Volume 18, Number 3 | JUNE 10 - 16, 2005

Dave Van Ronk, folk musician, song-writer and storyteller continued performing until shortly before his death at age 65.

Legendary Village folk artist remembered

Music had ‘the truth that made you break’

By Abigail Rothberg

In the heart of Greenwich Village in the 1960’s, people went from divey clubs to underground cafes sopping up politically saturated music and comedy. Energetic, excited urbanites strummed rural music out into the streets giving rise to a folk explosion.

Villager Suze Rotolo says of Village life when she was a teen. “I’d meet with friends and we’d go over to Washington Square and listen to music. It was informal, yet Pete Seeger could be there. All these people who later became well-known started out by meeting every Sunday and playing.”

Amidst this frenzy of folk stood the sprawling and grizzly “Mayor of MacDougal Street,” the magnet, the guru—Dave Van Ronk. The legendary man who Bob Dylan described as the “king who reigned supreme.” But when he died in February 2002, Van Ronk had not acquired fame.

“I can’t figure it out,” says fellow folk musician and Village resident, David Massengill, 54. “He participated in songs that became hits—they just weren’t his hits. But he had his fingerprints on them because he had done the thing that everybody copied.”

Along with Dylan, Van Ronk was lauded by several well-known artists including Joni Mitchell and Tom Paxton, yet he never received the recognition given to other artists of his caliber.

Born in Brooklyn in 1936, Dave Van Ronk came to the Village as a teenager and played folk for over four decades, most of the time to smaller crowds in smaller venues. His growling sweet voice dissected the lyrics he sang as he revealed a song to his audience. He ached out feeling and spat out wit.

Says Massengill, “You would hear Dave do songs and you would never be the same, because you had heard the exquisite truth, the truth that made you break.”

Van Ronk sought the truth through other people. Over late night poker games for nickels and dimes and feasts of home-cooked food prepared by his then wife Terri Thal, musicians and intellectuals gathered and conversed at Van Ronk’s home on Waverly Place.

“It seemed like the universe got laughed at and argued over at every single meeting,” recollects friend and Villager Naomi Fein, 62. Van Ronk was a musician but also the wise man of the Village and his home was always open for council.

“Especially when it came to discussion,” said Fein. “Story-telling and discussion, Dave was very much the center of that.”

Politics were widely discussed at Van Ronk’s home—he played host to quiet Trotskyite meetings—but they were not as strongly represented in his music. Van Ronk held Socialists ideals and identified with the working class. His political and social views were clear to all who knew him, said Rotolo.

“Nothing was sacred yet he wasn’t cynical in that way that you can be when you don’t hold anything sacred.” A wit, a levity lingered about Van Ronk like a mist perhaps preventing him from grabbing for the fame that he contently watched others attain.

Far-reaching interests influenced Van Ronk’s music and made him a man who wanted to know everything. Some believed he did. “It was almost as if he were an encyclopedia. I used to kid and say, ‘if I need to know something, I’ll go look it up in Dave,’” said Rotolo.

Yet, the man who became the well of knowledge as an adult, was thrown out of school at the age of fifteen. Van Ronk was literally pointed out the door by his high school principal, he later said, who told him he “would never amount to anything in this world.”

When Van Ronk left school, he put a foot on the path to what would be his Village and kingdom. There he wailed out his folk music rooted in traditional jazz, blues and Irish ballads. He became friend, host and teacher to many musicians and artists. “He was a huge figure, both big and big,” says Fein.

Later, at his home on Sheridan Square, Van Ronk continued to host gatherings with his second wife, Andrea Vuocolo. He kept on teaching, talking and singing. While Dave Van Ronk missed out on fame, the folk world kept a teacher and a friend who shared his knowledge and humor until he died. Says Massengill about his days touring with Van Ronk, “One of the great things was waking up after a performance and a night of drinking when Dave would go, ‘Good Morning!’ in the brightest, cheeriest, most affable way.... You couldn’t help but laugh.”

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