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

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