[Marxism] Dylan and Van Ronk

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Nov 9 10:16:34 MST 2005


Bobby and Dave
Parallel folkies grapple with the times in a mythic Greenwich Village 
wonderland
by Robert Christgau
November 7th, 2005 5:09 PM

Averse to nostalgia in general, folkies in particular, the Americana 
tendency in middlebrow rock criticism, and the Bob Dylan industry, I 
skipped Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home to write, escaping periodically 
to go watch TV. Every time, though, some grizzled adept of acoustic 
authenticity sent me back to my labors. Arresting though it was to see 
Dylan speak in an apparently straightforward manner, and fond though I am 
of some individual informants, old farts patting themselves on the hem of 
Dylan's garment made a lousy circus act. Admittedly, the average rock-doc 
is much worse—old farts exuding vanity, yeucch. At least Scorsese's guys 
are honorable bohemians. But like most bohemians, they put too much stock 
in their long-gone moment.

Only then I belatedly inhaled Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One, which made me 
wonder. The book has inspired endless hosannas, many dumb and some far from 
it (as well as a few dismissals, all dumb), so quality-wise I'll just say 
great-not-good, oughta stand as a literary landmark and, due to its 
drop-dead mastery of the semiliterate tone, probably won't. Content-wise, 
however, it boasts two virtues overlooked in the kvelling over Dylan's 
eloquence and the head-scratching over his elusiveness e'en now. One is his 
recollection of the early-'60s folk scene as a wonderland on the order of 
52nd Street, Swinging London, the Loft, or CBGB—"a paradise that I had to 
leave." The other is music criticism that nails Ricky Nelson, Roy Orbison, 
Harry Belafonte, Mike Seeger, Bobby Vee, Hank Williams, Joan Baez, Woody 
Guthrie, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Dave Van Ronk, and Brecht-Weill's "Pirate 
Jenny," among others. Maybe not "Pirate Jenny," actually—Dylan, elusive 
devil, is more confused by Jenny's murderous misanthropy than the man who 
wrote "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" should be. But he compensates 
by explaining how his misprision spurred him to become the songwriter he 
became—along with a test pressing of Robert Johnson's King of the Delta 
Blues Singers, which inspires the very best writing I know about Johnson. 
Dave Van Ronk, Dylan reports, found Johnson derivative on first hearing.

I mention this because Van Ronk has his own memoir—Da Capo's posthumous The 
Mayor of MacDougal Street, begun in Van Ronk's well-worked prose and 
completed from fragments, interviews, and such by Elijah Wald. Five years 
older than Dylan, Van Ronk was one of the few native New Yorkers among 
Village folkiedom's big names. After departing "Our Lady of Perpetual 
Bingo" in the staidest corner of Queens, Van Ronk turned anarcho-Marxist 
out of orneriness and common sense. Initially a Dixieland banjoist who 
doubled on foghorn vocals, he was an interpreter who mastered blues and 
kept going. His repertoire encompassed not just his mentor Gary Davis and 
the Harry Smith canon but old pop, jazz, and vaudeville material, a few 
self-penned gems, and, soon enough, the cream of the singer-songwriters he 
insists were folk only by loose-thinking association. He was an ace 
guitarist who made up in practice what he lacked in dexterity and a brainy 
arranger whose book was raided on his protégé Dylan's Columbia debut.

full: http://www.villagevoice.com/music/0545,christgau2,69756,22.html

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