Dave Van Ronk/Elijah Wald The Mayor of MacDougal Street

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Dave Van Ronk and book review links
Dave Van Ronk listening guide

mayor coverDave Van Ronk's memoir of the "Great Folk Scare" of the 1960s, written with Elijah Wald
(Da Capo 2005, new edition 2013)

Now also available in Japanese, in French and Italian as Manhattan Folk Story and in German as Der König von Greenwich Village.

The inspiration for the Coen Brothers' film Inside Llewyn Davis.

"The Mayor of MacDougal Street is one of the dozen best books ever written about a New York life and time: dense with wisdom, humor, judgment, and an amazingly vivid recreation of the rites and rituals and characters of a whole lost world and scene."
--Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker

"a wise and very funny book."
--Louis Menand, The New Yorker

"In Greenwich Village, Van Ronk was king of the street, he reigned supreme."
-- Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Vol.1

"In the engine room of the NY Folk Scene shoveling coal into the furnace, one Big Man rules. Dog faced roustabout songster. Bluesman, Dave Van Ronk. Long may he howl."
--Tom Waits

“Best Book of 2005” --“If you thought Bob Dylan’s Chronicles emanated atmosphere, try Van Ronk’s salty, seamless, and often hilarious re-creation of Greenwich Village…Where his Bobness could be frustratingly oblique, Van Ronk is concrete to the point of 3-D.”
-- Library Journal

". . . a funny, insightful and honest recounting . . . Many readers may go to the book looking for stories about other people including Dylan -- and they are here -- but along the way they will discover, or rediscover, the story of Dave Van Ronk."
-- Scott Bauer, Associated Press

"Charming, evocative autobiography by one of the key figures in the mid-20th-century folk revival. . . . A must for those with an interest in the music, and of great appeal as well for anyone who enjoys a roistering life story recounted in a lively narrative voice."
-- Kirkus Review

"Dave Van Ronk's memoirs uncannily evoke the life, times and voice of an artist I dearly loved."
 -- Sean Wilentz, choosing his three favorite books of 2005

More quotations

Dave Van Ronk was a founding father of the 1960s folk and blues revivals, but he was far more than that. For one thing, he was a marvelous raconteur, one of the funniest and most quotable figures on the Village scene. His stories of the fifties and sixties, populated by legends like Mississippi John Hurt, Rev. Gary Davis, Brownie McGhee, and young friends like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Joni Mitchell, have a vibrant humor and keen insight unlike any other history of that period. Dave honed his tales along with his music, while holding court in cafes, bars, and from his apartment on Sheridan Square. As a musician, mentor, and barroom philosopher, his influence was so great that the block he lived on was recently renamed Dave Van Ronk Street. (For an overview of his recordings, check out my annotated guide.)

This is an honor that would have made him particularly happy, because much as he loved music, he loved the Village almost as deeply. From the time he moved there in the early 1950s until his death in February of 2002, he never considered living anywhere else. Indeed, his memoir ends in the late 1960s, as much because of the change in the neighborhood as the change in the music scene. All his old friends were moving to places like Woodstock or the West Coast, and he found this sad and inexplicable. He loved New York, and that love comes through in his memoir.

Dave grew up in Brooklyn and Queens, but escaped to the Village in his early teens to work with various trad jazz bands. His book tells of those early years, and then of his discovery of the folksingers in Washington Square Park. He became a regular in the park, in between trips as a merchant seaman, and gradually developed a following that grew along with the burgeoning interest in traditional American music. He was one of the first white, urban singers to find his own voice in the blues idiom, and his recordings from the late 1950s already show his unique style. (For a taste of this early style, listen to this unreleased track from the late 1950s.)

(I compiled a companion to the book, consisting of unreleased recordings of Dave from the fifties and sixties. It includes a cappella ballads, blues, jazz, rock, and even some Troskyist bluegrass. For more information, follow this link.)

Unlike many histories of the folk revival, which begin when Bob Dylan and Joan Baez hit the scene, Dave's is more than half finished by the time Dylan shows up (to spend much of his first year sleeping on Dave's couch). By then, Dave was already ruling the booming block of folk clubs that gives the book its title, and Dylan would tell early interviewers that his dream was to some day be as popular as Dave Van Ronk . . .

As a result, the early part of this story recalls not only familiar names like the New Lost City Ramblers, Josh White and Odetta, but also performers who are little remembered today but had a profound influence on the younger musicians who flooded into the Village in the sixties. There are Paul Clayton, one of Dave's closest friends and a formative influence on Dylan, Roy Berkeley, "The Traveling Troskyist Troubadour," and Lee Hoffman, whose Caravan magazine was the folk 'zine of the Village scene -- as well as a host of anarchists, petty crooks, and unclassifiable characters.

When the Kingston Trio were followed by Peter, Paul and Mary (a group that for a moment threatened to be Peter, Dave and Mary), and a new generation of singer-songwriters transformed the folk world forever, Dave remained in the forefront. From Dylan to Joni Mitchell, many of the greatest talents arriving in New York found him a close friend, gallant host, and eloquent interpreter of their work. Dave even briefly went electric, with the Hudson Dusters, a psychedelic folk-rock outfit that produced one record, almost got a hit with Mitchell's "Both Sides Now," and always remained one of his treasured memories.

To buy a copy: I of course recommend that everyone buy from their local bookstore, and if you need to buy online, you can still support independent bookstores by buying it from Indiebound.

Here is some other Ronkiana you might want to check out:

Thoughts on Dave, Dylan, and Robert Johnson, by Elijah Wald

A lengthy interview with Dave.

The Smithsonian/Folkways album of his last concert, complete with new songs and wonderful stories, ". . . and the tin pan bended, and the story ended . . ."

A comprehensive, illustrated Van Ronk discography.

Mark Greenberg's Sidetracks, featuring my commentary and spoken song notes for the Rootstock CD.


Review by Robert Christgau, for the Village Voice
Review from Kirkus Reviews

Bonus track: "Take a Whiff on Me"
This live track from the late 1950s gives a taste of how Dave sounded in his formative years, around the time he was recording his first Folkways album. It is particularly interesting because he recycled most of the verses for his version of Rev. Gary Davis's "Cocaine Blues," his trademark number in the early 1960s. To hear more Van Ronk rarities from the 1950s and 1960s, including ballads, blues, Trotskyist satire and original compositions, check out the CD The Mayor of MacDougal Street (R
ootstock), and for a full survey of Dave's recordings with suggestions for further exploration, check out my listening guide. ("Take a Whiff" is copyright by Dave's wife, Andrea Vuocolo. If you want to let people know about it, please link to this site.)