The Coen brothers claimed that their recent movie about the great folk scare of the early sixties, Inside Llewyn Davis, was inspired by Dave Van Ronk’s memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street. Van Ronk was an eclectic folkie who loved jazz and learned the blues from the original masters. He influenced many during his heyday, most notably Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, and the like, and knew how to tell a story well. The Mayor was known to be wise and friendly as well as cynical and gruff. Inside Llewyn Davis rekindled an interest in Van Ronk’s music.
Although over 30 releases already bear his name, including several wonderful live discs, Omnivore Records has issued a new one — the never-heard-before Dave Van Ronk: Live in Monterey 1998 (Van Ronk died in 2002). Almost all of the 16 tracks here would be familiar to almost all fans of classic sixties folk in general and Van Ronk in particular. He does a sprightly version of the ragtime “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon But You Done Broke Down” complete with its self-deprecating sexual innuendos; two Reverend Gary Davis tunes (“Cocaine Blues” and “Candy Man”) filled with falsettos and howls that he learned directly from the blind pastor; and Tom Paxton’s infectious tribute to Mississippi John Hurt “Did You Hear John Hurt” as well as a Hurt original, the guitar-driven “Spike Driver Blues”. The Mayor makes all these disparate songs about sex, drugs, and work sound like originals through his passion. Van Ronk wholly inhabits the material. He can whisper a line confidentially one moment and scream in a combination of joy and pain the next as if he is singing from his own experiences. His love for the music comes across mightily strong.
Van Ronk may be intense, but he also knows how to take things easy and change the pace for effect. He does a sly version of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Sportin’ Life Blues” that conveys all the misery of being hip and enjoying wine, women, and song. He keeps things slow and steady while singing about being wild, which makes him into a true raconteur. Yeah, he will marry and settle down soon. These good times are killing him, but he’s sharp enough to let you know that he made this sportin’ life all by himself. Nobody made him do it.
Live in Monterey is just Van Ronk singing and playing guitar in an old church. The audience applauds, but there is a lot of respectful silence once The Mayor starts to pick or croon. The pristine quality of the recording emphasizes the intimacy of the show. So when Van Ronk launches into his own composition, “Losers”, it feels as if he’s talking just to you as he jokes about his failures in life. It’s true that many of the artists he encouraged and assisted became much more successful than he did — but The Mayor wryly notes that in the contemporary world even Jesus Christ would be considered a loser compared with John Wayne.
However, the usually garrulous Van Ronk doesn’t talk much here. Either the producers cut the spiels or The Mayor was feeling laconic that night — it’s not clear. Since there are already live discs that reveal Van Ronk’s gifted patter, we will have to make do with just the music here. He’s on top form on every song. So when he ends with his emotive version of Ian and Sylvia’s song about leaving, “Four Strong Winds”, one is ready to say goodbye. The Mayor’s an experienced troubadour who knows how to say goodnight to a crowd without leaving them too hungry but still wanting more.