Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 19, 2006

A Second Look At The Folk Music Revival

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 1:56 pm

A Second Look At The Folk Music Revival

by Louis Proyect

Book Review

Dave Van Ronk and Elijah Wald: The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Da Capo Press, Cambridge, MA., 2005, ISBN 0-306-81407-2, 246 pages, $26.00 (hardcover)

David Hajdu: Positively 4th Street, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2001, ISBN 0-374-28199-8, 328 pages, $26.00 (hardcover)

(Swans – June 19, 2006) The publication of Bob Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One invites further explorations into the folk revival. In preparing a review of Dylan's luminous memoir for Swans (http://www.swans.com/library/art11/lproy29.html), I read two other books to understand the backdrop. They will now be reviewed here as a follow-up.

One is Elijah Wald's The Mayor of MacDougal Street, an 'as told to' memoir by Dave Van Ronk, a pioneer of the folk music revival who was dying of cancer while the memoir was being written. Despite approaching mortality, Van Ronk's good humor and vitality suffuses the entire book. A life-long socialist, Van Ronk nearly never wrote or sang topical songs. But his memoir reveals him to be an astute surveyor both of American society and of his own modest but important role in catalyzing social change through folk music.

The other is David Hajdu's Positively 4th Street, a study of the relationships between Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, and between Richard Fariña and Mimi Baez Fariña, Joan's younger sister. Fariña died in a motorcycle accident in 1966 and his wife died of cancer in 2001. Hajdu's first book, a biography of Billy Strayhorn, demonstrated an uncommon ability to place a musician into his or her cultural and social context. While all the portraits drawn by Hajdu are compelling, I will focus on that of Richard Fariña, who is an interesting contrast to Dave Van Ronk.

Although Hajdu's Dylan is the sneering, hostile figure made familiar in the Pennebaker Cinéma vérité "Don't Look Back," the Chronicles reflects a mellower and wiser figure generous to a fault to everybody who he encountered on the way up, most especially Van Ronk:

Dave Van Ronk, he was the one performer I burned to learn particulars from. He was great on records, but in person he was greater. Van Ronk was from Brooklyn, had seaman's papers, a wide walrus mustache, long brown straight hair which flew down covering half his face. He turned every folk song into a surreal melodrama, a theatrical piece — suspenseful, down to the last minute. Dave got to the bottom of things. It was like he had an endless supply of poison and I wanted some . . . couldn't do without it. Van Ronk seemed ancient, battle tested. Every night I felt like I was sitting at the feet of a timeworn monument. Dave sang folk songs, jazz standards, Dixieland stuff and blues ballads, not in any particular order and not a superfluous nuance in his entire repertoire. Songs that were delicate, expansive, personal, historical, or ethereal, you name it. He put everything into a hat and — presto — put a new thing out in the sun. I was greatly influence by Dave. Later, when I would record my first album, half the cuts on it were renditions of songs that Van Ronk did. It's not like I planned it, it just happened. Unconsciously I trusted his stuff more than I did mine.

Van Ronk was born in 1936, an age that gave him some proximity to the tumultuous changes wrought by the Great Depression, including a labor movement that remained restive until the late 1940s. His initial musical affinities, however, were not with the social protest music of a Woody Guthrie or a Josh White but with traditional or Dixieland jazz. Despite lacking a golden throat, his first gigs were as a singer. It was sheer volume that opened up doors, especially in low-rent clubs lacking a sound system. As some wit put it, to quote Van Ronk, "When Van Ronk takes a vocal, the hogs are restless for miles around."

Of course, the folk revival was in itself an attempt to redefine what was beautiful. For every singer with an angelic voice like Joan Baez's, there were others who got by on sheer personality, like Bob Dylan. For a generation that had become jaded by white rock-and-rollers like Pat Boone, having a raspy but genuine instrument was more than adequate. Although there are very few sound tracks on the Internet (other than the 20-second clips at amazon.com) that capture Van Ronk in performance, author Elijah Wald does include Take A Whiff on Me, (http://www.elijahwald.com/whiff.ram) which he describes as a "taste of how Dave sounded in his formative years, around the time he was recording his first Folkways album." It is essential Van Ronk, combining superior guitar technique, unabashed enthusiasm and a keen sense of phrasing — essential for any vocalist.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art12/lproy38.html


  1. http://www.wsws.org/arts/1998/may1998/dvr-m7.shtml

    Comment by Poulod — June 20, 2006 @ 9:39 pm

  2. I liked the folk revival.

    I would have easier caught on today, that Phil Ochs was depressed.

    I miss the quality of the 1960s folk singers.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — June 21, 2006 @ 5:55 am

  3. I’m looking for a song about a man down on his luck who is given two bottles of buttermilk by a lady. Years later she is in the hospital and she cannot pay her bill. He arrives to pay the bill as thanks for the buttermilk. I believe it’s an old folk song, but I don’t know the title and I really want to find it. Can anyone help?

    Comment by Michael — June 29, 2006 @ 1:55 am

  4. […] of MacDougal Street”, a book that really knocked me out when I read it as background research for an article on the folk music revival of the 50s and early 6 That plus an interview with Nora Flaherty on WFUV that you can listen to in […]

    Pingback by How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — November 4, 2009 @ 6:42 pm

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