Two Greenwich Villagers: Van Ronk and Dylan
Dave Van Ronk (who died in 2002), like many other figures of the 60s folk revival (or “The Great Folk Scare” as he called it with his typical sardonic wit), is of the generation after the Weavers. A brilliant acoustic guitarist, powerful singer, outstanding songwriter and arranger, marvelous storyteller, and generous, charismatic personality (and bearlike corpus), he soon became an archetypal figure on the Village scene, influencing and mentoring many younger musicians destined to become iconic stars of the post-folk era, among them Bob Dylan (who often slept on his couch in his early days in the city). Van Ronk considered himself more of a “cabaret singer” than a traditional folksinger, and was comfortable performing early jazz, jug band music, and other popular musical styles as well as folk music. Anyone interested in the history of American roots music as it exploded into prominence in the early 60s should read The Mayor of MacDougal Street. It’s a vivid and fascinating account of a hardworking musician’s life and times, packed with astute commentary on the larger cultural and political arena of those turbulent times.
The recording that brought Van Ronk much-deserved fame beyond his Village stomping grounds is Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger, issued on Prestige in 1963. His gravelly but delicately modulated voice (more indebted to Louis Armstrong than to the genteel traditional “English” ballad style that Joan Baez was then making famous), rock-solid yet intricate and harmonically adventurous finger-style guitar playing, and ability to adopt so many different kinds of songs to his own immediately identifiable manner, are nowhere better heard than on this early recording, though he made many more records over the following four decades. The poignance and simplicity of “He Was a Friend of Mine,” the sly dismissal of an aging lover in “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon,” the bluesy longing of “Come Back Baby,” the relentlessly building ferocity of “Poor Lazarus” lamenting the murder of a runaway slave, the lonely plight of “Motherless Children,” the drug addict’s morose, befogged passivity in “Cocaine Blues”—one after another, these indelible performances have resonated over the years as a testament to the depth of expressive power and subtlety possible in the “folk music” genre.
Folksinger remains perhaps the high-water-mark of Van Ronk’s recording career, though there are many other standouts, like his early rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” (recorded a few months before Judy Collins), his stunning arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun” on Just Dave Van Ronk (which Bob Dylan stole from Van Ronk to record on his debut recording, whence the Animals stole it for their hit rock version). Other stellar performances are “That’ll Never Happen No More” on Vanguard’s Blues at Newport anthology, and “Sunday Street,” a catchy-as-velcro Van Ronk original, on the album of the same title, jauntily reeling off the boastful imaginings of a lowlife loser. Then there’s Dave Van Ronk’s Ragtime Jug Stompers (on Mercury stereo, no less), featuring stellar run-throughs of “Temptation Rag,” “Sister Kate,” “Georgia Camp Meeting,” “Everybody Loves My Baby,” and lots more. And did I mention Van Ronk’s incredible rendition (with folk-style instruments) of Peter and the Wolf?
Dylan’s first record came out in 1962, establishing him as a droll, at times almost Chaplinesque interpreter of the folk tradition, but it was The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan from a year later that revealed him as an eloquent writer of both protest songs (most famously for “Blowin’ in the Wind” but more powerfully in “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”) and love songs (“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Girl from the North Country”). Still, as celebrated as Dylan’s career has been since then, I’ve always felt that some of his most complex, original, and affecting work, with lyrics of astonishing sophistication and poetic resonance, came out in the two albums (The Times They Are A-Changin’ and Another Side of Bob Dylan) released in 1964, and remains underappreciated. Has any prophesy ever been more enigmatically yet irresistibly triumphant than “When the Ship Comes In,” or any paean to sexual electricity more believably yet amusingly exaggerated than “Spanish Harlem Incident”? And then there’s “North Country Blues,” in which a miner’s wife stoically tells the story of how her family is destroyed by the rapacious logic of capitalist exploitation. Transcending the sharply-drawn particularity of its circumstances, “North Country Blues” becomes a universal indictment of merciless greed and its victims: the so-called “wretched of the earth,” used and discarded by forces beyond their control or understanding. Ineffably moving in Dylan’s understated performance, this is one of his greatest “protest” songs and indeed one of the greatest of the genre ever written. It wasn’t until two decades later, in “Blind Willie McTell,” his visionary evocation of the pathology and the pathos of the South and its baleful heritage of slavery, that Dylan matched “North Country Blues” in his anger and despair at “power and greed, and corruptible seed,” and his encompassing awareness of the misery they cause and have caused down through the tormented centuries of human history.
One of the main sources that Van Ronk and Bob Dylan and most of the other participants in the 60s folk renaissance drew on for inspiration in their own music was the archival recordings (taken from 78s made in the late 20s and early 30s) by the old-time blues and country folk singers. These voices from the past were found on Harry Smith’s seminal six-LP 1952 Anthology of American Music (folk, blues, and country music recorded from 1927 to 1932) and such single-LP releases as Columbia’s 1961 reissue of mid-30s recordings of Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Singers, the reverberations from which are still felt today by many a long-haired rock star. (A second volume of Columbia’s Johnson reissues followed some years later, graced by one of the best album covers ever: an Art Deco-ish painting of Johnson recording in an improvised hotel-room studio.) Dozens of other fine reissues from decades-old country and blues recordings (many of them sub-genre anthologies) also began coming out on LPs in RCA’s “Vintage Series” (with records like Early Rural String Bands, Smokey Mountain Ballads, etc.) as well as on small labels like Biograph, Origin of Jazz, and Old-Timey. A whole world of music known only to collectors of brittle old 78s suddenly became much more widely available.
To almost everyone’s surprise, however, some of those old folk and blues singers who recorded in the 20s and 30s were still living—and happy to resume their performing careers; soon their early 78s were supplemented by spanking-new long-playing vinyl. Among the first and best of these rediscovered musicians was Mississippi John Hurt, whose inventive and distinctive guitar playing, with its steady, bouncy rhythmic bass beneath deftly syncopated tunes, and unforced, old-fashioned singing (of sometimes slyly risqué lyrics) charmed everyone who heard him. Even his bluesier numbers were resigned rather than angry or sullen. A lovable man, unassuming, soft-spoken, richly humorous, and gentle, Hurt appears on the cover of his first LP Folk Songs and Blues (on Piedmont) with a broad smile on his face. I remember the day in 1964 I first saw him on that cover and bought the record, not knowing I was getting a treasure that guitar players and musical storytellers to this day still marvel at. Hurt was soon picked up by Vanguard and made several more records, every one of them memorable. His best performances—“I’m Satisfied,” “Frankie and Albert,” “Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me,” “Farther Along,” “Trouble, I’ve Had It All My Days,” “My Creole Belle”—are the creations of a unique and imperishable combination of warmth, wisdom, serenity, and musical genius.
Skip James—equally original but temperamentally opposite—spun out dark tales of amorous treachery and retribution. “Devil Got My Woman” is his signature song, and no one has ever distilled a more brutally cynical view of the war between the sexes: “Woman I’m loving, stole her from my best friend, but he’ll get lucky, steal her back again.” James’ falsetto singing and bluesy guitar playing are sui generis, spooky-strange and to this day marvels in a style often crowded with cliché. His piano playing is also astonishing in its mix of ruggedness and sophistication. Jagged and unpredictable, with downbeats made stronger by their absences and phrases both foreshortened and elongated, it makes a brilliantly high-strung accompaniment to such songs as “If You Haven’t Any Hay,” (with chilling verses like “I’m caught in Louisiana they’ll hang me sure”). Like Hurt, James recorded in the 60s (at least briefly) for Vanguard, but I prefer the reissues of his more persuasive 78-era performances gathered on his one-disc Complete Early Recordings (Biograph LP and later Yazoo CD).
Another bluesman who’d fallen out of sight after recording 78s and returned to record again in his old age is Sleepy John Estes, who made several fine early-60s albums on Delmark with a superb small backup group on harmonica, piano, and string bass. The Legend of Sleepy John Estes is a wonderful example, with bouncy uptempo numbers like “Drop Down Mama” and rending pain coming through in Estes’ “crying” blues like “I Been Well Warned.”
More influential was Reverend Gary Davis, a fantastic guitar player with a powerfully affecting voice who sounded something like a rough-hewn Ray Charles (both men, as it happened, were blind). Davis’ repertoire included ragtimey instrumentals and salacious ditties, but he only played these when sufficiently lubricated by alcohol. His standard fare was gospel numbers—like “Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand” and “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning”—that he shouted out with a street preacher’s fervor and authenticity. Davis also played harmonica with a breathy syncopation unlike anything I’ve ever heard on the instrument. He could make guitar, harmonica, even banjo into a kind of vocalizing counterpart to his singing—and vice versa, too. Many of Gary Davis’ recordings are on Prestige (some recorded by Rudy Van Gelder), and all are stellar, though my favorite is the Riverside disc Gospel Blues and Street Songs he shared with another street singer, the genial and comic Pink Anderson, whose “I Got Mine” describes how a gambler grabs the pot at a crap game broken up by the police.
Davis lived in New York City; other street singers and bluesmen had moved (as part of the great migration of southern Blacks to northern cities) to Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, and other urban centers. Some fronted small bands with added harmonica, string bass, sometimes electric guitar, recording for labels like King, Chess, Delmark, and Prestige. Anyone drawn to blues will know splendid records by Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins and their many contemporaries. Meanwhile more discoveries were still being made among those who’d stayed in the sharecropper’s fields and hadn’t been recorded until the 60s folk-revival was well underway, one of the best being Mance Lipscomb, whose brawny, rhythmically driving Texas Songster, with foot-tapping standards like “Sugar Babe,” “Bout a Spoonful,” and “Baby Please Don’t Go” meant to be danced to in small rural juke joints, became the first album recorded on the ever-adventurous Arhoolie label. (Lipscomb was born in 1895 to a former slave and a Choctaw Indian woman. His given name is short for “Emancipation.” Can’t get much “rootsier” than that.)