Dave Van Ronk may be best known for the company he kept, which included Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. But Van Ronk, a Greenwich Village fixture called the Mayor of MacDougal Street, was a skilled musician in his own right, as well as a mentor to others in the 1960s folk scene. A new Smithsonian Folkways compilation, Down in Washington Square, reveals his wide-ranging interests in blues, “trad” jazz, spirituals and even sea shanties. The album arrives just before Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen brothers film about a struggling folk singer, based in part on Van Ronk, who died in 2002 at age 65.
We spoke with Smithsonian Folkways archivist Jeff Place about the making of Down in Washington Square. Read on for his favorite tracks from the album and his thoughts on Van Ronk’s career, and preview the previously unreleased track, “St. James Infirmary,” below.
How did this compilation come about?
The Smithsonian acquired a record company called Folkways Records in 1947, with 2,200 albums. It became Smithsonian Folkways in 1988. There were two Van Ronk records on Folkways and some sea shanty stuff on a different record. In the early ’90s Dave himself put together a 1-CD set of his favorite songs from those albums, and then right after he passed away in 2002, his friends and family, his widow, brought us a live recording—one of his last concerts, which are reissued.
There’s been a groundswell of Van Ronk interest in the last year or so, mainly because he had a book called The Mayor of MacDougal Street, which is his memoirs. And the Coen brothers have a new movie coming out called Inside Llewyn Davis; it’s based on that book. The character in it is not really Dave Van Ronk, but it’s a composite character who’s a Van Ronk kind of character. As a matter of fact, there are images in it which are taken from Van Ronk record covers.
I started talking to widow Andrea Vuocolo and she was interested. I looked at all the stuff we had here in the archive, which was in addition to those records I mentioned, and then Andrea some things he recorded at home before he died that had never come out. His biographer Elijah Wald had a bunch of stuff that he’d gotten from Dave, from back in the late ’50s, early ’60s, that had never been out before. So between those three sources—it was just going to be a reissue, now we’re adding all this additional, interesting stuff that no one’s ever heard before.
How much of this record is new material?
About a third of it—the third CD and a few other tracks. It became a 3-CD set and a bigger project than it really started out to be. We got Andrea to write an intro, memories of Dave, and then I wrote the rest of the notes.
How did Van Ronk’s music evolve over time?
He had a long career, starting in the ’50s with trad jazz, playing folk and blues versions of things; up through Dylan and the early Greenwich Village years; up into some of the younger songwriters he mentored, like Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega, people who came out in the ’80s and ’90s. . . .
He fell in with the folk crowd. There were jams in Washington Square Park and the jazzy stuff morphing into the folky stuff and the banjos and things. The world of the Village was turning into that folk world and he sort of went with the flow.
The later versions of some of also became more sophisticated musically. He got into a lot of other things. Elijah Wald talks about how he used Scarlatti, how he referenced this one classical piece in a folk arrangement that he did. There’s a song called “Another Time and Place” that came out in the ’80s—it’s a love song, probably for his wife, on the last disc. I couldn’t see him recording that in ’59, ’60—a straight love song like that.
What is trad jazz?
There are these jazz purists, people who believe that jazz stopped or was not worth listening to after about the 1930s. The big band, heaven forbid, bop and Dizzy Gillespie and Coltrane, all the things that came after—to them that was not jazz. Jazz was what we often talk about as Dixieland, that early stuff. To them the golden age of jazz would have been 1910 to 1935, Jelly Roll Morton and people like that.
Starting in the ’40s there was a revival of these purists in the U.S. who were playing that older style of jazz, the kind of stuff you’d hear at Preservation Hall in New Orleans. By the time Van Ronk came along it was waning. He caught the tail end of that, but he was one of those jazz purists. So this record is a lot of Bessie Smith and Jelly Roll Morton and songs like that.
Right on the tail end of was a “jug band” craze, which also was involved in. It’s an upright washtub bass, a washboard, a banjo and sort of old instruments. But at the same time, there was a trad jazz thing going on in England too. People like the Rolling Stones started off in trad jazz bands. The Beatles’ first band was a “skiffle band,” which is the British version of jug bands. So they all came out of the same thing and took it off in different directions.
The tracklist for this album is like a musical history.
Yeah, it’s kind of a great sampling of other people’s music. There are some really important traditional musicians from the early part of the 20th century, blues and jazz, like Bessie Smith and Gary Davis and others. In the early days Van Ronk wasn’t writing as much original stuff. But later on he started writing a lot more of his own material.
How was Van Ronk viewed by other musicians?
He was a musician’s musician. All these people who were hip thought of him as being really the guy to go to, to talk to. He did a lot of amazing arrangements of other people’s songs. For instance, he was one of the first guys ever to record a Joni Mitchell song. He could spot people, other songwriters. Musicians knew him, and especially around New York City he was really huge. I think now all this publicity will be good, to get other people turned on to him. I hope this movie gets his name out there for people who don’t know it.
Were you in contact with the filmmakers of Inside Llewyn Davis?
They called and asked me some questions and wanted some props for the movie. They wanted it to look like a record company owner’s office in Greenwich Village in 1962. I said it has to look like mine. It has to be completely cluttered, because like that is too busy creating and working on records to put things away. would be piled with tapes and old books and things everywhere. I offered extra copies of some old magazines we had from that era. They said that sounded great—but they never got back to me.
Why has Dave Van Ronk remained relatively obscure to the general public until now?
I guess some of his protégés were more charismatic—the Dylans of the world—and got to be big stars and he was kind of left behind. “The House of the Rising Sun” that Dylan recorded was his arrangement. But he always sort of played his gigs, did records through his whole career, taught a lot of guitar and was just the guy around the Village.
Did Van Ronk have any hard feelings about not hitting it big?
I don’t know if there were hard feelings. But I noticed that YouTube video where he talks about the “House of the Rising Sun” issue, and he’s grumbling but it’s almost like fake grumbling, like at this point he doesn’t care anymore.
What are some of the highlights of this album?
I like “The House of the Rising Sun,” the version he didn’t release because Dylan recorded it. Van Ronk put it on a record later, but this is an earlier version than the one that came out. I’ve heard the first two Folkways CDs a lot over the years, so it’s the newer stuff that I’d focus on the most. . . .
Charlie Weber got all this footage we shot of Van Ronk in 1997, which he’s going to put online. We released one of the songs from his Wolf Trap concert in ’97 on a previous album, but it was just the song. I thought his intro was just completely wild. It was so cool. It was the “Spike Driver Blues” intro , so I wanted to make sure that this record had the actual intro on it. He was this great raconteur, storyteller kind of guy, so to get that kind of captures him, that gravelly voice and his personality.
Having the video really captures him because he’s sort of surprising. . . he was a huge guy. He could have been a lineman for a football team. He was probably 300 pounds and 6’6” or something. First time I met him, I was like, my gosh, I had no idea he was this giant guy.
Audio Sneak Preview: “St. James Infirmary (Gambler’s Blues)”
In this previously unreleased track from Down in Washington Square, Van Ronk delivers his take on the old Irish ballad “The Unfortunate Rake,” in which the rake is dying from the effects of syphilis