Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Dave Van Ronk - Inside Dave Van Ronk

I am very surprised to find that I did not review the biography of Van Ronk, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, when I had read it - my omissions never fail to amaze me. In any case, I have known about this legendary folk singer more than I have known his music and thought it was about time to remedy that situation. This CD is a compilation of the albums Inside Dave Van Ronk and Folksinger and includes 25 varied tracks from this man who was on the forefront of the NYC folk scene in the late 50's/early 60's and who influenced many, most notably Bob Dylan (who took Van Ronk's version of "House of the Rising Son" and recorded it on his debut before Dave could do so).

A large man with a powerful, growling voice, Van Ronk is probably as famous for his knowledge of folk and blues at a time when the genres were first being discovered as he is for his own musical prowess. While no slouch, he is also no virtuoso on his instruments (all of the recordings are of Van Ronk by himself), though he does sing passionately throughout. His debt to Rev. Gary Davis is obvious right of the bat, as he covers both "Samson and Delilah" and "Cocaine Blues" in the style of Davis, though with a bit more rudimentary playing. There is a wide variety of tunes here, from the intense "Fixin' to Die" and "Stackerlee" to the incredibly silly "Mr. Noah" to the plaintive blues of "Come Back Baby" to the powerfully droning "Poor Lazarus" to the traditional folk of "House Carpenter" and "The Cruel Ship's Captain" and lots more. He also adapts Woody Guthrie's "talking blues" (that Dylan made famous) in "Talking Cancer Blues" and adds dulcimer and autoharp to other tunes.

While I truly enjoy this CD and Van Ronk's singing, playing and choice of songs, I can understand why he didn't cross over to mainstream popularity. I guess he was too true to the genre and just didn't have the spark or character to go any further - and maybe he didn't really want or expect to. This is a nice slice of early NYC folk, in any case.