Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

There’s No Place Like CounterPunch

There's no place like CounterPunch, it's just that simple. And as the radical space within the "alternative media"(whatever that means) landscape continues to shrink, sanctuaries such as CounterPunch become all the more crucial for our political, intellectual, and moral survival. Add to that the fact that CounterPunch won't inundate you with ads and corporate propaganda. So it should be clear why CounterPunch needs your support: so it can keep doing what it's been doing for nearly 25 years. As CP Editor, Jeffrey St. Clair, succinctly explained, "We lure you in, and then punch you in the kidneys." Pleasant and true though that may be, the hard-working CP staff is more than just a few grunts greasing the gears of the status quo.

So come on, be a pal, make a tax deductible donation to CounterPunch today to support our annual fund drive, if you have already donated we thank you! If you haven't, do it because you want to. Do it because you know what CounterPunch is worth. Do it because CounterPunch needs you. Every dollar is tax-deductible. (PayPal accepted)

Thank you,
Eric Draitser

The Real Van Ronk


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). 


Brian Tokar is the director of the Institute for Social Ecology and a lecturer in environmental studies at the University of Vermont. A newly revised and expanded edition of Brian Tokar’s Toward Climate Justice, has just been issued by the New Compass Press. 

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 25, 2016
David Swanson
Halloween Is Coming, Vladimir Putin Isn’t
Hiroyuki Hamada
Fear Laundering: an Elaborate Psychological Diversion and Bid for Power
Priti Gulati Cox
President Obama: Before the Empire Falls, Free Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal
Kathy Deacon
Plus ça Change: Regime Change 1917-1920
Robin Goodman
Appetite for Destruction: America’s War Against Itself
Richard Moser
On Power, Privilege, and Passage: a Letter to My Nephew
Rev. William Alberts
The Epicenter of the Moral Universe is Our Common Humanity, Not Religion
Dan Bacher
Inspector General says Reclamation Wasted $32.2 Million on Klamath irrigators
David Mattson
A Recipe for Killing: the “Trust Us” Argument of State Grizzly Bear Managers
Derek Royden
The Tragedy in Yemen
Ralph Nader
Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think
Norman Pollack
Centrist Fascism: Lurching Forward
Guillermo R. Gil
Cell to Cell Communication: On How to Become Governor of Puerto Rico
Mateo Pimentel
You, Me, and the Trolley Make Three
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases
John Grant
Humanizing Our Militarized Border
Franklin Lamb
US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes
Paul Bentley
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: the Silence of Dylan
Norman Pollack
Militarism: The Elephant in the Room
Patrick Bosold
Dakota Access Oil Pipeline: Invite CEO to Lunch, Go to Jail
Paul Craig Roberts
Was Russia’s Hesitation in Syria a Strategic Mistake?
David Swanson
Of All the Opinions I’ve Heard on Syria
Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future
Rob Urie
Name the Dangerous Candidate
Pepe Escobar
The Aleppo / Mosul Riddle
David Rosen
The War on Drugs is a Racket
Sami Siegelbaum
Once More, the Value of the Humanities
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
Neve Gordon
Israel’s Boycott Hypocrisy
Mark Hand
Of Pipelines and Protest Pens: When the Press Loses Its Shield
Victor Wallis
On the Stealing of U.S. Elections
Michael Hudson
The Return of the Repressed Critique of Rentiers: Veblen in the 21st century Rentier Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Drumbeats of Anti-Russia Confrontation From Washington to London
Howard Lisnoff
Still Licking Our Wounds and Hoping for Change
Brian Gruber
Iraq: There Is No State
Peter Lee
Trump: We Wish the Problem Was Fascism
Stanley L. Cohen
Equality and Justice for All, It Seems, But Palestinians