I wrote this article a few days after going to see legendary folk/blues artist Dave Van Ronk with my friend Brendan. Brendan was the one who turned me on to, for lack of a better term, roots music. I had heard that Van Ronk’s music was influential to early Dylan (as was his couch). I had no idea what I was in for, though. This show was special. Risking sounding corny, his performance has haunted me for years. At the time, I submitted this to our weekly newspaper, The Anchorage Press, where I was writing virtually a story a week… but they couldn’t use it. It has traveled with me all of these years, and finally… here it is.
Dave Van Ronk
at Vagabond Blues
Palmer, Alaska 6/13/00
The café was brimming with a wide variety of people; from old hippies to young hippies, young kids and grizzly lookin’ Alaskan men, all of whom turned out to see veteran folk-blues artist Dave Van Ronk in the wilds of Palmer. Van Ronk participated in this year’s Midnight Sun Songwriter’s Camp, along with up-and-coming folkies Ellis Paul and Carrie Newcomer, in addition to playing shows in both Palmer and Anchorage. Van Ronk came out looking like a fisherman (or a member of the audience) with his flannel shirt, thick black-framed glasses, wide brimmed hat and baggy pants. He sat down on the stool, and began to play, starting off the evening with a rendition of Jelly Roll Morton’s classic jazz tune, “Alabama Bound”, in which he yowled and whispered his way through. After a few more numbers, Van Ronk told some anecdotes about his early career in New York’s Greenwich Village, in the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s, and told stories about his friendships with old, rediscovered bluesmen such as Blind Gary Davis and Brownie McGhee, interspersing songs by each artist. Van Ronk had a commanding presence, and his stories were as entertaining as his songs. His gravely laugh, and engaging stories reminded me of an eccentric old uncle, sitting down to play in front of the family. He played a good mix of songs from throughout his career, including the title song from his 1976 “comeback” album, “Sunday Street”.
His guitar picking was fantastic, with a soft-yet-abrasive dynamic, which applies to his singing style as well. Throughout the evening, Van Ronk displayed a mastery of many forms, such as folk, blues and even jazz. Van Ronk evoked the sounds of the Greenwich Village folk heyday, with Tom Paxton’s old tune “Did You See John Hurt?” and then ripped it up with scat singing on “Ace In The Hole”, and still made the whole set flow seamlessly. Unlike many of his early contemporaries, Van Ronk’s style is timeless, and his old recordings still sound fresh, even in this accelerated age. Van Ronk closed the show with the traditional blues tune, “St. James Infirmary”, which absolutely rocked. He swayed to the rhythm in his chair, and yelled out the lyrics, all the while pounding on the strings. It was hypnotic. He came back for an encore with “Four Strong Winds”, and did a final encore with a laid-back version of Billie Holliday’s “God Bless The Child”. Van Ronk made a beeline for the door directly after the show, and was found moments later smoking outside, and signing autographs. It was a great performance by a deservedly legendary artist.