dave loved to talk and told great stories about where he learned songs, but he mumbled softly, paying no attention to mic placement. His singing was loud and on mic so it was hard to hear him while he rambled on.

Elijah Wald soldiered on, though, an put together an interesting and coherent story of Dave's experience, of becoming a folksinger despite himself, living in his native New York but miles away from his mother's home across the east river. Dave dropped out of high school and gradually moved in to the Village, sleeping on floors and couches in other people's apartments. He wanted to play jazz in the worst way and put together a band which did. He played banjo because guitar was not considered authentic enough for a trad jazz band. Dave calls himself a "moldy fig" in jazz parlance of the time, as opposed to those awful beboppers playing their incomprehensible stuff. Incidentally Dave says in the book that he was insufferable about it.

As time went by, Dave realized that he was not going to be able to make a living playing Dixieland banjo and he went back to the guitar to become a solo act. He played his traditional jazz songs, plus others that he learned from other guitarists in Washington Square on Sunday afternoons. By default Dave became a folksinger. He hated that title.

There are many stories in the book about Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Rev. Gary Davis, Peter Paul and Mary - just about everybody that was part of that scene, all told by Dave in his own words, not to mention old time jazz musicians like Clarence Williams, who had recorded Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong back in the 1920's doing songs that Clarence wrote. It must have been a nightmare, or a labor of love for Elijah Wald, a former guitar student of Dave's and a long time friend, to find and write down all of Dave's stories of the time. It makes fascinating reading. For a video of Dave singing a Bessie Smith song and a snippet of his reminiscences, go to my music blog here.


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