Dave Van Ronk ‘Down in Washington Square. The Smithsonian Folkways Collection’ 3CD (Smithsonian Folkways) 5/5

Dave-Van-RonkIf the name is at first unfamiliar, his influence will rapidly become apparent. The most recent Coen Brothers film, ‘Inside Llewlyn Davis’, was very loosely based on Dave Van Ronk’s excellent autobiography, ‘The mayor of MacDougal Street’ (Da Capo, 2005), and Van Ronk was a key individual in the early years of the folk revival in New York’s Greenwich Village, from the mid-late 1950s and into the 1960s when a then young musician called Bob Dylan was just starting out. Van Ronk served as both a teacher and guru to musicians such as Dylan and others (later a debutant Joni Mitchell). In terms of his own musical influences, Van Ronk listened to early jazz, blues and contemporary folk singers (Rambling Jack Elliot, Pete Seeger and including Woody Guthrie) and learnt the fingering-picking guitar style from older musicians and performed the jug band style which was a precursor to skiffle music innovations in England from the likes of Lonnie Donegan. An indication of the sheer variety of styles that Van Ronk would listen to and soak up (he was not averse to western classic either) is exemplified in the following quote from his autobiography:

“When I listen to my recordings, I hear an obvious debt to Louis, and on those early records to Bessie Smith, as well as Jelly Roll Morton, Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday and [Reverend] Gary Davis”.

A major impetus to Van Ronk’s own appreciation of roots music came with the release in 1952 of Harry Smith’s ‘Anthology of American Folk Music’ that was in fact a new Folkways recording at the time. This anthology introduced the world to then relatively unknown musicians of the calibre of Mississippi John Hurt and Dock Boggs among many others featured. What Smithsonian Folkways have done is to compile a triple CD offering of the classic 1958-1960 recordings of Dave Van Ronk when the singer was in his prime plus some later live recordings from the 1980s, early-mid 1990s and even as late as 2001 to provide a fine overview of Van Ronk’s career. Unsurprisingly the strongest songs date from the earlier period and Van Ronk provides fine interpretations of ‘God bless the child’ from 1963, the classic blues numbers ‘St. James Infirmary’ and ‘Backwater Blues’. The two albums, ‘Ballads, Blues and a Spiritual’ (1959) and its follow up, ‘Dave Van Ronk Sings’ (1960) are both heard here in their entirety and rightly so since they cover the singer at the peak of his powers and both would later be re-issued by Folkways and Verve. Some of the later Prestige recordings from the mid-1960s are not included, but these can now be easily obtained on CD (‘In the Tradition’ and ‘Inside Dave Van Ronk’). Of note are the complete studio dates of Van Ronk’s last ever session. While not the complete picture, at three CDs this is pretty much definitive, and even completists will be impressed at the attention to detail and depth of the recorded legacy on offer.The gatefold sleeve is typically supplemented by a lavish forty page booklet and extensive essay plus photos that portray him as every bit the outsider his reputation makes him out to be.

Tim Stenhouse