Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Dave Van Ronk--listen

I heard Van Ronk's songs within my first month of my exposure to folk music and the blues at the Alma College in the early 1960s--cultural center of Michigan's lower peninsula, and maybe of the world. He was a favorite of an incredibly talented group of guitarists, singers, and poet/artists gathered at this non-descript small college (how, i still wonder about it--marty kearns, bruce macdonald, larry haskell, david wright, david sweeney, jacqui harper...all amazing people gathered for some strange reason...anyhow) Since then, I've always bought his albums, went to see him perform when he made it to Chicago, tried to play a few of his songs as part of my feeble mix on my own guitar... i just really liked him. I was sad when he died of cancer relatively young in 2002.

I recently read, "The Mayor of MacDougal Street", Dave's autobiography. It's an incredible book for anyone who is genuinely curious about the roots of the white community's interest in "folk" music and country blues from the voice of one who was their at the beginning. Van Ronk was in the Village in the mid-50s. No high school degree, but an honesty, irreverence, passion for music. First jazz on a banjo (!) and then on the guitar. And always a sharp, left, political eye. He describes the and his beginnings with photographic memory.

I used to/and still do idolize Pete Seeger and Van Ronk takes him (and the left and progressive movement) on as a pristine almost pure musical talent, but also a "stalinist" who couldn't sing a song that didn't have a political purpose. Same for Woody Guthrie who had "This machine kills fascists" scrawled on his guitar. Van Ronk writes, "Among Progressives of the time, personal expression in music was discouraged. Art was considered to be a tool...As odd as it may seem to us now, many of these people were embrarrassed to write a love song, because the Spanish Civil War was going on, or the steelworkers were on strike...while the songwriters around the CP had some magnificent moments, they were unable to exploit the full range of their experience, and their compositions ended up being as obsessively focused on one subject (politics) as the commercial music they despised was on another (romantic love)." Van Ronk's songs are about love, humor, compassion, empathy, wild hard living, total fun and exuberance...and this is another point where words aren't really enough or worth it.

Dylan lived on and off his couch for the first year in NYC, and stole his version of "House of the Rising Sun" for his first record. He describes how the southern country blues singers emerged, the depth of the culture of a small and very diverse group of people in the US, the serious musicians and writers, the superficial, the stumbling commercial efforts, and the beginning of the wave that became common knowledge and myth.

Really worth reading....

The latest cd I bought has "mean world blues" and "mack the knife" and it cuts at me...