Dave Van Ronk – Down In Washington Square
It’s been nearly forty years since I first heard an old Dave Van Ronk record at a friend’s house near my old high school, and it’s probably been about a dozen years since I’ve given his music much thought at all. There was a flurry of tributes in the music press when he died in 2002, and I think I pulled out a few old LPs around that time and gave them a spin, but there’s been little since then that has compelled me to give Van Ronk and his music consideration. And, maybe that’s not entirely fair.
From the beginning, I’ve always found it difficult to nail down exactly what I felt about Dave Van Ronk and his music. When I first heard him as a teenager, I was drawn in by his gravelly voice and rough guitar style. The things he sang about were from a dark and dangerous seeming world that I’d never visited, but wished I could spend time in. The songs he sang were filled with an unsavory characters -ramblers, gamblers, pimps and murderers – and each of them had a suitcase full of hard luck stories to pass around. For a sixteen year old from the suburbs it was very heady stuff and I couldn’t help but feel privileged that Dave Van Ronk had recorded these songs and that somehow they’d ended up in my friend’s father’s record collection. I felt somehow worthy to be included in the audience that got to hear these songs, and I transferred a lot of the mythology they communicated to Van Ronk himself. I imagined him inhabiting every bar room and broken down hotel room he sang about, perched on a stool in the corner and listening to the suffering men and women who had come out of the rain, sharing their hard knock stories over a glass of cheap booze as Van Ronk quickly scribbled them down. It came as quite a shock to me when I found out that he didn’t write any of the songs he sang that I loved so much. I felt disappointed, perhaps betrayed that he was only taking on a persona when he sang and that he’d fooled me.
I remained thankful for Van Ronk’s insight into types of music that were far from the mainstream and had to admit that he had a good ear; I was grateful for how he’d helped mentor Bob Dylan and had been part of the same scene, though I remember that they’d had some falling out or parting of the ways later on. But, something had changed for me. As time passed, I stopped truly enjoying his music and shifted to merely respecting his history and pedigree and appreciating from afar the curatorial, almost professorial role he took in introducing roots, folk and blues songs to a larger audience. I thought of him more as a kind of Alan Lomax figure than a musician I would be inspired by or listen to for enjoyment. As a teen in the seventies, I was from a later generation than the earnest college kids who were always photographed listening raptly to Van Ronk sing, and I had far more access to records by artists like Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith and Mississippi John Hurt than they did. But, at the time, I didn’t appreciate that and began to consider Van Ronk a tiresome old fart that seemed more like an arcane librarian from the wrong side of the tracks than a compelling and original musician.
As the years passed and I had the chance to hear Van Ronk in concert, I continued to be disappointed. I found his playing and singing perfunctory and his presentation lacked a certain authenticity. I wanted to hear artists who wrote their own material and sang about their own lives.
The young can be cruel, and the newly released ‘Down In Washington Square’ compilation of Dave Van Ronk’s most celebrated recordings on Smithsonian Folkways has illustrated this to me very clearly. And while it is true that I would still rather listen to original music any day of the week than somebody singing cover songs, listening through this new 3 CD set has renewed my appreciation for what Van Ronk contributed to popular music and our understanding of its history. He still sounds as rough and strained as ever, but the years have been kind to his legacy and I have enjoyed this new compilation immensely. Maybe it’s because we become more forgiving with age, but Van Ronk’s sloppy, gruff persona that used to drive me to distraction, now seems to reflect a certain purity and innocence. Now, I can hear the commitment and discovery in his voice when he sings ‘See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’ and I can appreciate that even if he didn’t write the song, there’s something in it that had meaning to him and makes it worth listening to. I have had to admit that I enjoy playing a lot of the songs on ‘Down In Washington Square’ myself, and that the fact I didn’t write them doesn’t stop me from singing them. I also remind myself that I never heard Mozart or Bach play their own music, but that has never stopped me from appreciating their music. I have also talked to artists who have expressed to me that ‘there are enough songs in the world’ for people to sing and that we don’t need any new ones at the moment. I also remember Neil Young saying in concert, ‘Don’t worry. It’s all one song!’
I am very thankful to Smithsonian Folkways for releasing ‘Down In Washington Square.’ It’s given me the chance to bury the hatchet with Dave Van Ronk and admit that his music was crucial to me during a formative period of my life, and that if it weren’t for people like him, nice middle class kids like me would never have been able to hear ‘St. James Infirmary,’ and that I’ve been able to enjoy and access so much great music because guys like Van Ronk put heart and soul into singing lost songs like ‘Duncan and Brady’ and ‘Backwater Blues’ long before it was popular to do so. Thank you, Dave Van Ronk. I wish I’d been able to say it to you sooner.
— Review by Douglas Heselgrave
This posting originally appeared at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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