Born June 30, 1936, in Brooklyn, NY; married; wife's name, Terri. Addresses: Management--Folklore Productions, Inc., 1671 Appian Way, Santa Monica, CA 90401.
"The cult of art is strangling us," said Dave Van Ronk in Melody Maker. "Jazz musicians, blues musicians, folk musicians, we're all being strangled by it. Somebody comes along and says: Ah, someone here is an artiste. Poor so-and- so. They don't know what an artiste is. Neither does the critic: We're skilled workers." Perhaps Van Ronk's long association with the sometimes artsy Greenwich Village music scene has made him a little defensive about the sorts of music he has come to make his own. Or perhaps his accomplished finger-picking guitar and evocative voice have allowed him to think of himself as a musician, capable of expressing himself in many genres, not simply as a jazz, blues, or folk singer burdened by their attendant mystiques.
Dave Van Ronk is a professional folk singer in the tradition of Odetta, Josh White, Cynthia Gooding, Oscar Brand and Pete Seeger. Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1936, Van Ronk was introduced to music by his grandfather, a pianist with a fondness for Scott Joplin and John Philip Sousa. Van Ronk's own musical preferences leaned toward the jazz of the 1920s and the blues. "My first influences were Jelly Roll Morton, Leadbelly, Bessie Smith--all your standard old-time greats," he told the International Herald Tribune.
Following the completion of high school, Van Ronk began spending more time in Manhattan, sharing cheap apartments in the Bowery and then in Greenwich Village, where he continues to live today. He tried to make his living playing tenor banjo in the Brute Force Jazz Band, where he discovered rhythm was not his strong suit. "They sat me next to the drummer," he said. "I couldn't keep time. Drummers hated me."
In the late 1950s Van Ronk found himself increasingly attracted to the urban blues, dismissing the folk music revival of the time as "corny," he told Melody Maker. As he told Ralph Rush in Sing Out!, "I was one of the worst music snobs that ever came down the pike. I didn't get interested in folk music as such until I was convinced that country blues was folk music." It was Van Ronk's desire to learn finger- picking, a three-fingered guitar style that uses the thumb to play the bass line and the other fingers the melody, that finally brought him to Washington Square, where he met Tom Paley and Barry Kornfeld as well as Reverend Gary Davis. He was soon performing solo at private parties and coffee houses, but had trouble making a living.
It was not until he had spent some time as a merchant marine that he returned to the Village to make music again. Encouraged to play professionally by renowned folk singer Odetta, Van Ronk took his unique style combining jazz, blues, and folk on the road. By the early 1960s he was firmly entrenched in the burgeoning folk revival. There he turned down the chance to perform as a member of what was to become Peter, Paul and Mary. "Albert Grossman and Milt Okun had an idea to put together a trio," he related in The New Folk Music. "Albert handled Mary Travers and Peter Yarrow as solo performers and they needed a third. They wanted someone that could carry a tune, sing harmony, and be reasonably strong as an instrumentalist. Peter wasn't that facile on the guitar and Mary didn't play at all. They encouraged me, but I didn't want to do it."
Van Ronk was an early friend of Bob Dylan, sometimes allowing Dylan to stay at his apartment. But they grew apart sometime after Dylan's second album and were not reunited until 1974 at a benefit for Chilean political prisoners. Van Ronk claimed in The New Folk Music that Dylan's phenomenal success had a damaging impact on the folk song movement. "It pretty much put a stop to the folksong revival. Before Bobby, everybody was singing folksongs. Afterwards everyone was doing their own stuff."
Van Ronk has been a longtime proponent of jug band music, which consists of homemade instruments like washtubs and saws in conjunction with jiving hands and stomping feet. In the late 1950s he recorded a jug band album with Sam Charters, and his festival appearances have often featured jug band influences. In 1964, he recorded another album with Sam Charters and the Ragtime Jug Stompers.
Eventually Van Ronk was to make a jug band version of Peter and the Wolf, Prokofiev's children's classic. Van Ronk commented in the Boston Herald, "It was an old idea, a running joke of the jug bands of the early 1960s. We would sit around and imagine jug band versions of Beethoven's 'Ninth' or Tchaikovsky's '1812 Overture.'" The original version was intended to introduce children to the instruments of the symphony orchestra. In Van Ronk's version, however, the tale's characters are represented by the folk and jug band instruments--guitars, mandolins, penny whistles, kazoos, jaw harps, banjos, and a washtub bass--of the Uncle Mouse and Kazoo-o-phonic Jug Band.
Daniel Gewertz of the Boston Herald highlighted the originality of Van Ronk's narration, featuring "his familiar wheezing, grumbling voice, which is the opposite of the smooth, sweet voices of many children's recordings." Van Ronk explained, "I suspect that kids get bored with straight treacle and molasses. When I was a kid, my favorite singer was Louis Armstrong."
Throughout his career Van Ronk has kept on the move, singing all types of songs in numerous places. Though he is often considered an interpreter of well-known songs, such as "Candyman," Van Ronk also recorded his own compositions on the well-received 1985 album Going Back to Brooklyn, which reveals his ribald wit. In 1990 he recorded a collection of 13 pop songs from the 1930s and 1940s called Hummin' to Myself.
He has served as a mentor to the most recent wave of New York folk singer/songwriters, such as Christine Lavin, his former guitar student, and continues to teach guitar in the Village, where he also writes occasional articles on music. He performed in an off-Broadway production of the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill opera Mahagonny and has collaborated on an album of Brecht songs in German and English with English folk singer Frankie Armstrong entitled Let No One Deceive You: Songs of Bertolt Brecht. According to the Boston Globe's Patricia Smith, "What Van Ronk does is strip wonderful songs down to their bare bones so you can hear what made them wonderful songs in the first place."
His musicianship has allowed him to be adaptable without seeming a chameleon. He puts his own stamp on what he plays and sings. As Van Ronk related in the Evening Gazette, "You can use an ugly voice to sing a pretty song and make it a lot more interesting. It creates tome tensions there. It's the kind of thing that Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht used to do-- get the prettiest melody they could and set it to the nastiest lyrics they could find."
by John Morrow
Dave Van Ronk's Career
Worked as a merchant marine; performed with Odetta, 1957; recorded debut album for Folkways, 1959; played set of jazz and jug band music at the Newport Jazz Festival, 1964; featured performer at the New York Folk Festival at Carnegie Hall, 1965; recorded jug band version of Peter and the Wolf; released album of original compositions, Going Back to Brooklyn, 1985.
- Selective Works
- Ballads, Blues and a Spiritual, Folkways, 1959.
- Black Mountain Blues, Folkways, 1959.
- Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger, Prestige, 1963.
- Dave Van Ronk's Ragtime Jug Stompers, Mercury, 1964.
- In the Tradition, Prestige, 1964.
- No Dirty Names, Verve, 1967.
- Dave Van Ronk and the Hudson Dusters, Verve, 1968.
- Going Back to Brooklyn, Reckless, 1985.
- Just Van Ronk, Mercury.
- Inside Dave Van Ronk, Prestige.
- Dave Van Ronk, Fantasy.
- Van Ronk, Polydor.
- Songs for Aging Children, Chess/Cadet.
- Sunday Street, Philo.
- Somebody Else, Not Me, Philo.
- Your Basic Dave Van Ronk Album, Kicking Mule.
- Dave Van Ronk in Rome, Folkstudio.
- Let No One Deceive You: Songs of Bertolt Brecht, Aural Tradition.
- Peter and the Wolf, Alacazam.
- Hummin' to Myself, Gazell.
- A Chrespomathy, Gazell.
- Harris, Craig, The New Folk Music, White Cliffs Media Company, 1991.
- Periodicals Austin American-Statesman, January 20, 1986.
- Boston Globe, January 6, 1992.
- Boston Herald, July 24, 1990.
- Chronicle, January 31, 1991.
- Evening Gazette (Worcester, MA), March 9, 1989.
- Face Magazine, June 5, 1991.
- International Herald Tribune, April 20, 1983.
- Melody Maker, March 21, 1981.
- Musician, July 1985.
- New York Newsday, October 21, 1990.
- Rolling Stone, July 9, 1992.
- Sing Out!, September 1979.