Meet Dave Van Ronk, The Artist Who Inspired ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’
‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ the new Coen Brothers movie that is generating Oscar buzz, takes place around the Greenwich Village scene of the early ’60s. The film is believed to be loosely based on the life of Dave Van Ronk, whose name is familiar to scholars of folk music, but not very well-known outside of it. To prepare you for the movie, we give you this introduction to the man known as the “Mayor of MacDougal Street.”
Born in Brooklyn in 1936, Van Ronk was turned on to traditional jazz and blues in his teens, adapting the fingerpicking style of guitar playing used by Mississippi John Hurt and Rev. Gary Davis. He became an encyclopedia of folk music, from old English ballads to black gospel, one of its definitive interpreters in New York as the scene started to grow.
“At 23 in 1959,” wrote David Hajdu in ‘Positively 4th Street.’ “Van Ronk was known in coffeehouses as one of the most charismatic and articulate figures in the New York scene…[He] was so respected by the city’s folk musicians that Robert Shelton, who covered folk for the New York Times, asked him to vet important pieces before the Times editors saw them.” Hajdu also called him “a hulking presence whose soft Brooklyn accent added just enough comic leavening to his bellowing gravel voice.”
In many ways, Van Ronk was the embodiment of the collectivist spirit of the downtown folk scene. He famously took many of the musicians drawn to the Village under his wing, educating them in traditional music and even letting them crash on his couch.
One of those whom Van Ronk mentored was Bob Dylan. “I’d heard Van Ronk back in the Midwest on records and thought he was pretty great,” said Dylan in his autobiography, ‘Chronicles, Volume One.’ “Copied some of his recordings phrase for phrase. He was passionate and stinging, sang like a soldier of fortune and sounded like he paid the price. 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.”
But unlike those who went on to greater stardom, Van Ronk was not a prolific songwriter, preferring instead to keep spotlighting the works of others, including the works of newcomers like Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Randy Newman. He recorded more than 20 albums in his career for such labels as Folkways, Prestige, Verve, Mercury and Polydor.
“I never really thought of myself as a ‘folk singer’ at all,” he once wrote. “Still don’t. What I did was combine traditional fingerpicking guitar with a repertory of old jazz tunes.”
“We can ask why Dave Van Ronk wasn’t bigger commercially during his lifetime, and there are all kinds of possible answers,” T-Bone Burnett — who produced the music for ‘Inside LLewyn Davis’ — said. “His age worked against him, for one, and there just wasn’t a tour infrastructure when he started out. But I would argue that what he was doing was as significant in many ways as what Sam Phillips was doing in Memphis. Van Ronk was leading a community, he was the gatekeeper of that community, and a damn good one at that.”
Van Ronk died in 2002 of heart failure cardiopulmonary failure while undergoing treatment for colon cancer.
Watch Dave Van Ronk Perform ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’