Tag Archives: Phil Ochs

Classic Music Review: Rehearsals for Retirement by Phil Ochs

 

rehearsals-for-retirement-1969

In contrast to the horror my mother and I experience daily as we pore through news and tweets related to the accession of King Donald to the throne of the most powerful and dangerous nation on the planet, my flaming liberal father is rather philosophical about the whole thing. “Been there, done that,” he shrugs.

The “been there” period he refers to is that dark period in American history characterized by the Vietnam war, race riots and the emergence of white backlash. Americans were divided on issues of patriotism, long hair/short hair, liberation movements, the “drug epidemic,” race and the “creeping socialism” of The Great Society. I asked him to reproduce his rant while I captured it on my keyboard.

“You think the 2016 campaign was ugly? Go back to 1968. Two major assassinations. Riots at the Democratic Convention, cops beating the shit out of kids. After the tear gas had cleared, the Gallup Poll put the Democratic establishment nominee in third place—behind George Wallace, a mean-spirited, lifelong segregationist. After losing Bobby Kennedy, we were down to a choice between Wallace, Hubert Humphrey—who spent his time as vice-president licking Lyndon Johnson’s ass and supporting the war—and Richard Nixon, who had been left for dead as a loser years before. A whole generation of young voters who had become engaged through Gene McCarthy and Bobby decided to check out—just like a lot of Bernie voters did. People voted for Nixon and Wallace for the same reason they voted for Trump—it was all about white people feeling threatened by what they saw as an erosion in the white version of the American Dream. Things were tense—families were falling apart over the war, the generation gap was huge, and if you had long hair or black skin, you stood a pretty good chance of having some redneck kick the shit out of you, just for the hell of it. The people who voted for Nixon and Wallace were just as dumb, uneducated and uninformed as the typical Trump voter. Wallace was constantly sneering about the “pointy-headed intellectuals,” and Nixon resented anyone who went to a more prestigious college than he did. Wallace and Nixon were bitter, fearful men who tapped into the bitter fear of the majority of voters who wanted law and order no matter what. Nixon called them the Silent Majority, and you’ve seen one of them on TV reruns—Archie Bunker. People thought we’d made all this progress by electing a black president and they forgot that all those Archie Bunkers were still hanging around, nursing their resentment. We all laughed at Archie Bunker, just like liberals laughed at the deplorables. Back then, that attitude gave us Richard Nixon. Now it’s Trump.

“People are calling Trump fascist, anti-democratic, corrupt, dishonest—all the labels we applied to Nixon. Just like Trump, Nixon was a dishonest prick who fixed an election, too, and it eventually caught up with him, just like it will for Trump. So to me, this is ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.'”

To support his argument, he introduced Exhibit A, Phil Ochs’ post-Chicago release, Rehearsals for Retirement, ghoulish cover and all. “Listen to this and then write your review. It’s all there.”

As is true with everything Phil Ochs ever did, Rehearsals for Retirement is an uncomfortably captivating piece of music. Never one to pull punches or fail to call bullshit on the complacent, unthinking dogma we know as American Exceptionalism, Phil Ochs was a perceptive satirist and usually a compassionate human being. But as I’ve learned through my difficulty in ridding myself of my abiding disgust for anyone who voted for The Orange Nightmare, compassion has its limits. What’s the fucking point trying to dialogue with people who choose to remain uneducated and cling to their fears and prejudices like security blankets? Rehearsals for Retirement is the moment when Phil Ochs realized that the fix was in and that the repressive forces in American society had marshaled their ample resources to put an end to all that socialist hippie nonsense. For Phil Ochs, the shining vision of a compassionate society where everyone could get a fair shake died on the mean streets of Chicago in August 1968.

Hence the tombstone.

Many people in the 60’s believed in “the dream” because they saw parts of the dream come true. The folk revival of the 1960’s coincided with a higher level of economic security in the States, which helped foster a greater degree of openness and self-reflection in the American populace. The consciousness-raising that took place in the early part of the decade was facilitated by leaders like JFK and MLK and encouraged by the work of the great folk artists of the day. It’s hard to believe now, but in the 60’s, protest marches and songs actually changed minds and led to real social progress, particularly in the area of civil rights. Americans by and large wanted to create a truly fair and inclusive society where everyone had an equal shot at the American Dream. The anti-progress conservative movement had been largely discredited by LBJ’s landslide victory over Goldwater in 1964, and LBJ cashed in his political capital on the cornerstone legislation of The Great Society and The War on Poverty: Medicare, The Voting Rights Act, The National Endowment for the Arts, stronger anti-pollution laws, aid to education, low-income housing—a cornucopia of laws validating the new self-image of Americans as a kind and generous people.

Then something changed. When I researched the two years associated with the pivot point, one statistic leapt out at me above all else: the sudden shift in American attitudes concerning the death penalty. In the early 60’s, Americans had begun to question the value and morality of state-sponsored murder, as reflected in annual Gallup polls showing decreasing support for the barbaric practice. In May 1966, for the first time in the history of the poll, a plurality of Americans favored abolishing the death penalty: 42% wanting to keep it, but 47% opting for abolition.

But the June 1967 survey revealed a sudden and significant reversal: 54% wanted to keep the death penalty, while only 38% wanted to get rid of it. This began a long, sickening trend that peaked in 1994, when 80% of the American people favored executions. While support for the death penalty drifted down to 60% in the 2016 poll, a solid majority of Americans remain enamored with legalized murder.

So what happened between May 1966 and June 1967 that made such a difference?

I can answer that in two words: Ronald Reagan.

Far more likable and telegenic than the grumpy Goldwater, Ronald Reagan swept to victory in a campaign that demonized protesters, hippies, minorities and welfare queens, capitalizing on deep-seeded white fear of economic and social displacement. Elected Governor of California in a landslide fueled by white disgust with the previous year’s Watts riots, Reagan gave voice to nostalgia for days gone by, the virtues of the Protestant work ethic, patriotism, law-and-order and un-politically correct racism. Reagan voters wanted to slam the door on civil rights that threatened property rights, hair styles that threatened gender identity, and any and all behaviors lumped under the label “un-American,” especially disagreement with American foreign policy.

We meet one of the flock who happily voted The Gipper into office in the opening number, “Pretty Smart on My Part.” Musically, the song takes you by surprise, with Phil channeling fellow Texan Buddy Holly in an intense acoustic strum reminiscent of the pattern in “Not Fade Away.” Phil enters in fine voice and seemingly good spirits as the voice of the man of the Silent Majority, who knows there are people out there who want to get him, hurt him and bring him down. These nefarious enemies include hitchhiking hippies, women with big tits, imaginary rapists and disease-ridden Chinese (or any Asian ethnic group; the bastard probably can’t tell the difference and calls them all “Chinese”). He responds to each of these “outsiders” with typically violent responses, some direct, some indirect. With the hitchhiker, he decides to run him over with his car; with the woman, he decides to tie her up and whip her (obviously Phil only had a superficial understanding of BDSM dynamics). The most curious incident involves the alleged rapist, for instead of doing the manly thing and protecting his wife, he does the manly thing and heads off to kill innocent birds:

I can see him coming
He’s walking through bedroom
With a switchblade knife
He’s looking at my wife
He wants to get me
He wants to hurt me
He wants to bring me down
But sometime later when I feel a little braver
I’ll go hunting with my rifle
Where the wild geese are flying
Then I’m gonna bag one
Pretty smart on my part
Find my way home in the dark

Yeah, I bet it makes you feel like such a man to kill a defenseless animal. Ooh, baby, fuck me with your long stiff rod!

Far more frightening is this dumb shit’s take on foreign policy, a completely ignorant, ethnocentric, racist stance that values extermination over negotiation:

I can see them coming
They’re training in the mountains
And they talk Chinese
And they spread disease
They want to get me
They want to hurt me
They want to bring me down
But sometime later when I feel a little safer
We’ll assassinate the president
And take over the government
And then we’re going to fry them
Pretty smart on my part
Find my way home in the dark

The key line in the song is “find my way home in the dark,” for it captures both the “man’s home is his castle” ethic of sacred property rights and the self-engendered belief that anyone who is “not me” is a tool of the Prince of Darkness. As I reconnected with this song, I thought of all those Trump voters, who—with a huge assist from their equally moronic candidate—wanted to blame China for everything: their unemployment, their loss of status in the world, the myth of America the Disrespected. Of course, it never dawned on these dummies that the Chinese were simply engaged in the same cutthroat competition for markets that Americans have practiced with abandon for over a century, or that they could have responded to globalization by GETTING A FUCKING EDUCATION and learning a new trade. No, just as was true in the 60’s, they want to thrill in their misery, blame everyone but themselves and turn to their cherished guns as their ultimate backup plan. Phil Ochs was not describing a phenomenon unique to the 1960’s; he was describing a central character flaw in the American male.

Doing a 180, Phil gives us “The Doll House,” a lovely waltz highlighted by Lincoln Mayorga’s deft celeste-like piano. The lyrics tend to the obscure, generally describing a fantastical and mythical world reminiscent of dreamland. Some have translated the opening line as, “Lost in the valley of dolls,” suggesting a drug-induced fantasy; what I hear is “Valley of Oz,” which fits better with the cultural references strewn throughout the song. This alternative world is a mélange of surreal imagery and mythical personages drawn from a variety of cultures (Cinderella, Tom Sawyer, The Lady of the Lake and Pirate Jenny—and perhaps Oz) with no apparent connection to one another. The only solid clue to interpretation is Phil’s shift to Dylan imitator in the second chorus, which could indicate the song was a send-up of Dylan’s more symbolist work . . . but that’s pure speculation. In any case, “The Doll House” is a lovely rainy afternoon song that flows beautifully.

There’s no mistaking the meaning of “I Kill Therefore I Am,” a no-holds barred attack on the American police. The cops of the era were labeled “pigs” by the New Left due to their well-documented, televised preference for beating heads with nightsticks, blasting little kids with firehoses and the disgusting frenzy of physical force displayed in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. The tendency of many young people in that generation to indulge in illegal substances added to the general tension between police and populace. What makes the song relevant today are two aspects of American policing that haven’t changed in fifty years: racial profiling and the conspiracy of the system to protect police from blatantly illegal actions:

I don’t like the black man, for he doesn’t know his place
Take the back of my hand or I’ll spray you with my mace
I’m as brave as any man can be
I find my courage through chemistry
I am the masculine american man
I kill therefore I am  . . .

Farewell to the gangsters we don’t need them anymore
We’ve got the police force, they’re the ones who break the law
He’s got a gun and he’s a hater
He shoots first, he shoots later
I am the masculine american man
I kill therefore I am.

As in “Pretty Smart on My Part” and “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” the upbeat, light rock music provides ironic counterpoint to the penetrating lyrics. This proved to be one of Phil’s most courageous songs, for as paranoid as he might have seemed to friends and family during his later decline, the FBI was busy building a file of over 500 pages related to his “subversive” activity.

Next, Phil’s attention turns inward in a trio of songs most would classify as “difficult.” I can’t argue with that characterization, but I deeply appreciate the emotional honesty of all three songs.

It all begins at Lincoln Park on the night of August 28, 1968, with his presence at an earth-shattering event that would add new pages to his FBI file. Phil Mershon described the scene in a piece on furious.com:

Humphrey accepted his party’s nomination on August 28, as the day ended and the scent of tear gas wafted up Michigan Avenue to the nominee’s suite at the Conrad Hilton. The worst violence was about to begin. And the New York folk singer would be right in the thick of things. The protestors had gathered in Grant Park to hear a series of speeches before marching to the Convention Center. The Chicago Police attempted to contain the group by surrounding the Park. One after another speaker addressed the crowd. In between speeches of men like activist Dave Dellinger, poet Allen Ginsberg, and comedian Dick Gregory, Phil would stand in the back of a pick-up truck and sing for the crowd. Shortly after he sang a rousing version of “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” he saw a young boy climb the park’s flag pole and pull down Old Glory. The was all the provocation the police required. They grabbed the kid, beat him with their nightsticks, and tossed him into the back of a squad car while the more agitated onlookers threw rocks at the arresting officers. Press cameras filmed all this for posterity and even broadcast one cop commanding “Make sure you show them throwing rocks!” While Dave Dellinger attempted to lead a nonviolent march to the Convention Center (and was blocked from doing so), others took advantage of an opening in the quarantine and thousands of young people marched toward the Hilton. Enraged at being distracted, the police charged up Michigan Avenue, firing tear gas canisters and clubbing everything in sight. When clubs failed to subdue, they stomped. And when that proved ineffective, they kicked, shoved, punched and beat. The crowd shouted “The whole world is watching!”

That scene provided the bulk of the material for “William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed,” a melancholy depiction of the riot and, to some degree, its consequences. Given Phil’s politics, one might approach this song expecting a classic poor-me leftist rant that pins the blame squarely on the cops, but Phil Ochs was a much more perceptive human being capable of connecting the hidden dots. After describing the scene where young people peacefully assembled in the gloaming before the mayhem began, Phil comments on those who organized the protest:

They spread their sheets upon the ground just like a wandering tribe
And the wise men walked in their Robespierre robes
Through Lincoln Park the dark was turning

Robespierre is the ultimate symbol of the extreme zealot, a purist leader who responded to any suspected deviation from the party line by sending the heretics to the guillotine. The reference clearly indicates that Phil considered the movement’s organizers equally culpable for the violence that night by stoking an “us-against them mentality” that would prove to be completely self-defeating. Phil Mershon put it this way:

As Phil Ochs and the others would soon come to realize, most of the whole world didn’t care and among those who did, many felt the cops hadn’t gone far enough.

Back in Los Angeles, Phil began to question his own approach to politics in America. While the Yippies and other radicals had been creating and recreating their own counterculture, they had alienated the American working class along with Middle America. People who were already involved, Ochs reasoned, didn’t need to be converted. Nixon–who would ride to victory above the shattered remains of a splintered Democratic Party–called these frightened Americans ‘the Silent Majority.’ Ochs knew that if this majority rejected the members of the New Left, they would in turn embrace the solutions of men like Nixon and George Wallace. Frightened by those prospects, the songwriter began to detach himself by degrees from the journalistic approach to his craft. The resulting music spoke with broader, more universal tones.

The reference to Yeats in the song’s title is therefore not a validation of candidate Eugene McCarthy’s favorite poet, but a realization that truths discovered through poetry have greater depth and duration than polemical positioning. The arrangement is itself poetic, combining piano with accordion and viola, creating that slow-motion atmosphere one experiences in the midst of a catastrophic event, where every visual, sound and smell is amplified a thousandfold. The curious addition of a barrelhouse segment after a brief silence underscored the competition for activist purity common on the left—if you weren’t in Chicago, you were nowhere, even if you happened to be helping the citizens of Detroit rebuild a city torn by riots.

“My Life” is the complementary twin of “William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed,” a statement of rebirth following the symbolic death of Chicago: “My life is now a death to me/So I’ll mold it and I’ll hold it till I’m born.” But as is true with nearly everything associated with Phil Ochs, the truth is much more complicated. He follows the statement of rebirth with the sad acknowledgment that no matter how much of his past he leaves behind and no matter where he chooses to take his art, he will always be a stranger in a strange land, deprived of peace and privacy:

So I turned to the land
Where I’m so out of place
Throw a curse on the plan
In return for the grace
To know where I stand
Take everything I own
Take your tap from my phone
And leave my life alone
My life alone.

The expression of alienation and the desire to retreat is the antithesis of American Optimism, so insipidly expressed in Paul Anka’s “My Way.”

But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall
And did it my way

Americans love a fighter—someone who can take the punch and get up from the canvas. In real life, things don’t work that way. People lose their jobs and slip into depression, and all the optimism in the world isn’t going to make a difference to someone who feels utterly worthless. You can fight until you turn black and blue but when you’re trying to work an employment system where your chances of getting a job depend largely on favoritism or dumb luck, fighting isn’t going to get you anywhere. Although this final verse is heartbreaking and full of anguish, it has the undying virtue of emotional honesty. This was a man frightened and astonished by what was happening in the world, feelings that many of us living in the present can easily relate to.

The final song in the trilogy, “The Scorpion Departs, But Never Returns,” superficially relates the story of the USS Scorpion, a US Navy submarine that was lost due to an “unexplained catastrophic event” that caused the ship to be crushed by the sheer pressure of the ocean’s depths, killing all 99 crewmen. In the liner notes for Rehearsals for Retirement/Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, Richie Unterberger noted that, “it could just be taken as a tale of a ship lost at sea, it also reflects directionlessness Ochs saw in both the course of America and within his own life.” The depiction of the captain as an unresponsive, uncommunicative leader captures the aimlessness one feels when leaders fail to live up to their responsibilities, but it also points out the problematic nature of depending on leaders to protect us from harm. In the last two verses, Phil gamely attempts to balance hope and despair, but in the end, comes firmly down on the side of anguish and self-doubt:

The radio is begging them to come back to the shore
All will be forgiven, it’ll be just like before
All you’ve ever wanted will be waiting by your door
We will forgive you, we will forgive you
Tell me we will forgive you

But no one gives an answer not even one goodbye
Oh, the silence of their sinking is all that they reply
Some have chosen to decay and others chose to die
But I’m not dying, no I’m not dying
Tell me I’m not dying

The arrangement here echoes the more complex arrangements of Pleasures of the Harbor, featuring a French horn counterpoint that somehow manages to express a mournful urgency.

Having plumbed the depths of his soul, Phil gives himself and the listener a break with the light-and-bouncy “The World Began in Eden and Ended in Los Angeles.” Some have remarked that the cheesy horns were a dig at Herb Alpert, but I don’t think The Tijuana Brass was that bad. It’s followed by “Doesn’t Lenny Live Here Anymore,” another waltz featuring one of Phil’s most lovely melodies, one that flows so beautifully with the lyrics that it’s difficult to reconcile the beauty with the subject matter—the relentless progression of depression. This song has been mistakenly identified as some kind of tribute to Lenny Bruce, a perception that fits neither with the lyrics nor the timing (Lenny Bruce had died over two years before). My take is Lenny is the narrator of his own story, the depressed soul separating himself from his decaying self by shifting to the third-person perspective. Our Lenny’s journey into darkness ends in a dingy room in nowheresville, a “long-time loser” grieving for an ex-lover but still suffering from her definitive judgment of his worth:

The fat official smiles at the pass on the border
And the hungry broom makes sure that the room is in order
You pull the shade
All the beds are made
As your lips caress the razor of the blade
Of the blade

And the haggard ex-lover of a long-time loser
Stands rejectedly by the door
Doesn’t Lenny live here anymore?
Are you sure?

A difficult piece of work, indeed.

Phil returns to the political in “Another Age,” a fairly straightforward condemnation of American involvement in the Vietnam War and the lasting damage to American society that went far beyond the sickening body count. “We were born in a revolution and we died in a wasted war” expresses both the pointlessness of that terrible war and the complete destruction of America’s standing as the world’s moral guardian. Once again, a snappy tempo contrasts with the bitter lyrics, though the way the rhythmic structure allows Phil’s voice to soar on “So I pledge allegiance against the flag” confirms the wisdom of the counterintuitive choice.

The title track ends the album, one of the most remarkable duets of voice and piano you will ever hear. Phil and Lincoln Mayorga perform like perfectly-synced dancers following a rhythm of spontaneous creation. Both introduce subtle delays in the song’s progress to highlight the emotional content, with Phil in particular extending syllables beyond expected length, particularly on the second lines of the verses. The couplet that serves as the song’s bridge is one I find endlessly intriguing, due to the ambiguity concerning the kind of laughter he’s describing: joyful, contemptuous or absurd? The message of comfort to his daughter in the second line might indicate any of the three, with the implication that the end is not as important as the journey:

Had I known the end would end in laughter
Still I’d tell my daughter that it doesn’t matter

Rehearsals for Retirement turned out to be a commercial disaster, Phil Ochs’ worst-selling album, one that was removed from the A&M catalog rather speedily after its release. While the relentless sense of despair at the loss of one’s country and one’s soul may have accounted for poor sales, I think the more likely culprit was its rejection of American Optimism. Phil Ochs saw the writing on the wall and put it into song but no one wanted to hear that America was finished or that the tried-and-true tactics of the early Civil Rights Movement would fail to stop the war. Identities were locked into place, the battle lines were drawn and any chance of dialogue obliterated be the “me”/”not me” paradigm.

Once again, America finds itself thoroughly divided and in a much more precarious position than it was in the 1960’s. Nixon never came close to experiencing Republican control of Congress, so he had no choice but to compromise on issues of human rights and the environment. For all practical purposes, America is now a one-party state led by a mean-spirited sociopath. While Democrats can vote against this insult to intelligence or that abuse of human rights, the right wing controls the votes. Things seem beyond hopeless, but the worst thing Americans can do is go into denial about it or—even worse—normalize the situation.

In Rehearsals for Retirement, Phil Ochs spoke the emotional and political truth of a country shattered by repeated acts of self-destruction—a country very much like the United States of January 2017. Despite its dark and brooding tone, listening to Rehearsals for Retirement turned out to be a cathartic and comforting experience for me. Phil Ochs expressed all the feelings I have experienced since the election: angst, depression, anguish anger, frustration and confusion about what to do next. Being reminded that we have gone through similar dark periods in recent history helped me appreciate the fundamental truth that the struggle against prejudice, greed and violence is a never-ending battle against human fear and ignorance.

When I reviewed London Calling a few months ago, I had no answer to Joe Strummer’s essential question: “What are we gonna do now?” Somehow, listening to Rehearsals for Retirement clarified things for me. We need to accept the fundamental truth that the emerging fascist leaders of the day (Trump, Le Pen, Duterte, etc.) capitalize solely on human fear and insecurity. They do that because they are frightened human beings themselves. They project a strong, tough image to protect their essential vulnerability, and in the process gather many frightened followers. While human beings in fear can be terribly dangerous, they are also inherently fragile. On my part, I will do everything I can to expose these frauds as the deeply insecure people they are and persistently fight them with the truth. I also intend to respect, engage and try to understand the frightened people who follow these corrupt leaders (and I have lots of opportunity to do that, since I live in a part of France where LePen is relatively popular). Finally, I will do whatever I can to work with others to eliminate the two primary sources of fear in our world today: economic inequality and prejudice.

With luck, I may be able to influence half a dozen people to face their fears and move on. But if enough of us fight the fascists with the weapons of truth and human respect—no matter how ugly things get—we can put these motherfuckers where they belong—on the ash heap of history.

Fuck “Let’s win one for The Gipper.” Let’s win this one for Phil Ochs!

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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