Dave Van Ronk
Dave Van Ronk performs at the 1968 Philadelphia Folk Festival.
|David Kenneth Ritz Van Ronk|
|Born||June 30, 1936|
Brooklyn, New York City, New York, United States
|Died||February 10, 2002 (aged 65)|
New York City, New York, United States
|Genres||Folk, ragtime, blues, country blues|
David Kenneth Ritz "Dave" Van Ronk (June 30, 1936 – February 10, 2002) was an American folk singer. An important figure in the American folk music revival and New York City's Greenwich Village scene in the 1960s, he was nicknamed the "Mayor of MacDougal Street".
Van Ronk's work ranged from old English ballads to blues, gospel, rock, New Orleans jazz, and swing. He was also known for performing instrumental ragtime guitar music, especially his transcription of "St. Louis Tickle" and Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag". Van Ronk was a widely admired avuncular figure in "the Village", presiding over the coffeehouse folk culture and acting as a friend to many up-and-coming artists by inspiring, assisting, and promoting them. Folk performers whom he befriended include Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Patrick Sky, Phil Ochs, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and Joni Mitchell. Bob Dylan recorded Van Ronk's arrangement of the traditional song "House of the Rising Sun" on his first album, which the Animals turned into a chart-topping rock single in 1964, helping inaugurate the folk-rock movement.
Van Ronk received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) in December 1997. He died in a New York hospital of cardiopulmonary failure while undergoing postoperative treatment for colon cancer.
Van Ronk was born in Brooklyn to a family that was "mostly Irish, despite the Dutch name". He moved from Brooklyn to Queens around 1945 and began attending Holy Child Jesus Catholic School, whose students were mainly of Irish descent. He had been performing in a barbershop quartet since 1949, but left before finishing high school, and spent the next few years bumming around lower Manhattan and twice shipping out with the Merchant Marine.
His first professional gigs playing tenor banjola were with various traditional jazz bands around New York, of which he later observed: "We wanted to play traditional jazz in the worst way ... and we did!" But the trad jazz revival had already passed its prime, and Van Ronk turned to performing blues he had stumbled across while shopping for jazz 78s, by artists like Furry Lewis and Mississippi John Hurt. Van Ronk was not the first white musician to perform African-American blues, but became noted for his interpretation of it in its original context.
By about 1958, he was firmly committed to the folk-blues style, accompanying himself with his own acoustic guitar. He performed blues, jazz and folk music, occasionally writing his own songs but generally arranging the work of earlier artists and his folk revival peers. At one point, he was considered for a folk-pop trio with Peter Yarrow. Van Ronk's voice and style were considered too idiosyncratic and the role eventually went to Noel Paul Stookey (who became the "Paul" in Peter, Paul and Mary).
He became noted both for his large physical stature and his expansive charisma, which bespoke an intellectual, cultured gentleman of many talents. Among his many interests were cooking, science fiction (he was active for some time in science fiction fandom, referring to it as "mind rot", and contributed to fanzines), world history, and politics. During the 1960s he supported radical left-wing political causes and was a member of the Libertarian League and the Trotskyist American Committee for the Fourth International (ACFI, later renamed the Workers League ). In 1974, he appeared at "An Evening For Salvador Allende", a concert organized by Phil Ochs, alongside such other performers as his old friend Bob Dylan, to protest the overthrow of the democratic socialist government of Chile and to aid refugees from the U.S.-backed military junta led by Augusto Pinochet. After Ochs's suicide in 1976, Van Ronk joined the many performers who played at his memorial concert in the Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden, playing his bluesy version of the traditional folk ballad "He Was A Friend Of Mine". Although Van Ronk was less politically active in later years, he remained committed to anarchist and socialist ideals and was a dues-paying member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) almost until his death.
In 2000, he performed at Blind Willie's in Atlanta, clothed in garish Hawaiian garb, speaking fondly of his impending return to Greenwich Village. He reminisced over tunes like "You've Been a Good Old Wagon," a song teasing a worn-out lover, which he ruefully remarked had seemed humorous to him back in 1962. He was married to Terri Thal in the 1960s, lived for many years with Joanne Grace, then married Andrea Vuocolo, with whom he spent the rest of his life. He continued to perform for four decades and gave his last concert just a few months before his death. He found it amusing to be called "a legend in his own time".
Van Ronk died before completing work on his memoirs, which were finished by his collaborator, Elijah Wald, and published in 2005 as The Mayor Of MacDougal Street.
In 2004, a section of Sheridan Square, where Barrow Street meets Washington Place, was renamed Dave Van Ronk Street in his memory.
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Van Ronk can be described as an irreverent and incomparable guitar artist and interpreter of black blues and folk, with an uncannily precise ability at impersonation. Joni Mitchell often said that his rendition of her song "Both Sides Now" (which he called "Clouds") was the finest ever.
He is perhaps underestimated as a musician and blues guitarist. His guitar work, for which he credits Tom Paley as fingerpicking teacher, is noteworthy for both syncopation and precision. It shows similarities to Mississippi John Hurt's, but Van Ronk's main influence was the Reverend Gary Davis, who conceived the guitar as "a piano around his neck". Van Ronk took this pianistic approach and added a harmonic sophistication adapted from the band voicings of Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington. He ranks high in bringing blues style to Greenwich Village during the 1960s, as well as introducing the folk world to the complex harmonies of Kurt Weill in his many Brecht-Weill interpretations, and being one of the very few hardcore traditional revivalists to move with the times, bringing old blues and ballads together with the new sounds of Dylan, Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. During this crucial period, he performed with the likes of Bob Dylan and spent many years teaching guitar in Greenwich Village, including to Christine Lavin, David Massengill, Terre Roche and Suzzy Roche. He influenced his protégé Danny Kalb and the Blues Project. The Japanese singer Masato Tomobe, American pop-folk singer Geoff Thais and the musician and writer Elijah Wald learned from him as well. Known for making interesting and memorable observations he once said, "Painting is all about space, and music is all about time." In his autobiography Bob Dylan states, "I'd heard Van Ronk back in the Midwest on records and thought he was pretty great, copied some of his recordings phrase for phrase. [...] Van Ronk could howl and whisper, turn blues into ballads and ballads into blues. I loved his style. He was what the city was all about. In Greenwich Village, Van Ronk was king of the street, he reigned supreme."
Thanks to what he had learned from Davis, Van Ronk was among the first to adapt traditional jazz and ragtime to the solo acoustic guitar. His guitar arrangements of such ragtime hits as "St. Louis Tickle", "The Entertainer", "The Pearls" and "Maple Leaf Rag" continue to frustrate and challenge aspiring guitar players. He also did fine compositions of his own in the classic styles, such as "Antelope Rag". His song "Last Call" is the source of the title of Lawrence Block's book When the Sacred Ginmill Closes.
Van Ronk was among 13 people arrested at the Stonewall Inn June 28, 1969--the night that the Stonewall Riots, which many cite as the start of the gay rights movement, began. The New York Times reported the next day that he was arrested and later parolled on his own recognizance for having thrown a heavy object at a patrolman.
City records reveal he was charged with felony assault in the second degree and pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of harassment, classified in 1969 as a violation under pL 240.25. Articles published at the time in the New York Post and the Village Voice reveal that Van Ronk was pulled by police from the crowd outside and dragged inside the Stonewall.
Van Ronk refused for many years to fly and never learned to drive (he would use trains or buses or, when possible, recruit a girlfriend or young musician as his driver), and he declined to ever move from Greenwich Village for any extended period of time (having stayed in California for a short time in the 1960s). Van Ronk's trademark stoneware jug of Tullamore Dew was frequently seen on stage next to him in his early days.
Critic Robert Shelton described Van Ronk as "the musical mayor of MacDougal Street":
[A] tall, garrulous hairy man of three quarters, or, more accurately, three fifths Irish descent. Topped by light brownish hair and a leonine beard, which he smoothed down several times a minute, he resembled an unmade bed strewn with books, record jackets, pipes, empty whiskey bottles, lines from obscure poets, finger picks, and broken guitar strings. He was Bob [Dylan]'s first New York guru. Van Ronk was a walking museum of the blues. Through an early interest in jazz, he had gravitated toward black music - its jazz pole, its jug-band and ragtime center, its blues bedrock... his manner was rough and testy, disguising a warm, sensitive core. Van Ronk retold the blues intimately... for a time, his most dedicated follower was [Bob] Dylan.
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Van Ronk and Richard Ellington collected and edited The Bosses' Songbook:  Songs to Stifle the Flames of Discontent, Second Edition - A Collection of Modern Political Songs and Satire (Richard Ellington, publisher: New York, 1959). This originally 50¢ staple-bound paperback of lyrics in 1959 carried an asking price of $265 on AbeBooks.com (accessed February 6, 2015); the booklet is downloadable as two files (, ).