Dave Van Ronk: 1936 to 2002
Many will remember Dave Van Ronk as “The Mayor of MacDougal Street,” the folkie giant who let Bob Dylan crash on his couch back before anyone had ever heard of either of them. Many will remember Van Ronk for his fingerpicking, or his grand, crazy, wheezy Merchant Marine voice. Many will remember him for the songs he made his own — “He Was A Friend Of Mine”, “Cocaine Blues” — drawing from a wide musical pallet, from Blind Lemon Jefferson to Jacques Brel.
But I’ll remember Dave Van Ronk as the man responsible for my choice in career. He was my first interview.
Van Ronk, who was being treated for colon cancer, died February 10. He was 65.
Born June 30, 1936, in Brooklyn, New York, Van Ronk dropped out of high school and joined the Merchant Marines as a teenager. Moving to Greenwich Village in the mid-1950s, he became a regular performer at Washington Square, famous then as a folk mecca. Folkie matron Odetta urged a young Van Ronk to go pro; by 1959 he was recording for the Folkways label.
Van Ronk was an established force in the New York folk scene when a young Minnesotan came to town. Van Ronk befriended Dylan, often giving him a place to stay, and ultimately turning him on to several songs, such as “House Of The Rising Sun”, Dylan’s arrangement of which is pure Van Ronk.
The folk scene became a national craze in the early ’60s. And then it became a punchline. Dylan went electric, but Van Ronk, except for a brief stab at rock ‘n’ roll (with his band the Hudson Dusters) and one horribly overproduced album (Van Ronk on Polydor), stayed true to his rootsy troubadour vision.
In February 1980, Van Ronk played a gig at the old Armory for the Arts in Santa Fe. It was a classic early ’80s Van Ronk set with songs such as “Would You Like To Swing On A Star”, “Hootchie Cootchie Man”, his pal Tom Paxton’s ode “Did You Hear John Hurt?”, the Weill/Brecht Three Penny Opera classic “The Alabama Song”, “Cocaine Blues”, and a bone-chilling musical arrangement of Yeats’ “Song Of The Wandering Aengus.”
After the show, Van Ronk made good on his promise of an interview by inviting me to join him in the lounge of the downtown hotel where he was staying. It was soon obvious this wouldn’t be a formal interview, but a rowdy party and lively series of discussions with various friends, fans and locals. Nobody could keep up with Van Ronk, who downed countless rounds of Irish whiskey, tequila shots and Dos Equis.
A proud member of the International Workers of the World (the Wobblies!), Van Ronk talked politics. “It’s us the working people who make things run. We make the factories run,” he said. “We make the government run, we keep everything in the whole damned country running!”
To which someone quipped, “We’re sure keeping this barmaid running.”
Sharing laughs and Irish whiskey with one of my musical heroes — and getting paid for it — seemed somehow right, even though my share of the bar tab far outweighed my freelance check from the local weekly.
So I thank Dave Van Ronk for his music, and I thank him for my job — even though few if any of the interviews I’ve done since were as fun as that one.