Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Mayor of McDougal Street by Dave Van Ronk with Elijah Wald

“Back at Our Lady of Perpetual Bingo where I went to school, along with the rack, thumbscrew, and bastinado, they has a curious custom of announcing grades in the final exam and then making everybody hang around for an extra week before turning us loose for summer vacation. Presumably they did this to reinforce or belief in Purgatory.” How can anyone resist a book that opens with this paragraph as Dave Van Ronk’s autobiography, The Mayor of McDougal Street (Hachette Book Group/Da Capo Press,2013, $15.99/9.99 or used from $3.06) written with Elijah Wald, does? A creature of New York, Van Ronk, of Swedish and Italian descent was born in Brooklyn, but migrated to Queens as a child, where he grew up following his own muse, early becoming entranced with music on his way to becoming perhaps the finest white blues guitarist and singer in America during the late fifties and sixties, the time of the folk music craze in America, and beyond.

Throughout this memoir, Van Ronk emerges as a smart, articulate, thoughtful observer of the music scene generally and the emergence of Greenwhich Village at the center of the New York folk music world during the fifites and sixties. Dropping out of school when he was thirteen or so, he gradually migrated to the Village, where he spent years perfecting his craft on the guitar, learning blues from a variety of mentors, becoming an active participant and then central feature in the weekly Sunday hootenannies in Washington Square Park. A voracious reader and listener, he also became involved in the left wing politics pervasive at that time, and remained a dedicated lefty until his death from cancer in 2002.

Van Ronk, looked at from fifty years after his greatest popularity was achieved, probably is most important as a chronicler of his times and a commentator on music and musicians of rare insight combined with clever articulation. Here I’ve culled a few of his many gems:

“...to be a musician requires a qualitatively different kind of listening”...Van Ronk studied jazz with old jazz man Jack Norton on Saturday’s with a group of other teens besotted with jazz and developing skill along the way. Learned to listen, that less is more, “never use two notes when one will do. Never use one note when silence will do. The essence of music is punctuated silence.” He later learned from guitar great Mississippi John Hurt, and many of the other long hidden black blues guitarists of the early twentieth century. He devotes an entire chapter to the influence of the Rev. Gary Davis on American blues and his own music.

Rev. Gary Davis – Hesitation Blues

Dave Van Ronk – Hesitation Blues – 1950 – 1961

“Theft is the first law of art.”

“I think it was a good thing that, back in the Renaissance, people like Michelangelo were treated like interior decorators. A well-written song is a craft item. Take care of the craft, and the art will take care of itself.”

His thoughts on Dylan’s going electric: “Working musicians are very rarely purists. The purists are out in the audience kibitzing, not onstage trying to make a living.”

The distinction between folk, rock & roll, and country: “...if the accompaniment to this music is acoustic, then it’s folk. With amplified backup, then it’s rock & roll, except in those cases where a pedal steel is added, then it’s country.”

Van Ronk is a great story-teller! His account of the so-called “feud” between him and Bob Dylan is filled with both humor and nuance, with a retelling of how Dylan recorded The House of the Rising Sun, each of their refusals to continue singing it, and his final discovery of the real House of the Rising Sun in New Orleans while with Odetta. Familiar names from a well-remembered musical period keep dropping, each one evoking memories, a sense of deja vu. Throughout the book, the stories abound, yet this book presents a cohesive picture of an important period in American music with one of the seminal figures who both created and inhabited it.

Van Ronk’s social activism and increasingly frequent writing in small magazines and slingers sometimes emphasized the need for folk singers and other musicians to refuse to work for free in situations where the person they were working for was exploiting their labor while hiring dishwashers, cooks, and other necessary employees. His writing in this area, as a developing professional musician still resonates into the musical world, where too many musicians are giving it away in settings other than benefit concerts. He maintains his sense of political radicalism, it seems, throughout his career, although his comments suggest he looks back at his adolescence and early adulthood with wry irony.

Dave Van Ronk

Elijah Wald

Dave Van Ronk, while not having a formal education, was a voracious reader and student of what he saw. Elijah Wald, whose writings include a noted biography of bluesman Robert Johnson and a recent account of Bob Dylan’s famous and controversial move to electric guitar, as well as lots of other writing, is listed as co-writer. When I asked him how much was Van Ronk and how much his, he wrote me, “The language is entirely Dave's -- as, I must say, is much of mine, since he was a huge influence on the way I think, talk, and write. He dropped out of school long before college, around age 12 or 13, but was phenomenally well read and also had spent years arguing politics and poetry with the best minds of Greenwich Village….” He went on to say, “I did write some connecting material, but it was minor and I swear he couldn't have picked out what wasn't his, if he'd had a chance to read it-nor can I, except a couple of lines I was particularly pleased with, and I'm not telling which those were.”

For those interested in the emerging music scene of the fifties and sixties, the moves from jazz, to folk to rock and roll, Van Ronk’s book is must reading. He’s intelligent, funny, a cogent and unbalanced observer of the scene he was such a crucial part of. His life was always chaotic, existing on the edge of poverty as well as the front edge of musical change. The South and Appalachia become source material which comes to New York and Newport rather than a world he, himself, explores. He knows people like blueser Gary Davis or bluegrass great Earl Scruggs through their appearances in Washington Square and Carnegie Hall rather than on their home territory. Written with Elijah Wald, I recommend The Mayor of MacDougal Street most highly. I bought the book.

Dave Van Ronk – St. James Infirmary Blues

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash - Book Review

Wiley Cash’s new novel The Last Ballad (William Morrow, 2017, 389 pages, $26.99/$12.99) tells the story of the largely failed 1929 strike at the Loray Mill in Gastonia, North Carolina through the eyes of Ella May Wiggins, who became a heroine of the American labor movement after her death. Narrated as a detailed flashback by her grand daughter, and seen through the eyes of a number of fictional or fictionalized characters, whose lives in various elements of society brought them together at the mill during this fateful period of industrial vs. labor strife as well as during the beginnings of the civil rights struggle in its nascent years. Told in leisurely, often poetic, prose, Cash takes his time in revealing these stories as the roots of contemporary North Carolina, where the rifts still affect not only the local elements of this geographically and culturally crucial state, but the nation as a whole.

As Ella Mae sits in the back of a pickup truck with Pittsburgh-based labor organizer Sophia, her life history from Tennessee subsistence farming, to logging camps, to working in the mills mirrors the early history of North Carolina’s southern Piedmont as it moved from mid-nineteenth century rural bootlegging to an area using the region’s resources of running water, cotton, and available labor to build a burgeoning mill industry. The growth of mill culture as rural people heard the empty promises of recruiters offering the secure life of mill villages where, in fact, grinding poverty and constant debt kept them indentured in a manner not too different from the slaves, who had been released from bondage only a few decades before, using Gaston County, NC at the center.

Based on the actual happenings at the Loray Mill strike of 1929, representing an elemental moment in the development of the American labor movement, the story is intriguing, nuanced, and lyrically told through the eyes of a variety of participants. The novel brings to life the non-fiction book Linthead Stomp by Patrick Huber, which describes life and music in the mill towns of the early twentieth century. The strike and riots soon inspired a series of novels, now referred to as the “Gastonia Novels,” which extolled the virtues of class struggle and left wing politics.

Ella Mae Wiggins

As the story, told in vignettes from the perspective of people coming in contact with Ella May Wiggins unwinds, Cash captures the spirit of rural Gaston County, the rise of the mills, the influences on the development of the mill culture as the insatiable need for thread and cloth in rapidly industrializing America is fulfilled against the poverty of white and black workers. Names like evangelist Amy Semple McPherson, Belmont Abbey College, and towns like Lincolnton, Cherryville, Spartanburg, leading to Gastonia give the setting of labor unrest, the communist menace portrayed during the red scare, incipient deep-seated racial animus, and the fight against grinding poverty a living sense of reality. These elements come together in the struggle between the mill owners, their hired thugs, and the northern agitators eager to organize, free, and exploit the workers in a toxic, and ultimately tragic mix. Cash’s rich, lyrical language combines with lively portrayal of the characters who emerge to create a story that touches the imagination while portraying a reality built on facts and extending beyond them.

In two families, the McAdams and the Lytles, Cash describes another aspect of the duality of North Carolina’s aristocracy, pitting the lowland remnants of ante-bellum aristocracy against the post-war growth sparked by the industrialization of the South. Contrasting these two cultures of wealth and privilege to the white and black poverty of workers, Cash creates a rich soup of tension, distrust, and fear. Into this mix, racial, social, and economic politics help create a friction that still can be seen in the mystery that North Carolina presents to the country and the world. Slowly the lives of the characters cross and merge as the coming tragedy begins to take shape. The structure of the novel features a large range of characters from different walks of life – worker, factory owner, labor organizer, plantation owner, railroad porter, and others - whose lives come together in Gastonia, NC in the summer and fall of 1929.

Wiley Cash

Wiley Cash is the award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of A Land More Kind Than Home. A native of North Carolina, he has held residency positions at Yaddo and The MacDowell Colony and teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University. He and his wife live in Wilmington, North Carolina.

In The Last Ballad (William Morrow, 2017, 389 pages, $26.99/$12.99), Wiley Cash shows the ability to take characters who might easily become stereotyped, flesh them out, bring them to life, and place them in settings where their intersection with the other characters becomes believable while taking on a life of their own, leading inevitably to the playing out of The Last Ballad. While the story is a tragic one, it nevertheless points to a hopeful time where both conditions and relationships are improved, while the deep history of these events continues to influence the present. I was provided a digital edition of The Last Ballad by the publisher through Edelweiss and read it on my Kindle app. Highly recommended!

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