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Life and Death of a Folk Hero

Dave Van Ronk

by Lenni Brenner

The NY Times rarely runs 2 obits. But they did for Dave. The 1st obit saw him as a major inspiration for Bob Dylan. The 2nd was more complex, obviously a critical fan’s memorial to someone far too significant, as a performer & person, to be reduced to a supporting role, even a central one, in Bob’s rise to world fame.

Dave indeed was a major influence on Bob. Terri Thal, Dave’s 1st wife, was Bob’s 1st manager. Dave’s ‘crib,’ to use New York slang of the 50s & 60s, was the epicenter of the young folk singing set. Dave helped Bob, & everyone else, in terms of digging up songs, career advice, the whole 9 yards of show biz camaraderie.

Usually, when he is coupled with Bob, it is to his disadvantage. As I’ve written on my own influence on Dylan, I certainly say that Bob’s early recordings were poetic masterpieces, while Dave’s original songs were good, but hardly the anthems of his age. However, Dave, when he died, was one of the most interesting conversationalists of his day, widely read in many fields, a world traveling performer, full of experience, an astute observer of individuals & society. On the other hand, who wants to hear Bob today, scratchin’ his head, wondering whether the messiah is Jesus or the Lubavicher rebbe? Bob was a sensational composer/poet in his prime, and an even greater fool in his decline, leaping off the heights of poetic immortality, down into the bottomless pit of theological fanaticism. Dave wasn’t a great composer. But he had no superior at what he was good at. “I’m an entertainer,” he told me, about a year ago, at our last get together.

For reasons related to recent American social history, Dave was often pigeonholed as ‘the best white performer of Black music,’ with connotations of ‘not quite the real thing,’ or not doing ‘his’ thing. But I remember the fountain circle in Washington Square Park on a Sunday afternoon in the late 50s, with Dave singing, surrounded by dozens of young whites. I was on the edge of the crowd when an elderly country Black came by. “Who’s that, singin’ so good?,” he asked. I told him & he squeezed into the dense crowd. He listened for about 10 minutes & came back, pointing to his eyes. “I can’t believe them, but I believe my ears.”

Dave sang Black songs with the accent & musical qualities he heard, just as he sang sea chanteys, or anything else he heard, whether in person or on records. What gave Dave’s singing its distinction was the populist, one-size-fits-all character of his voice. Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Dave. They carry a sign, saying ‘I ain’t no opera singer.’ A husky sound, which we identify as meaning a regular guy, with a regular voice, but great, by force of interpretation.

Dave is often seen as the ultimate folkie. Certainly he successfully recorded so much of the American folk tradition. Unfortunately, I can’t put my hands on the sea chanteys he & a group of folkies made, early in his career. But his fans will recall it. Because the folk music revival was only beginning, it didn’t get the sales it should have. But a masterpiece it was. Again, voice perfect for that type of song.

But he was also great as a Brechtean interpreter. The recording he did with Frankie Armstrong is my candidate for the first to be put out there again. Again, that ‘real world’ voice was central to his effect. But he also understood Brecht thoroughly. Dave is thought of as a 60s figure. In fact he was a 50s old leftie. (When I met him, in 1956, he was an anarchist, a member of the Libertarian League. Later, I recruited him to the Young Socialist Alliance, later yet he was in the Workers League, leaving the organized Left in 1969.) I remember discussions of Brecht with him & Carmine Pampaleone, comparing the Three Penny Opera to the Three Penny Novel & the Three Penny Movie. He saw us in Brechtean terms, as adventurers in a capitalist world that could be figured out & even enjoyed. His interpretation went beyond Weill’s wonderful music to the political & philosophical implications in Brecht.

Dave was not without eccentricities, to say the least. To explain away one of my own, I tell people that, yes, it’s true: The three greatest minds of the 20th century couldn’t drive. Albert Einstein, Lenni Brenner & Dave Van Ronk. And he flat out wouldn’t get into computers. But, when all is said & done, aside from having, without exaggeration, more long-term friends than anyone who ever lived, he was well & truly a great entertainer, & his records will live.

Given that, we would all do well to heed his most certain observation: “The driving force of American life is hedonism.”

Always remember that singular truth, given us by a great entertainer, & apply it: Yes, it’s wonderful to read Karl Marx & that righteous stuff about the labor theory of value, which Dave did, with all the other subjects that he, without any higher education, but with a genuine intellectual, followed, like archeology. But if we are ever to recruit today’s folks, like the folks whose songs Dave sang, we have to do what he did so successfully. We have to teach Marxian-cum-Brechtean hard ball economics, but we will only do it by entertaining them, saying something both true & interesting, catching their ear & making them understand themselves, as Dave Van Ronk understood them.