The cover of my copy of Dave Van Ronk’s memoirs, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, proclaims: “The life story that inspired the Coen Brothers Movie Inside Llewyn Davis”. That wasn’t enough to stop me from reading the book. Sure, Inside Llewyn Davis was an OK period piece, in a melancholy, over-rated sort of way, but if it was about Dave Van Ronk, it missed the mark, and certainly missed Van Ronk’s wicked sense of humour.
The book is a memoir, but it’s also a recollection of the “The Great Folk Scare”, a term Van Ronk borrowed from his friend U. Utah Phillips. I particularly enjoyed the chapters about the 50s in Greenwich Village – we don’t hear much about those days in that place because discussions about the folk scene tend to revolve around Bob Dylan, as he broke away from that scene to become a rock star.
One surprise to me was Van Ronk’s comments about Andy Warhol. “You could tell where things were headed when Andy Warhol and his “beautiful people” showed up at the Gaslight. That towhead was like a vulture – when he appeared, you knew the fun was over.” That’s a pretty strong opinion, I’d say.
Dave Van Ronk recorded quite a few collections of songs, and he was well enough known that I was aware of his music even in high school in the 70s in Toronto (although by the time I was in high school, I was actively searching for some musical nourishment in the form of some kind of antidote to radio pablum like The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac). He was a stalwart in the Village scene before there was a scene and he stuck around for the long haul. He was a great song interpreter, a fine guitarist, and he sure could deliver a song.
I enjoyed reading about Van Ronk’s adventures, his activism, and his perspective on the period when the Folk Scare exploded. I also really appreciated his recollections of his jazz days, before he started playing so-called “folk music.”