Staff Post

Happy Birthday Dave Van Ronk


The great Tom Russell played Jammin Java earlier this year. After the show my brother Jonathan reminded me that Tom has a song called "Van Ronk". One of the best concerts I've ever been to was a solo Dave Van Ronk show at Outpost In The Burbs in Montclair, NJ in 2000 or so. I was a budding folkie, just getting into writing songs and performing solo and had heard Dave Van Ronk was a unique talent on guitar and that there was some kind of Bob Dylan connection. Apparently he took Dylan under his wing and taught him fingerstyle guitar when Dylan first moved to New York.

The show was just him solo sitting on an old chair with a beat up Guild dreadnought guitar. He had a microphone. He was a heavy smoker and was coughing a lot during the show - pretty violently. Sometimes he'd stop during a song to cough up god-knows-what.

Sounds like a great show so far, huh? Ha.

You could tell he was wickedly smart and funny, was a treasure of stories and anecdotes and could entrance the audience with just the guitar, his voice and his persona.

I was looking for, and found, the rich experience that is possible with just a voice and great guitar playing.

His voice is kind of an acquired taste - gruff and howling yet could be tender, expressive and dynamic. His guitar arrangements were first-class though his technique was refreshingly raw and not extremely clean - buzzing strings, long stretches etc. His playing was firmly rooted in the folk/blues style of Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis but a lot of his arrangements were of cool ragtime songs and piano pieces by Scott Joplin and others. He sang serious songs, tender, vulnerable love songshumorous songs and protest, political songs.

During the break I found him outside smoking. I was nervous to approach him - he was an imposing character - over six feet tall with a big scruffy beard and floppy hat. I introduced myself and we talked a while. He mentioned he taught out of his apartment in Greenwich Village and gave me his phone number. We made plans to get together and talked on the phone a couple times. I never made it to his apartment though I've heard those "lessons" would stretch into hours and involved lots of whiskey, smoking, story telling and home-cooked meals. I really wish I had been able to make it happen.

We moved to Virginia in summer 2001 to run Jammin Java and were contacted by Dave Van Ronk's agent to have him come play in December. He was booked and I was thrilled. We got a call he was sick and had to cancel. sadly, he died of complications in colon cancer surgery in february 2002.

I read his book - The Mayor Of Macdougal Street - a few years ago. It's a memoir about that time in the 60's when he was coming up along with Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Eric Andersen and others in the folk scene of New York City.