Dave Van Ronk, hailed as “The Mayor of MacDougal Street,” was a prominent figure in the thriving ’60s folk scene in the Greenwich Village. He influenced many young hopefuls in the scene, including the likes of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, and continues to rouse inspiration, most recently as the muse behind the central character in the Coen Brothers’ new film, Inside Llewyn Davis.
Fantasy Records celebrates the folk singer’s legacy with the re-release of the vinyl LP of his celebrated and enduring 1964 Fantasy album Inside Dave Van Ronk. Recorded in April of ’62 during the same bountiful sessions that produced his first Fantasy album, Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger, this solo set comprises a dozen songs weighted heavily toward traditional themes (“House Carpenter,” “Lady Gay,” “Kentucky Moonshiner,” “He Never Came Back”), many of them acquired from his folk-singing peers during the days when he was a regular presence playing al fresco in Manhattan’s Washington Square.
There’s also an up-to-the-minute “Talking Cancer Blues” that humorously explored the evils of smoking prior to the Surgeon General’s original report. In addition to wielding his trusty six- and 12-string guitars, Van Ronk exhibited his skills on banjo, dulcimer, and autoharp.
Physically and charismatically expansive, Van Ronk was a Brooklyn native, born June 30, 1936. He grew up singing Irish folk ballads, then played tenor banjo in a traditional jazz band prior to turning his musical focus to pre-war acoustic blues guitar (fellow folkies Tom Paley and Paul Clayton were influential in his development too). He soon forged an innovative folk-blues synthesis that often exhibited ragtime guitar influences. The Greenwich Village folk scene was absolutely on fire during the early ’60s and Van Ronk was right at the epicenter of the action, an established heavyweight playing the same hip coffeehouses and nightclubs as newcomers Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, and plenty more.
Van Ronk made another album of a considerably different stripe for Prestige with the Red Onion Jazz Band, 1964’s In the Tradition, before moving on to record for other labels over a career that spanned more than four decades. Van Ronk died February 10, 2002, but the Mayor of MacDougal Street’s vast influence lives on within the folkies who hung on his every note in Greenwich Village.
The title of Inside Llewyn Davis pays contemporary tribute to the continuing impact of Inside Dave Van Ronk.
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