Dave Van Ronk Chrestomathy

It wasn't until Sam Charters at Gazell suggested a retrospective album that I realized that I've actually been making records for thirty-five years. Since my first time in the barrel back in '58, I've lost count of how many records I've made. (20?) A lot of those sessions have dimmed to a blur, but with recording, as with sex and death, the first time really makes an impression.

I started singing around Greenwich Village in '54 or '56. Mind you, there were no steady places to perform there in those dim days, at least not for my ilk, but what we had was Washington Square on Sundays, hootenannies at the A.Y.H. (American Youth Hostel on 8th Street), and, God help us, we had benefits. The Committee to Save the World on Friday, the Committee to Blow Up the World on Saturday, and the Locofoco Party of Baluchistan on the first Monday of each month. I enjoyed it, and since I was a raving bolshie at the time, you might say I was doing the Lord's work. Eddie Condon once remarked that if you're a musician, in the course of an evening a dozen people might offer to buy you a drink, but nobody ever walks up to you and says, "Hey, let me stand you to a ham sandwich." At the rate I was going, I would starve to death gradually while my liver did a stately melt-down.

The problem, as I saw it, was obvious. I didn't have a record. The equation goes like this: In Vinyl Veritas - no record = no work; record = jobs, fame, fortune, wine, women, and song. This isn't just some dumb mantra from the Theologically Incorrect fifties. Most musicians (unrecorded ones, that is) still subscribe to something of the sort. Believing that a problem correctly stated is a problem correctly solved, I decided to record an album forthwith, and make an end to adversity at a stroke.

Now at that time (it was '58 or so) there were three record companies on the set that did folk music: Folkways, Elektra, and Riverside. Elektra was out. I had written an article in a folk fanzine pussyfootedly entitled 'The Elektra Catalogue - - A Sarcophagus," and Jax Holzman at Elektra didn't take to being damned with faint praise. That left Folkways and Riverside. Both companies had the same producer - a brilliant young folklorist named Kenneth S. Goldstein. I conceived of a plan whose elegance was surpassed only by its brilliance- Bug Kenny Goldstein! This

I proceeded to do with such gusto that eventually a Van Ronk record seemed a lesser evil than Van Ronk, and the poor man caved in totally.

The sessions were a snap. Kenny drove me out to his place on Long Island and we made the album in his basement in one session, something of an anti-climax, actually. Now it remained only to wait until the album was mastered, pressed, and released, and a new golden dawn dawned.

When dawn finally broke I was in Hermosa Beach, California, singing in a coffee-house, or rather singing in two coffee-houses, one on the beach and the other on Sunset Strip in Hollywood. This was a bit embarrassing for me. Back where I came from, no life form was more protozoan than a coffee-house folksinger. Coffee-house folksingers were squeaky clean optimists who brushed their teeth 87 times a day. Coffee-house folksingers wore drip-dry seersucker suits and sang "La Bamba." Just because I was singing in a coffee-house (or two) that didn't make me a coffee-house folk-singer - did it? Besides, New York was 3000 miles away, and, if I exercised a little discretion, who would know?

Finally, the day of liberation arrived, a record album-shaped package from New York. I ecstatically tore it open and saw the cover for the first time. It looked like the boiler room of the Robert E. Lee, but there was no mistaking what it was. An espresso machine.

It was several days before I calmed down enough to notice that my name on the label was spelled V-O-N Ronk. By this time I was philosophical, and have remained so ever since.

The songs on these discs are programmed as they are for esthetic reasons - pacing and such like. But in these notes I would rather approach them more or less chronologically, record to record, which is the way I think of them. Bear in mind that these recollections are off the top of my head, and make allowances for my notoriously sieve-like memory.

The earliest cuts on this compilation are from the second Folkways album, the aforementioned maiden effort being currently available in its jejune entirety (senza macchina). (Smithsonian/Folkways CD SF 40041) TELL OLD BILL and COME BACK BABY are, I think, especially apposite here. The first gives an idea of where I was coming from, and the second

being my first recorded attempt at slow 12/8 blues guitar that has since become a staple with me.

Around '62 I signed with Prestige to do two albums. By this time I was, no bones about it, a coffee-house folksinger. Bob Weinstock of Prestige wanted to call the first release "New York's Finest." "Bob, for Christ sake, you're calling me a cop!" It was released as "Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger," whereupon I subsided, muttering, "Better a dork than a narc." The Prestige sessions were the first recordings that I was relatively satisfied with. These cuts reflect the fact that I was performing regularly, and was beginning to get some kind of handle on phrasing and dynamics. Included here are: COCAINE BLUES - a soliloquy from Reverend Gary Davis - friend, guru, and, I like to think, my third grandfather. COCAINE is probably still my most requested number. I don't sing it very often these days - just once in a while to raspberry the D.E.A. MOTHERLESS CHILDREN - also from Gary, with an assist from Blind Willie Johnson's recording. POOR LAZARUS - from I forget where. MR, NOAH - from Billy Faier, a former song leader at Camp Gulag-on-the-Hudson.

IF I HAD TO DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN, BABE I'D DO IT ALL OVER YOU - the first recording (I think) of a Dylan song. Bobby was acquiring a considerable local reputation in the Village as a songwriter. One night at the Kettle of Fish a fellow celebrant said: "I bet you couldn't write a song to the title of 'If I had to do it all over again, Babe I'd do it all over you'." A day or so later he emerged with this. A fine example of his meticulous craftsmanship,and the dry understated wit that has made him the Ogden Nash of our time. KENTUCKY MOONSHINER and FAIR AND TENDER LADIES - two holdovers from my 1950s repertoire, the former from Bob Gibson and the latter from Luke Faust. I bet you didn't know I played the five-string banjo - you still don't.

Sometime in 1963, Max Gordon of the Village Vanguard was sojourning in Cambridge, Mass., where he saw an enormous line in front of the Club 47 waiting to see the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. In his mind's eye he transposed this queue to 7th Avenue South, where he kept his room, and visions of sugar plums danced in his head. He called Bob Shelton, critic for the New York Times, who called me: "How long would it take you to put

together a jug band for a gig at the Village Vanguard?" "Gee, Bob, I don't know, at least an hour." I got hold of Barry Kornfeld, Artie Rose, Danny Kalb, and Sam Charters (this was not the beginning of my long and nerve-wracking friendship with Sam - the magisterial producer of the disc to hand - we had been carping and snarling at each other for almost 10 years already), (You can delete this if you want, Sam) and the Ragtime Jug Stompers came to pass.

Sometime I'll set down the dolorous history of the Stompers' live performances, but for now suffice it to say I loved the record album that we made, and still do. YOU'S A VIPER, TEMPTATION RAG, and STEALIN' are a pretty good cross-section of the group's range, going from 30's swing through classic ragtime and back to the country music the jug bands of the 20's started with.

By the time the folk-rock era arrived, I was back to working solo, and liking it, but the singer-songwriter thing was happening, and while I was no tunesmith, some of the material being written at the time was simply too good to pass up. Also, there was a new mantra on the street; "Record? Everybody's got a record. If you want to get anywhere in this business you gotta have a band!" I didn't especially want a band. I kind of liked going mano a mano with an audience, but everybody else seemed to have one, and I was beginning to feel like the only kid on the block who didn't have an Erector Set. So I decided, "Who am I to shovel shit against the tide of history?" and called Dave Woods.

Dave was, and is, one of the best musicians I know, a versatile jazz and blues guitarist (my earlier cut on this disc COME BACK BABY is basically his chart), and a deft and cunning arranger. So we sat down and invented the Hudson Dusters. The idea was to explore some of the musical possibilities inherent in the more or less standard rock band instrumentation and to make a pile of money. On point one we suceeded, I think, surprisingly well. (Mostly thanks to Woodsy). As for point two - Ha! But that, too, is another story. By the way, the original Hudson Dusters were a bunch of plug-uglies who plied their trade in the West Village around the turn of the century.

The six Dusters cuts on this disc make me think that we were probably

too eclectic for the market we were courting, and that a thinking man's rock and roll is a bit like a white blackbird. Even so, I think they represent one of the high points of my recording career. They are: ALLEY OOP - by the Hollywood Argyles out of W. C. Fields, through Frank Zappa. CHELSEA MORNING - Joni Mitchell. I may have been the first New Yorker to fall in love with her. She was still living in Detroit when we met. CLOUDS - Joni didn't like my tampering with her title for this one. She insisted (justifiably) that the original title (Both Sides Now) be included. Still, though, she did entitle her next album "Clouds." SWING ON A STAR -I learned from Bing Crosby in Going My Way, but it never ocurred to me to perform it until I saw Luke Faust do his Buster Keatonish reading. DINK'S SONG - probably the best piece of singing as such I've ever done on record. I had a nasty flu when we cut this one, and my voice had gone pre-laryngitic. This had the effect of opening up an octave valve I didn't even know I had. The next day I couldn't talk, let alone sing. ROMPING THROUGH THE SWAMP - by Peter Stampfel. Peter once told me that my version of this had a bit more dignity than his, and, God help us, I think he's right.

The remaining sides, I think, would be better tackled from a thematic rather than a strictly chronological order.

By the early 70s the Village scene had pretty much dried up. The Great Folk Scare was at an end, and I was spending more time on the road - making the odd record when the opportunity turned up. I think of this as my grab-bag period - I recorded damn near anything that caught my fancy (my "Bell Song" from Lakme remains an unissued classic). LITTLE GRASS SHACK, for example. I got this one from Arthur Godfrey's old radio show, which also got me started on the ukelele, which in turn sort of started me off on this whole music thing. CANDY MAN - Gary Davis again. At least one of the classic guitar ragtime guitar transcriptions that made a stir in the fingerpickers broomcloset back in the 60's seems appropriate. So here's THE ENTERTAINER, warts and all. MACK THE KNIFE and TANGO BALLAD - though recorded in the 80's, reflect an ongoing fascination with Brecht that had seized me in the previous decade. Both are from Three Penny Opera. Doing the Brecht material with Frankie

Armstrong was a joy, and her singing on the Tango is the best reading of it I have ever heard. The guitar is by Erik Frandsen. The piano is an ill-conceived notion of the producer's added after the fact, and should be ignored insofar as is possible. (I could really go on about this). SUNDAY STREET, LOSERS, and GARDEN STATE STOMP are my own compositions from the 80's. TEDDY BEAR'S PICNIC - yet another jug band. I wanted to call this one the Pro Musica Paleolithica. Mark Greenberg, my producer, brainstormed the kid choir on this, and it worked. The kids are from the Montpelier, Vermont school system. The Vienna Choir Boys couldn't touch them. JOHN HURT - Tom Paxton's tribute to his old friend Mississippi John Hurt. John was a friend and early influence of mine, as well. He is sorely missed.

When Sam Charters asked me if I'd like to do an album of jazz standards, I could hardly believe my ears. Very cooly I said, "Well, that depends on the bread, Sam," barely managing to keep from adding, "How much do you want?" Sam suggested Keith Ingham as pianist-arranger, but Christine Lavin was my idea. I've known Christine from the 70's, loved her work, and always wanted to do something with her. (Musically, that is). TWO SLEEPY PEOPLE is the kind of relaxed, easy singing that I always admired when the grown-ups did it, but never thought I could bring off myself - and I was right. It's a duet.

So, there I was belting out Erik Frandsen's FRESNO SHUFFLE with a first rate small jazz combo cooking behind me, and I felt a little like Magellan, coming home again from the opposite direction. It's nice to know that making a record can still be so much fun. Even after thirty-five years.

DAVE VAN RONK

PERSONNELS

DISC 1

1-6 Dave Van Ronk, guitar and vocals, produced by Kenneth S. Goldstein

7 with the Red Onion Jazz Band, led by Bob Thompson, drums; produced

by Paul Rothchild

8-9 with guitar or 5-string banjo, produced by Sam Charters

10-15 with the Hudson Dusters, Dave Van Ronk, guitar; Dave Woods,

guitar; Phil Namenworth, keyboards; Ed Gregory, bass; Rick Henderson,

drums; produced by Barry Kornfeld

DISC 2

1 Mitch Greenhill, Hawaiian steel guitar; Barry Kornfeld, ukelele; Rick

Marotta, drums; Lou Mauro, bass; produced by Michael Brovsky

2-4 Dave Van Ronk, guitar; Danny Kalb, guitar; Barry Kornfeld, banjo; Artie

Rose, mandolin; Sam Charters, jug or washtub bass

5-8 Dave Van Ronk, guitar and vocals or guitar solo, 5 and 7 produced by

Mitch Greenhill

9 with the Kazoo-O-Phonic Jug Band and Chorus, Dave Van Ronk, kazoo

and vocal; Billy Novick, pennywhistle and kazoo; Jay Ungar, mandolin;

Luke Faust, jug; Mark Greenberg, banjo and guitar; produced by Mark

Greenberg

10-11 Dave Van Ronk, guitar and vocals; Frankie Armstrong, vocal on 11;

with Eric Frandsen, guitar; produced by Gary Cristall

12-13 Dave Van Ronk, guitar and vocals

14-15 Christine Lavin, vocal on 14; Keith Ingham, piano and arranger; John

Pizzarelli.guitar; Harry Allen, tenor; Earl May, bass; Jackie Williams, drums;

produced by Sam Charters

2 disc set

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License