The Mayor Of Macdougal Street: A Memoir
It may still happen that the man whom Dave Van Ronk calls, with perfect justification, “Bobby” Dylan will visit us with the second volume of his Chronicles later this year, and it is possible that it will contain more details of his life in the folk scene in Greenwich Village during a time when even I, a 13-year-old suburban kid, could feel the sense of promise, of something magnificent about to happen, in the air.
More likely, he’ll turn his attention elsewhere, having covered this period so magnificently in the first volume. But even so, I doubt if what he writes, jaw-droppingly good though it certainly will be, will beat this incredible account for richness of detail and poignancy. After all, young “Bobby” only makes his appearance here after 150-odd pages have gone by. There’s a lot of history, and only one man has told it so far.
What’s truly sad, though, is that there’s much that’s not here, and that’s nobody’s fault. Van Ronk’s original idea was to do a huge memoir, not of just himself, but of the whole Village scene in the 1950s, with co-author Elijah Wald scooting around to do interviews he suggested, then whacking the whole thing together in a definitive narrative of Bohemia under Eisenhower and Kennedy. After all, Van Ronk was there, but he couldn’t be everywhere at once, and he knew who the key players were, even if he wasn’t at all of the games.
Unfortunately, early in the project, this big, outspoken, opinionated, unruly, and, yes, warm man succumbed to cancer and died. Wald was left to gather up what pieces were there, do what interviews were possible, and cobble the bits together into something that made sense. That this story only emerges in his afterword is amazing, because what’s here is gripping reading, informed by a voice you can almost hear telling you the stories.
I kept beating myself over the head as I read these pages (not too quickly lest it be the literary equivalent of eating a whole box of chocolates, or, perhaps more accurately, drinking a whole fifth of great bourbon), asking myself “How could I have missed this guy?”
The answer I found on page 14: “Being an adolescent, I was naturally an absolutist,” he writes, and nothing invites absolutism as much as folk music. Hell, Van Ronk fell for it himself while provably post-adolescent. But there was something about his voice — not his guitar playing, since if there was a consensus, it was that Dave Van Ronk was a nonpareil guitarist, especially where fingerpicking was concerned — that put me off. And of course there was the whole can-a-white-man-sing-the-blues idiocy. It could also be that he was just too grown-up for my teeny ears. If nothing else, this book will make you want to revisit — or visit — some of his records. Mercury, are you listening? (Didn’t think so.)
In the post-Seeger world, Dave and his friends pretty much invented the job “folk singer,” although there had been folk singers all along. But it was they who forged the template for modern singers who reach back to older players, whether recorded or in the flesh, and learn to interpret their material in a way that cleaves closely to the original performance (unto, it must be said, outright cloning). Van Ronk was also lucky enough to be of the generation that found people such as Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Son House, and, most particularly in Van Ronk’s case, Reverend Gary Davis, alive and picking.
But — and this is important — this folk thing was integrated into a larger lifestyle, one which partook of the other arts and of politics, and of redefining the social norms within the group. Like many another in his crowd, Van Ronk was active in politics (old school politics: he has little time for the New Left, which is bracing at first, but, given how little the New Left accomplished, worth paying some attention to), and he read anything he could get his hands on, discussing and debating it over chess games, cups of coffee, and not a small amount of spirituous beverages and smoking materials that found their way to New York from Mexico.
He saw himself as a craftsman, not an artist, a guy doing a job that was honorable and skilled, one that gave him a place in the society in which he moved. This is as alien a mindset to many of today’s careerist young musicians as can be, and yet the ramifications of it are worth considering, because the Village subculture was a community, and community is a delicate, rare, and valuable thing.
All of this is imparted in a natural narrative flow that’s sort of like a weeklong conversation, loaded with anecdotes that sometimes seem peripheral, but aren’t. These people had no models, although they had heroes, and they really were making it up as they went along.
And there are footnotes, often the best part of the chapters, one of which explains what seems like a curious omission here: “Anyone who has read this far is probably wondering, ‘All this nattering on about Bohemia and beatnikery — where’s the sex?’ Believe me, the same question occurred to us at the time. But bear in mind, I am writing about the ’50s. The buttoned-down, up-tight, witch-hunting, God-fearing Age of Eisenhower. They still tossed doctors into the slammer for fitting women with diaphragms in some states and for performing abortions in all of them. Women were understandably very cautious about dispensing their favors under those circumstances, and the fact that we were a pretty scuzzy bunch might also have had something to do with it.”
(That said, Van Ronk first wife, Terri, gets pretty short shrift here, although the photo including her, which seems to be an outtake from the sessions for Dylan’s Freewheelin’ cover, and shows Dylan, Suze Rotolo, Terri, and Van Ronk walking in the Village streets, is evocative enough.)
In the end, the Great Folk Scare (Van Ronk credits Utah Philips with the term) came and went, and so did Van Ronk’s shot at stardom, which left him embittered. He sort of slides over this, and one wonders if Wald would have pressed him a bit more on it, or if it wouldn’t have mattered as much in the Village chronicle this was originally supposed to be. One gets the impression that, craftsman to the end, Van Ronk was willing to subsume his ego into telling the story of a lot of people who dedicated their lives to a great possibility: a more just, humane and equal society, arts that would reach out beyond the artists who made them, ways of living that would only be possible in a great democracy.
So read it and weep, folks. It was hard living, but there were moments like no other. Nothing like this will ever come again, and we have to be satisfied with the hilarious, heartwarming, and contrary voice of someone who witnessed it and knew what he was seeing — and knew, also, that it was imperative to leave a record of it for those of us who, through no fault of our own, missed it.
Rest in peace, Dave, and thanks. And thanks, too, to that guitar student of yours who just happened to be a fine writer. Together, you’ve done an incalculable service.