Inside Dave Van Ronk
With awards season on the horizon, there’s no doubt that you’ll be hearing and seeing a lot about the Coen Brothers’ latest creation, ‘Inside Llewyn Davis.’ Based very loosely on the life and times of Dave Van Ronk, ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ explores what it was like to be in and around the folk scene of New York City in the early ‘60s. While there has already been much talk about Van Ronk and his life and influence in the Village since the film’s release, there seems to be one item that’s flown under the radar: the recent re-release of ‘Inside Dave Van Ronk,’ the folksinger’s stripped down and traditional 1963 album.
‘Inside Dave Van Ronk’ is full of the Brooklyn-born singer’s classic, raspy and powerful vocals, with each song accompanied by nothing more than a single instrument. At times that single instrument is a six-string or 12-string guitar, other times it’s a banjo or autoharp. No matter what the instrument of choice is, the record proves to
be an intimate peek into the world it was recorded in.
As described in his memoir, ‘The Mayor of MacDougal Street,’ folk songs were often passed down from one singer to the next. For Van Ronk, this passing of songs happened frequently on Sunday afternoons in New York City’s Washington Square. Usually, this transition meant a few things: lyrics would change, rhythms would speed up or slow down and most significantly, the original creator wouldn’t receive credit. “[The] original authors of folk songs are usually unknown,” he recalls in his memoir. “Even when we do know something about them, the information is not necessarily relevant.” Eleven of the 12 songs on ‘Inside Dave Van Ronk’ give credit to no specific writer, and only tags them as “Traditional.”
The one song that lists a writer – credited to Phil Rhodes – is ‘Talking Cancer Blues,’ an amusing yet to-the-point tune that aptly discusses the dangers of smoking cigarettes. Sounding almost like an inspiration to Conor Oberst, ‘Talking Cancer Blues’ showcases Van Ronk’s ability to not only sing the most traditional of folk songs, but also use prose to talk through his music. Ending with the lyrics, “Marijuana is here to stay, so if you want a treat and don’t mind the treatment, smoke pot. That’s the thinking man’s cigarette,” ’Talking Cancer Blues’ seems like a culturally relevant song, especially in today’s society.
Another track that stands out is ‘Kentucky Moonshiner,’ a folk standard that has been sung by many men, from Bob Dylan to Jay Farrar to Elliot Smith. With his gruff croon, Van Ronk belts out a requiem of sorts for anyone who has battled with the bottle. Even though it’s not a Van Ronk original, it’s hard not to feel like he is singing this folk tune with emotional, first-hand experience.
Recorded in 1962 and now re-released over 50 years later exclusively on vinyl, ‘Inside Dave Van Ronk’ not only inspired the namesake of the Coen Brothers’ movie, but also the fictional album cover for the title character’s latest record. While the movie should in no way be considered a Van Ronk biopic, it will obviously open the door to new folk fans and re-introduce long-time fans to music they haven’t heard in quite some time.
If you’re looking to get into the music of the folk scene of New York City, critics will obviously always point to Dylan. While there’s no denying his obvious influence and continued success, it’s important to also start a few years earlier with one of Dylan’s influences, Van Ronk. With ‘Inside Dave Van Ronk,’ you get nothing more – and nothing less – than a man and his music; no distractions or hesitations in the form of an unadulterated folk album. While the original Prestige Records pressing may be coveted and very hard to find, the re-release is a fantastic substitute thanks to Fantasy Records.
Let the folk legend’s own words on the back of the jacket serve as inspiration to go out and pick up ‘Inside Dave Van Ronk’ today: “And so, after years of frustration I finally have an album without a single blues in it. It’s great music, but I’ll probably never do it again.”
(Check out Days of the Crazy-Wild for a preview of three tracks from the album.)