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Inside Dave Van Ronk: The Real-Life Llewyn Davis

Behind ‘Folksinger,’ the 1962 album from the movie-inspiring artist

On December 15, 2022

Dave Van Ronk was bemused by the title of this album. He didn’t think of himself as a folksinger and had mixed feelings about what he wryly called “the Great Folk Scare” of the 1960s. And yet, he was a central figure on that scene and this album was instrumental in shaping a new sense of what it meant to be a folk musician. A generation of guitarists took him as a model and honed their skills on his arrangements of “Come Back Baby” and “Cocaine Blues,” and his masterful reimagining of older traditions made him a defining voice of the folk-blues revival, showing that a young, urban performer could reshape songs from rural sources into modern, personal statements that were as rough and honest as anything from the hills or prairies.

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Dave always considered himself a jazz singer. His list of influences started with Louis Armstrong and included Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Bing Crosby and Duke Ellington. The only folk or blues artist he tended to include on that list was the Reverend Gary Davis, and he would point out that Davis was a ragtime guitar virtuoso and gospel singer who occasionally deigned to play the blues. He drew much of his material from rural, southern sources, but he was a proud New Yorker, an indefatigable reader, a political radical, and he had no interest in making music that was not relevant to his own time and place.

In the original notes to this album, Jack Goddard noted Dave’s humor, suggesting it was one of the things that distinguished this album from Dave’s earlier records. Dave had spent his teens flailing a tenor banjo and shouting over New Orleans revival bands, and his first recordings had more power than subtlety. He sometimes told a story about finishing his set at a blues festival with a strutting, macho version of Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man,” only to find that Waters had been watching from the wings. “He was very nice about it,” Dave would say. “He put his hand my shoulder and said, ‘That was fine, son. But, you know, that’s supposed to be a funny song.’”

Dave referred to his first two albums as “Archie Andrews Sings the Blues,” and while they weren’t as bad as that, his Prestige recordings were a huge step forward and established the mature style he would use on everything from African American field hollers to the art-songs of his friend Joni Mitchell. Goddard describes that change well, mentioning a newfound restraint, warmth and attention to dynamics. However, where Goddard wrote that Dave had retreated from the stage for a winter and developed his new style through solitary study, Dave’s recollection was very different: “I had shaken off a lot of the mannerisms of my earlier records, partly through a natural process of evolution and partly because I was working so much and getting so much opportunity to test and rework my material in front of an audience.”  

It is striking to compare the version of “Come Back Baby” on this record with the one he recorded two years earlier for Folkways. The guitar arrangement is identical and the singing is similar, but the performances are a world apart. The first is workmanlike, but clearly a young guy trying to play someone else’s music; this one is a personal statement, in both musical and emotional terms. The guitar part, with its prominent ninth chords — which Dave credited to his friend and sometime-bandmate Dave Woods, a student of the jazz composer Lennie Tristano — now feels like a contemporary musical statement, and the vocal phrasing has cast off the imitative mannerisms of his earlier blues work.

Dave recalled that when he first shifted from working in jazz bands to accompanying himself on guitar, he tried to imitate the early southern blues singers, in particular Lead Belly and Bessie Smith, as well as Josh White, who was still playing around New York. But he soon became disenchanted with the spirit of historical recreation he dubbed “neo-ethnic,” pioneered by groups like the New Lost City Ramblers, who took pride in meticulously mimicking old recordings. He loved some of those records, but couldn’t understand why someone living in New York in the 1960s would want to sing like a southern sharecropper from the 1920s. “Robert Johnson was a great singer,” he once said to me, “but a lot has happened since then. He hadn’t heard Billie Holiday, but I have — so why would I sing as if I hadn’t?”

Dave always considered himself a jazz singer. His list of influences started with Louis Armstrong and included Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Bing Crosby and Duke Ellington. The only folk or blues artist he tended to include on that list was the Reverend Gary Davis, and he would point out that Davis was a ragtime guitar virtuoso and gospel singer who occasionally deigned to play the blues.

Whatever his sources for a particular song, jazz was the unifying thread. He frequently cited Duke Ellington’s influence, not for particular harmonic or instrumental effects, but as the master of understatement. When I asked him how he came up with his classic guitar arrangement for “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon,” he talked about the way Ellington would create a foundation or frame for the horn soloists. Unlike the old blues masters, who might play the same song differently from one day to the next or settled on an accompaniment by playing what fell naturally under their hands, Dave carefully composed arrangements that would showcase and support his vocals. Other people might be impressed with his guitar chops, but he always considered himself to be primarily a singer, phrasing like a saxophone with the guitar functioning as a backing band.

At the same time, Dave was listening to a lot of other music and had no interest in making everything sound like jazz. Sometime in the mid-1950s he had stumbled across a collection of ballads called This Is Our Story, compiled by the folklorist Alan Lomax, which included Furry Lewis’ recording of “Stackalee.” Dave originally thought there were two guitarists playing, and when he realized it was one person, he set out to learn it and for the rest of his life would play it just the way Lewis played it in 1927, complete with the original guitar break. For this song, he felt he couldn’t improve on that foundation — but transformed the rest of the song, reworking the lyrics with verses culled from other singers and songbooks and performing it with the theatrical flair of a barroom raconteur.

“If you are a performer, you’re a leader,” Dave would say. “You are being paid to get up there and say, ‘This is what I think. This is what I think about this song or that song, this is what I think about music.’” Sometimes that meant showing his appreciation for Ellington, Lewis or Gary Davis, but it also meant thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of each song as a piece of literary or musical material, reshaping it to fit his tastes and talents and presenting it as a personal statement. His version of Davis’ “Samson and Delilah” is another dramatic narrative, and the vocal pays an obvious debt to his model, but he made no attempt to replicate Davis’ guitar style. By contrast, “Cocaine Blues” retains the basic elements of Davis’ guitar part, but where Davis recited the lyric as if it barely interested him, Dave made it into a wry, moody character study and an enduring classic.

Dave was a passionate reader of history and loved a lot of old music, but he had no interest in nostalgia, and this album was a clarion call for a new generation that mined rural folk traditions to create vital contemporary art. He felt more kinship with songwriters like Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs or Joni Mitchell than with players who chose to meticulously recreate old banjo and guitar licks. In later years, he often introduced “He Was a Friend of Mine” as “a song I learned from Bob Dylan, who learned it from Eric Von Schmidt, who learned it from me” — a joke that irritated Von Schmidt, whose version was based on a field recording by an obscure singer named Smith Casey — but Dylan had indeed drawn on both of them for inspiration and material, and Dave had been reciprocally inspired by Dylan’s loose energy and poetic iconoclasm.

When this album appeared in the fall of 1962, Dave was king of the Village scene, hosting weekly hootenannies at the Gaslight Café on MacDougal Street and headlining in the new clubs popping up across the country. Dylan had recorded one album of folk and blues songs, but Freewheelin’ was still a few months in the future, “Blowin’ in the Wind” was not yet on the pop charts and for now he recalled, “I thought the biggest I could ever hope to get was like Van Ronk.” 

Over the next few years the scene changed in ways neither had imagined, and for a while Dave rode that wave. He added songs by Mitchell, Cohen and Peter Stampfel to his repertoire, alongside old masters like Leroy Carr, Jelly Roll Morton and Bertolt Brecht; for a brief period formed a rock band, the Hudson Dusters; and recorded several albums on major labels, with backing groups ranging from jug bands to string orchestras. 

Dave enjoyed the opportunity to experiment with various kinds of instrumentation and continued to expand his repertoire until his death in 2002, but his aesthetic approach and direction is already clear on this album. He continued to play many of these songs, and would sing Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” or “Urge for Going” with the same gruff tenderness he brought to “Come Back, Baby.” 

To him, that was just a matter of suiting the approach to the material. He did not recognize genre boundaries, and often cited surprising sources: He would say that Walter Huston’s record of “September Song” taught him how a rough voice could convey beauty, and when I asked what inspired a particular lick or arrangement, he might cite anyone from Bach to the Rolling Stones. (“But Dave,” I protested, “you hate the Rolling Stones.” He chuckled and said, “I’ll steal from anybody.”) 

Dave was a passionate reader of history and loved a lot of old music, but he had no interest in nostalgia, and this album was a clarion call for a new generation that mined rural folk traditions to create vital contemporary art.

Most of the songs on this album are drawn from Black traditions; others suggest how widely he ranged: “Poor Lazarus” was from John and Alan Lomax’s early anthology, American Ballads & Folksongs. “Mr. Noah” was apparently a relic of blackface minstrelsy, picked up from an early Greenwich Village banjo virtuoso, Billy Faier. “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” was from an album by Sam Hinton, a West Coast folksinger in the Pete Seeger tradition. “Long John” came from an a cappella version by Woody Guthrie on a 1950 LP called Chain Gang — it was part of a loose jam session with Sonny Terry, which Dave described as a “fiasco,” but added: “They were having a marvelous time; it sounds like a good party.”

A few songs were from the standard blues canon. Booker White’s “Fixin’ to Die” had appeared on The Country Blues, the pioneering blues reissue album compiled by Dave’s erstwhile apartment-mate Samuel Charters (Dylan, who recorded the song a year earlier, had likely got it from Dave), and “Motherless Children” was from Charters’ reissue of the Texas guitar evangelist Blind Willie Johnson. “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon” was a vaudeville blues from Bessie Smith, though Dave substantially reworked it, saying she “sang it like a dirge” — a comment he balanced in later years by shaking his head dolefully and murmuring, “I used to think that was a funny song.” 

“Chicken Is Nice” was from a Liberian pianist named Howard Hayes, recorded on an ethnographic set called Tribal, Folk and Café Music of West Africa. Dave was always searching for good material and had previously explored the circular traditions of the African diaspora by recording a song from the Bahamian singer Blind Blake Higgs. He was also a creative and dedicated cook, and at one point considered doing an album of songs about food. Sometime in the mid-1980s he called me to say he had finally got around to cooking chicken with palm butter and rice. I took my cue and asked, “How was it?” to which he predictably replied: “Nice.”

And then there’s “Cocaine Blues.” Reverend Gary Davis was a preacher and gospel singer, and Dave recalled that although he occasionally played sinful songs like “Cocaine Blues,” he refused to sing them: “He would just play the guitar part and speak the words in a sort of recitatif. I thought that was a pretty tenuous legal argument — I mean, I would have hated to be in his shoes when he had to face St. Peter with the defense, ‘Well, I didn’t sing it, I just talked it’ — but nothing would move him. As a result, when I recorded my version I just recited the lyric, and by now dozens of other people have done versions, but none of us ever found out what the melody was. That melody died with Gary.”

Virtually all those “other people” learned the song from Dave and used his verses, which he had typically assembled from a range of sources, with some additions of his own — though, equally typically, he took no credit and always described it as Davis’ composition. As one of the first folk recordings to explicitly mention drugs, “Cocaine” became Dave’s most popular number for a while, and something of an albatross around his neck; by the mid 1960s he had added comic verses — “Went to bed last night singing this song / Woke up next morning and my nose was gone” (sometimes adding, “My mucus membrane is just a memory…”) — and by the 1970s he refused to sing it at all, though he continued to teach the guitar part to students as an example of Davis’ unique style of playing basslines backwards.

Dave was not nostalgic about his early work. He never listened to his old records, except occasionally the ones with bands, where he could enjoy what the other musicians were doing. But even if he didn’t care to listen to it, he retained a particular affection for this one. He was pleased to have recorded it in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio, where people like Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis recorded, and if he didn’t put himself in their class, he felt it was a mature artistic statement and did no dishonor to their company. No artist who continues to grow over five decades likes to think they recorded their masterpiece in their 20s, and he would point out things he could do better and albums that showed further development. But he knew how good this one was and would be pleased to see it being reissued and appreciated 60 years later. 

Profile Picture of Elijah Wald
Elijah Wald

Elijah Wald moved to New York at age 17 to take guitar lessons from Dave Van Ronk, and Dave became his mentor and model, not only in music, but as an advisor on writing and myriad other subjects. Together, they planned and began Dave’s memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, which Elijah finished after Dave’s death, and which eventually inspired the Coen Brothers’ movie, Inside Llewyn Davis. Elijah’s other books (many of which build on ideas of Dave’s) include Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music and Dylan Goes Electric!

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