A visit to the world of my favorite folk singer.
It was, I think, a girl I went around with for a while in my salad days on the Lower East Side who first introduced me to Dave Van Ronk. Those were the days of the Revolution, when music in general, including folk music, seemed an instrument for liberating ourselves and renewing the world.
I liked a lot of folksingers, but Van Ronk, a folk-guitar virtuoso with a special genius for blues and a rasping, rangy voice that one critic has described as a "bourbon and nicotine roar," was my favorite. I listened to his albums over and over again. For years I have sung his songs loud to myself in privacy (even, on particularly extroverted occasions, to select friends), and they still form part of my driving-hard-alone-on-the-highway repertoire. One blues song in particular, the sultry and elemental "Come Back, Baby," helped me, in the distant beginnings of our friendship, to navigate some of my stormiest moments with the woman I love:Come back, baby
Momma, please don't go
The way I love you
You'll never know
Yes, come back, baby,
Let's talk it over -
One more time.
Though out of the folk-music loop these days, I happened to notice in the paper that Van Ronk was appearing at McCabe's Guitar Store in Santa Monica, along with Rambling Jack Elliott, a cowboy singer who was another of my favorites.
God made a world full of little worlds, says a Yiddish proverb. The folk scene is one of those worlds but - at least to the outsider I am to it now - a remarkably changeless one. The unpretentious little auditorium, seating perhaps 150, in McCabe's back room was comfortably familiar - furnished with cushioned folding chairs, its walls decorated with guitars and parts of guitars, its stage a simple raised platform with a couple of oak chairs on it and an old piano pushed into the corner. And the audience - a combination of young people and old folkies like me (including a couple of religious Jews I knew, camouflaged under normal hats) - seemed like it might have been there 25 years ago, too.
I had caught Van Ronk in person once before, long ago, in one of the dives on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. He was, then as now, a bearish guy, though maybe, like me, slightly more potbellied now. I did not recall him wearing these black-rimmed eyeglasses in that halcyon time, and if he sported a goatee in the old days, it wasn't this whitening one.
So, yes, we have all grown older - not everything is the same a generation later - and there was, perhaps, a certain intensity lacking in the music, the performance and the audience, compared to how it had all been in those days when we believed that the music would change the world.
And yet the songs were unchanged. The audience still wanted to hear "St. James Infirmary" and "Come Back, Baby" and "Green, Rocky Road," as if no time had passed. In the current blues revival, perhaps, the old songs have become canonical.
In between songs, Van Ronk, as folk singers always do, told stories about the folk-song greats. Folkies tell the sorts of stories that Jews tell of spiritual masters. Thus, tuning up, Van Ronk recounted driving down to New York from a concert in Boston with the blind Reverend Gary Davis. Davis, in the back seat, kept playing a bridging riff from "Candy Man" ("Run and get the bucket get the baby some beer"), just kept playing it over and over and over again. At first it sounded great, "but around New Haven," Van Ronk drawled, getting a laugh, the repetition became so annoying that he turned around to ask Davis to stop - only to discover that the guitarist was asleep. "I realized then I still had a lot to learn about playing guitar," Van Ronk said, finishing the story and starting the song.
The evening I caught his performance, Van Ronk was at the turnaround point of a road trip that would take him, traveling by car with his wife, back to New York in a couple of weeks. He told me after the show that he spends about half the year on the road. "I'm running like hell to stay solvent," he said, then added with a grin, "but it sure beats working for a living." Twenty-five years later, 55 years old and still doing what he loves, Van Ronk seemed a happy man.
For myself and the urban-intellectual friends of my youth, traditional folk music represented, I think, a way to connect ourselves to the roots of both the mythic and the real America. It was part of our socialization process as we sailed out and away from our own ethnic backgrounds into the larger world.
I didn't realize yet that the "larger world" might be just another of the little worlds of which the world is made - or how interconnected, into one single world, all the worlds would turn out to be.
Proof text: Rambling Jack Elliott, the cowboy singer, turns out to be Brooklyn-born and Jewish, a doctor's son. Van Ronk is from Brooklyn too - Bushwick. "And your readers may be interested," he mentioned as we parted, "that I'm a long-time member of the Arbeiter Ring," the socialist-Yiddishist Workmen's Circle.
"Best health plan around," he explained.
|Dave van Ronk died on February 10, 2002, after a battle with colon cancer, age 65.|