Sunday, January 12, 2014

Van Ronk on Bobby and Joan and Paul and Artie

Dave Vam Ronk as a lad

The Mayor of MacDougal Street, the posthumous memoir of Dave Van Ronk, focuses on life among musicians in Greenwich Village in the 1950s and ’60s. It offers many glimpses of big names like “Bobby” Dylan (as Van Ronk knew him), Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Simon and Garfunkel, Noel Stookey (Paul of Peter, Paul and Mary) and Mississippi John Hurt.

For me, the joy of the book rests in Van Ronk’s upbeat and honest portrayal of himself and his milieu, his eye for detail and his love of a good story. When he’s not sure his version of events is correct, he tells you so and lets it rip. His tendency is to see the good in his fellow performers.

I’ve chosen a few observations to share with you today. To start with one of the many life lessons that pop up in the book, here’s one from the time Van Ronk, in his early 20s, finally landed a full-time gig in LA of all places:

Dave Van Ronk in the 1960s 
“To be working seven nights a week was incredible to me. In a sense it was the first real test of my career plans, of whether I truly wanted to be a professional, full-time musician. And the answer was yes, without question or reservation. It also provided a lot of incentive to develop my music, build up my repertoire, all that kind of thing. It was an absolutely essential education, because you can practice playing guitar in your living room, but the only place you can practice performing is in front of a live audience. Those old coffeehouses did not have to shut down early like the bars did, so they would stay open as long as there were paying customers, and you would wind up working four or five sets a night. I think that is one of the things that set the folksingers of my generation apart from the performers coming up today. There are some very good young musicians on the folk scene, but they will get to be fifty years old without having as much stage experience as I had by the time I was twenty-five. As a result, they will naturally mature much more slowly than the Dylans and Joni Mitchells and I did. We had so much opportunity to try out our stuff in public, get clobbered, figure out what was wrong, and go back and try it again. It was brutally hard work, but that was how I learned my trade: by working in front of an audience hour after hour, night after night.”

Bob Dylan, Suze Rotolo and Dave Van Ronk
On Bob Dylan:

“The first thing you noticed about Bobby in those days was that he was full of nervous energy. We played quite a bit of chess, and his knees would often be bouncing against the table so much that it was like being at
a séance. . . . He had a lot of stories about who he was and where he came from, and he never seemed to be able to keep them straight. . . . His thinking is so convoluted that he simply does not know how to level, because he’s always thinking of the effect he’s having on whoever he’s talking to. But there was also something underlying all of that. For example, there was his genuine love for Woody Guthrie. I have heard him say he came to New York to ‘make it,’ but that’s bullshit. When he came to New York, there was no great folk music scene, no chance of making a career out of the sort of music we were doing. What he said at the time, and what I believe, was that he came because he had to meet Woody. Woody was already in very bad shape with Huntington’s chorea, and Bobby went out to the hospital and, by dint of some jiving and tap dancing, managed to get himself into his presence, and he sang for Woody, and he really did manage to develop a rapport with him. For a while, he was going out to the hospital quite often, and he would take his guitar up there and play for Woody. . . .

“We all admired Woody and considered him a legend, but none of us was trucking out to see him and play for him. In that regard, Dylan was as stand-up a cat as I have ever known, and it was a very decent and impressive beginning for anybody’s career.”

Baez with Dylan at Newport
On Joan Baez, Judy Collins and other female singers of the early ’60s:

“The thing about Baez, though, was that like almost all the women on the scene, she was still singing in the
style of the generation before us. It was a cultural lag: the boys had discovered Dock Boggs and Mississippi John Hurt, and the girls were still listening to Cynthia and Susan Reed. It was not just Joan. . . . All of them were singing bel canto – bad bel canto, by classical standards, but still bel canto. So whereas the boys were intentionally roughing up their voices, the girls were trying to sound prettier and prettier and more and more virginal. To a great extent, I think that had to do with making themselves desirable to the boys, and certainly the boys could have been more encouraging – we were all entranced by that virginal warble. But the result was that the women were still singing in the styles of the 1940s and 1950s, and that gave them a kind of crossover appeal to the people who were listening to Belafonte and the older singers, and to the clean-cut college groups.”

Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon had a hit in their teens.
On Simon and Garfunkel:

“I got to know Paul and Artie pretty well. . . . When they first showed up, they were in a pretty tough situation because they had already had a Top 40 hit as teenagers, and as far as the music industry was
concerned, they were over the hill, but the mouldy fig wing of the folk industry despised them as pop singers. I remember hearing them down at the Gaslight, and no one would listen. . . . Their mainstream connections were still good enough to get them a contract with Columbia, but the first album went nowhere, and ‘Sounds of Silence’ actually became a running joke: for a while, it was only necessary to start singing, ‘Hello, darkness, my old friend. . .’ and everybody would crack up. It was a complete failure, and they had gone their separate ways – Paul had fled to London and Artie was going back to grad school to become a professor of mathematics – but then someone at Columbia did some studio alchemy, overdubbed a few electric guitars and whatnot, and it became one of the seminal folk-rock hits.”

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