Classic Music Reviews: Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger

Originally published October 2012, completely revised, August 2016.

During my formative years, I formed many things: nice tits, a great ass and a strong aversion to American folk music. Part of that aversion had to do with a brief period in my youth when my mother went through a phase where she incessantly played John Denver records.

She can’t explain it either, and wished I hadn’t reminded her.

Imagine a pretty little girl with a complexion of strawberries-and-cream and a perpetual smile on her face. The camera pans in as she happily plays with her dollies as rock ‘n’ roll plays in the background. Suddenly, the music stops, and after a few minutes, the sounds of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” fills the air. The camera goes in for a close up. As the music plays, the little girl’s expression of innocent delight transforms into a dark, distorted, twisted grimace as if she has just swallowed poison. She lets out a bloodcurdling scream . . . the screen goes dark . . . and the next scene begins with a gaggle of decapitated dolls strewn across the floor.

I hope I’ve made my feelings about John Denver clear.

American folk music has never grabbed me for a number of reasons. For the most part, it’s musically boring and predictable. I know that many people in my parents’ generation think that Bob Dylan is a lyrical genius, and while I wouldn’t go that far, some of his lyrics are better than decent. But Dylan is anything but a musical genius—you can pick up the chords to almost any Dylan song in about five minutes. Woody Guthrie followed the same model: focus on the words, keep the music simple.

I do like folk music from the other side of the pond, particularly Fairport Convention, June Tabor, Steeleye Span and a few others. I am quite passionate about Bulgarian folk music with its weird time signatures and soaring melodies. Lately I’ve become interested in North African folk and chaabi, in part because of my current proximity to Africa and the large number of Moroccan and Algerian immigrants in the area. But when it comes to American folk music, the only artists whose work I truly admire are Phil Ochs and Malvina Reynolds. The vast archives of American folk music hold little interest for me except for a couple of Ramblin’ Jack Elliot renditions, some Leonard Cohen stuff (as long as someone else is singing it), and this one album by Dave Van Ronk.

Dave Van Ronk was an interesting guy—a big, burly, gruff-voiced Brooklynite who relocated to Greenwich Village in his teens and became a serious student and interpreter of American folk music. His autobiography, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, is a hoot, a free-wheeling coming-of-age story, most of which took place during the folk music revival in the early 60’s. In addition to some great stories of the life of a wayward musician, he shared his thoughts on music, and one particular quote caught my eye: a lesson he learned from one of his mentors, Jack Norton:

Never use two notes when one will do. Never use one note when silence will do. The essence of music is punctuated silence. Van Ronk, Dave (2013-10-15). The Mayor of MacDougal Street [2013 edition]: A Memoir (p. 11). Da Capo Press. Kindle Edition.

That’s my Count Basie Theory in a nutshell!

Whether it was song selection, empty spaces or excellent interpretive skills, there is something about Dave Van Ronk’s approach that made American folk music come alive for me. Folksinger is filled with the kind of music that lifts you out of the daily routine and immerses you in a series of all-too human tales of love, betrayal, addiction and loss.

“Samson and Delilah” opens the album, a traditional song Van Ronk learned from mentor Reverend Gary Davis, though recorded under a different title as far back as 1927 by Blind Willie Johnson. What I love about this retelling of the biblical story is that it focuses on the human aspect rather than the spiritual. The Bible has some great stories, but when the various authors shift to moralizing I tune out completely. Here we get two verses that describe Samson as an uncivilized Neanderthal of exceptional strength without any reference to him being “god-fearing.” Delilah’s entry into the scene is described in the same language that later blues musicians would use to describe a hot babe’s grand entrance into the juke joint:

Well, Delilah was a woman, she was fine and fair,
She had lovely looks, God knows, and coal black hair

Delilah worked fast, like Mata Hari on speed:

Well, Delilah climbed up on Samson’s knee,
“Now tell me where your strength lie, if you please?”
Well, she talked so fine, God knows, she talked so fair,
Well now, Samson said, “Delilah, you can shave my hair,
You can shave my hair just as soon as you can
And my strength will be that of a natural man.”

Van Ronk’s sense of vocal dynamics is startling and compelling, as he raises the volume on the just the right words—sometimes a single word— to reflect the libidinal surges Samson experienced. The guitar support remains in deep background so that our full attention is riveted to the story.

Van Ronk turns to Reverend Gary once again for the song that would become his signature song: “Cocaine Blues.” A dramatic monologue from the perspective of cocaine addict, we meet the narrator on the edge of forced withdrawal, describing a life characterized by police harassment, threats of gun violence from his lover and entrapment by a powerfully addictive drug that sickens and controls him. Van Ronk’s tone in the early verses combines resignation, near-exhaustion and an almost helpless sense of humor as the addict quietly reflects on the consequences of addiction.

Cocaine’s for horses, not for men
They tell me it’ll kill me but they won’t say when
Cocaine—runnin’ all ’round my brain

As the waves of nausea intensify, the steady blues-tinged guitar pattern becomes more insistent, and Van Ronk’s voice transforms from defiant resignation to genuine alarm. In the last verse, when he raises  his voice to maximum volume, he sounds like he has assimilated the panic of the deprived addict, and explodes in an unrelenting growl of agony and despair:

Come here, baby, come here quick,
This old cocaine’s gonna make me sick,
Cocaine—runnin’ all ‘round my brain.

The sheer intensity of the performance is such that you have to stop the album before playing the next song and give yourself some time to recover from the experience. “Cocaine Blues” is an interpretive masterpiece with few equals in any genre.

Van Ronk figured we’d need something on the light side to follow “Cocaine Blues” and delivers with “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon.” Refusing to change gender to accommodate his own, Van Ronk plays the role of a woman taunting her about-to-be-ex-lover with the studliness of her new beau:

Well he is the king of lovin’
Just minus of a crown
He’s a good old wagon, daddy
And he ain’t broke down

Van Ronk delights in the role reversal, capturing the woman’s scarcely disguised glee at putting her old man in his place.

“Fixin’ to Die” is an old Bukka White song (“Fixin’ to Die Blues”), one he penned when he “got to wondering how a man feels when he dies.” Bob Dylan’s earlier cover version managed to rescue Bukka from obscurity and made him something of a figure in the 60’s folk revival. Bukka really didn’t think much of this particular song, and while I don’t think it’s one of his best, songs about facing death tend to appeal to the more dramatically inclined interpretistes. Van Ronk’s version is as strong as the original (though I do miss the washboard), and he manages to capture the strange anxiety the dying often feel about things left undone and responsibilities left unfulfilled (particularly family responsibilities).

“Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” is a very quiet number describing the experience of a man on his way to the gallows. Although I’m forever thrown by the Americanized pronunciation of “Girardeau” as “Jordo,” Van Ronk gives a compelling, empathetic performance of a man inflating the extent of his travels to convince himself he has led a full life and won’t be missing much in the grave. It’s followed by the traditional “Long John,” a vivid description of a ramblin’ man who winds up on the chain gang “with my teeth poked out.” It’s also the source material for “Baby Please Don’t Go,” popularized by Big Joe Williams, Muddy Waters and Them. Side 1 ends with an adaptation of a Liberian folk tune, “Chicken Is Nice,” in which a man catalogues a list of undesirable wives whose undesirability stems from cultural stereotypes associated with geography. Van Ronk’s delivery is gentle, bemused and a perfect fit for the narrative.

Another great example that demonstrates why Dave Van Ronk touches my soul and other folk musicians leave me cold can be found in his version of “He Was a Friend of Mine.” I’ve heard versions by Dylan, The Byrds (who turned it into a JFK eulogy) and The Chad Mitchell Trio (!). Only in Dave Van Ronk’s version do I hear the deep mourning, the anger of loss and the existential helplessness one experiences with the death of a friend or loved one. Dave Van Ronk performed this song in the memorial tribute to Phil Ochs, and I can’t believe there was a dry eye left in the house. A great interpretive artist has to combine discipline with empathy, and Dave Van Ronk achieved that rare and difficult balance in this marvelous performance.

“Motherless Children” continues the theme of loss in a growling performance characterized with more bitterness than empathy—the “life is unfair” theme. “Stackalee” is a much more coherent and compelling version of the old folk song than you hear in Lloyd Price’s abbreviated hit, “Stagger Lee.” Van Ronk’s take on the Furry Lewis version emphasizes the terrifying aspect of the lead character, who in real life was a St. Louis pimp and by all accounts, the ultimate bad-ass. After the authorities hang the murderous, sadomasochistic prick, Stack shuttles off to hell, where he has no qualms about taking on Satan himself:

Well, Stack says to The Devil,
‘Devil, let’s us have some fun,
You stab me with your pitchfork
And I’ll shoot you with my gun
When you lose your money, learn to lose

Well, Stack says to The Devil,
‘Put your pitchfork on the shelf,
I’m a bad man they call Stackalee
I’m gonna rule hell by myself
When you lose your money, learn to lose

The song is filled imagery from the world of craps shooting—the ultimate experience of fortune and misfortune—and it never ceases to delight me. Van Ronk’s hard-earned skills at finger-picking are on display here in a yeoman’s display of steady rhythm and brief counterpoints.

“Mr. Noah” is a cute song for children about you-know-who, and I definitely prefer the more adult, sexier “Come Back, Baby” that follows. This is an old Walter Davis song covered by dozens, most notably Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. Davis was a piano player, and his version is definitely more late night bar with only one lonely guy in the place drowning his sorrows in whatever Joe’s pouring. Van Ronk’s version sounds like he’d just read Thoreau, delivering his plea to his lost love in a tone of quiet desperation, in a glorious display of vulnerability.

Folksinger comes to a close with the one song I don’t care for. “Poor Lazarus” is a modification of the traditional “Po’ Lazarus,” a work song about another bad ass. Unlike “Stackalee,” this song drags on too long, and its placement after the very still “Come Back, Baby” was a curious decision. I usually pick up the needle after “Come Back, Baby” and pronounce myself a happy camper.

Before we leave Folksinger, let us deal with the elephant in the room: Dave Van Ronk was a white guy who sang a lot of black music. Rock is full of singers who have attempted with varying degrees of success to emulate African-American vocalists. While I guess the old saw that imitation is flattery has some value, I think it’s a bit off the mark when it comes to this subject, and way off the mark when it comes to Dave Van Ronk. The more effective imitators attempt to immerse themselves in the feelings they hear in the original singer’s voice, and some are quite effective at it. I don’t think early McCartney was trying to “whitewash” Little Richard the way Pat Boone whitewashed Fats Domino—he heard a terribly exciting voice and wanted to capture that excitement.

Dave Van Ronk took it one step further: his goal was to immerse himself in the black person’s experience and connect through empathy. A passionate socialist, he understood his own white privilege well enough to know that sitting around a feeling guilty about the historical developments that put white people in positions of power was a useless, self-indulgent exercise. Singing the songs from the African-American tradition helped him understand the experience, and the gift of a powerful, sandpapery voice made him a natural for interpreting those undeniably powerful songs.

Folksinger in many ways is a brave attempt at bridging the racial divide, but I’m pretty sure that was not Dave Van Ronk’s intent. He was simply fascinated by the music and wanted to interpret it to the best of his ability, to satisfy his own needs for development and maybe make a few listeners stop and think for a moment. The end result was this masterpiece of American folk, a paean to the gift of empathy and understanding.

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