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Beyond Llewyn Davis

The Real Van Ronk

by BRIAN TOKAR

I’ll admit that at first I thoroughly enjoyed the Coen Brothers’ latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis. As readers probably know by now, it offers a somewhat sardonic, sometimes hilarious, and often quite genuine depiction of the early 1960s folk music revival in New York City. The reviews have generally been positive, and it was once considered a front runner for several Oscars. I left our gem of a storefront art house in central Vermont quite satisfied, overall. The music was terrific, the settings captured what I’d always thought Greenwich Village was like before it became so fashionable, and the characters – in classic Coen fashion – were sometimes laugh-out-loud outrageous.

But before I’d read even halfway through Dave Van Ronk’s exceptional memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, I found myself completely rethinking my enthusiasm for the film. I had read that many incidents in Llewyn Davis were loosely based on stories from Van Ronk’s book, and I’d been a fan of Van Ronk’s music ever since I saw him play in the Village as a teenager in the early 1970s. I’m also an enthusiastic fan of the book’s producer/editor/ghost-writer, Elijah Wald, who gets a credit on the cover. Wald’s own writing includes two stellar revisionist histories of 20th century popular music: one focuses on the legacy of Robert Johnson and other early- to mid-century blues singers; the other strikingly recasts popular music history in its broadest historical sweep. In both cases, Wald urges us to reconsider our assumptions about which music stands the test of time, and how that’s sometimes quite at odds with what was most popular in its own time.  So I had high expectations for the book, but didn’t think it would compel me to completely rethink my earlier feelings about the Coen Brothers’ version, and ultimately to question the film’s aesthetics, politics and story line.

First and foremost, what Van Ronk’s book thoroughly exudes and the film completely misses is the cooperative, community-centered spirit of the time. I’m sure the early folk scene had its share of schleps and even borderline sociopaths, but for the most part, Van Ronk shows us how the rediscovery of folk music was a joyful, collective endeavor. People gathered in Washington Square Park by the score, and eventually by the hundreds, to share songs from blues to hymns to bluegrass. In the late fifties, when commercial venues still had zero interest in folk music, other than the show-biz variety represented by Burl Ives and Theo Bikel, Van Ronk and his friends created the Folksingers Guild to develop venues of their own.

In the early years, people fleeing the suburbs and outer boroughs shared astonishingly cheap Village walk-ups. When droves of itinerant musicians started arriving in New York in the sixties, they did often sleep on couches like Llewyn Davis, and Van Ronk – married and a little older than many of his peers – hosted them all. Terri Thal, Van Ronk’s first wife, summed up what’s most lacking about the Llewyn Davis story in an article for the Village Voice and L.A. Weekly. First, she condemned the film’s casual – even cavalier – attitude toward abortion, something no one was the least bit casual about in the pre-Rowe v. Wade era.  Then she took on the film as a whole, stating, “There’s no suggestion that these people love the music they play, none that they play music for fun or have jam sessions, not a smidgen of the collegiality that marked that period.” Once you’ve read Van Ronk, that’s one central flaw of the film that you just can’t overlook.

In scene after scene, the Coen brothers take noteworthy events out of Van Ronk’s early career and give them a twist that ultimately robs them of their most remarkable elements. Yes, there happened to be a folksinger who played in New York on weekend leaves from Fort Dix. But it was none less than Tom Paxton, the true pioneer of the emerging singer-songwriter movement. Van Ronk did hitchhike to Chicago on a tip to play for Albert Grossman – who was indeed running a nightclub at the time – but the tip was from none less than the great Odetta, who heard Van Ronk play at a rather exploitative Village hangout called the Café Bizarre (as in, “Come see our beatniks and all the other freaks”). Grossman didn’t reject him for crass material reasons, but rather because his roster of folk and blues singers already included Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee:  why take a chance with a brash white kid from Brooklyn? Moe Asch did indeed once try to pay him with a coat, but Dave got a lawyer to help him demand back royalties, and Asch congratulated him for it!

Van Ronk even lost his Merchant Marine card, but it happened while hitchhiking back from that trip to Chicago. It was 1957 or so: the beginning – not the end – of the story. Van Ronk then dove full-time into his music:  playing for tips, giving lessons, playing in the park, starting publications, traveling West for a steady gig he eventually tired of, and helping create the Folksingers Guild.

And Van Ronk was always political. At one point he was simultaneously a member of the IWW and YPSL, the Young People’s Socialist League (in Yiddish, the acronym was the same as the word for a squirrel!). He thoroughly admired Pete Seeger for his commitment to the music and the authenticity of his persona, but disdained what in the late fifties sometimes looked like a rather servile devotion to the Communist Party line. For better or worse, Van Ronk and his fellow “neo-ethnic” traditionalists generally shunned mixing music and politics, preferring to let each speak for itself.

Like Llewyn, Dave believed people should get paid for their music, but not for personal gain so much as to take a stand against profiteering club owners. If you’re going to play for free, Van Ronk advised his peers, play more benefits: raise money for causes that need it. As for the younger generation of singer-songwriters, like Dylan and Phil Ochs, he admired them for their artistry, but was dismayed that their politics never reached far enough past left-liberalism. For a grizzled older socialist-anarchist like Van Ronk, even Ochs still had some distance to travel beyond the liberal comfort zone.

Not only Paxton – a genuine hero for Van Ronk – but many of the period’s other iconic figures are transformed by the Coens into grotesques. It makes for some humorous moments, but Van Ronk’s characters are so much more interesting. In the Coens’ menagerie of freaks, a Jean Ritchie-like character is so dour and homespun that she looks hugely out of place in New York; Ritchie herself played to packed crowds in Town Hall. The Clancy Brothers are turned into pure cheeseball. A character perhaps inspired by Mimi Fariña is a slut who sleeps around to get ahead (a severe anachronism, at best), and her partner is as slick as Justin Timberlake, who plays him onscreen.

These may be minor points, and some contribute to a more amusing film. But the main problem is still the one highlighted at the end of Terri Thal’s review.  Perhaps it’s best summed up in Dave Van Ronk’s own words:

“Back then, we weren’t all clawing over each other’s bodies, trying to fight our way to the top. Mostly we were having the time of our lives. We were hanging out with our friends, playing music, and sitting around at all-night poker sessions in the room upstairs from the [Village] Gaslight. Win, lose, or draw, there was always something absolutely ridiculous happening, and we were laughing all the time…”

See the movie, but if you really want to know about the folk revival (Van Ronk prefers Utah Phillips’ more sarcastic term, “The Great Folk Scare”), read Dave’s book and discover the real challenges and unbound joy of that long-bygone era.

Brian Tokar is  director of the Institute for Social Ecology and a lecturer in environmental studies at the University of Vermont. His most recent books are Toward Climate Justice (New Compass Press, 2010, distributed by AK Press) and Agriculture and Food in Crisis (co-edited with Fred Magdoff, Monthly Review Press, 2010).