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Dave Van Ronk

Dave Van Ronk
Birth name David Kenneth Ritz Van Ronk
Also known as Mayor of MacDougal Street
Born (1936-06-30)June 30, 1936
Brooklyn, New York
Died February 10, 2002(2002-02-10) (aged 65)
New York
Genres Folk, ragtime, blues, country blues
Occupation(s) Singer-songwriter
Instruments Guitar
Years active 1959-2002
Labels Folkways

David Kenneth Ritz "Dave" Van Ronk (June 30, 1936 – February 10, 2002) was an American folk singer. An important figure in the American folk music revival and New York City's Greenwich Village scene in the 1960s, he was nicknamed the "Mayor of MacDougal Street".

Van Ronk's work ranged from old English ballads to blues, gospel, rock, New Orleans jazz, and swing. He was also known for performing instrumental ragtime guitar music, especially his transcription of "St. Louis Tickle" and Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag". Van Ronk was a widely admired avuncular figure in "the Village", presiding over the coffeehouse folk culture and acting as a friend to many up-and-coming artists by inspiring, assisting, and promoting them. Folk performers whom he befriended include Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Patrick Sky, Phil Ochs, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and Joni Mitchell. Bob Dylan recorded Van Ronk's arrangement of the traditional song "House of the Rising Sun" on his first album, which The Animals turned into a chart-topping rock single in 1964,[1] helping inaugurate the folk-rock movement.[2]

Van Ronk received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) in December 1997. He died in a New York hospital of cardiopulmonary failure while undergoing postoperative treatment for colon cancer.[3]


  • Life and career 1
  • Cultural impact 2
  • Personal characteristics 3
  • Bibliography and discography 4
    • Van Ronk releases 4.1
      • Studio recordings 4.1.1
      • Live recordings 4.1.2
      • Compilations of previously released material 4.1.3
      • Van Ronk on compilations/other people's albums 4.1.4
      • Van Ronk on various artist compilations 4.1.5
    • Memoir 4.2
    • Publication 4.3
  • References 5
  • External links 6

Life and career

Van Ronk was born in Brooklyn to a family that was "mostly Irish, despite the Dutch name."[4] He moved from Brooklyn to Queens in 1951 and began attending Holy Child Jesus Catholic School, whose students were mainly of Irish descent. He had been performing in a barbershop quartet since 1949, but left before finishing high school, and spent the next few years bumming around lower Manhattan and twice shipping out with the Merchant Marine.

His first professional gigs playing tenor banjola were with various traditional jazz bands around New York, of which he later observed: "We wanted to play traditional jazz in the worst way...and we did!" But the trad jazz revival had already passed its prime, and Van Ronk turned to performing blues he had stumbled across while shopping for jazz 78s, by artists like Furry Lewis and Mississippi John Hurt. Van Ronk was not the first white musician to perform African-American blues, but became noted for his interpretation of it in its original context. By about 1958, he was firmly committed to the folk-blues style, accompanying himself with his own acoustic guitar. He performed blues, jazz and folk music, occasionally writing his own songs but generally arranging the work of earlier artists and his folk revival peers. At one point, he was considered for a folk-pop trio with Peter Yarrow. Van Ronk's voice and style were considered too idiosyncratic and the role eventually went to Noel Paul Stookey,(who became the "Paul" in Peter, Paul and Mary).

He became noted both for his large physical stature and his expansive charisma, which bespoke an intellectual, cultured gentleman of many talents. Among his many interests were cooking, Phil Ochs, alongside such other performers as his old friend Bob Dylan, to protest the overthrow of the democratic socialist government of Chile and to aid refugees from the U.S.-backed military junta led by Augusto Pinochet. Although he was less politically active in later years, he remained committed to anarchist/socialist ideals and was a dues-paying member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) almost until his death. After Ochs's suicide in 1976, Van Ronk joined the many performers who played at his memorial concert in the Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden, playing his bluesy version of the traditional folk ballad "He Was A Friend Of Mine".[7]

In 2000, he performed at Blind Willie's in Atlanta, clothed in garish Hawaiian garb, speaking fondly of his impending return to Greenwich Village. He reminisced over tunes like "You've Been a Good Old Wagon," a song teasing a worn-out lover, which he ruefully remarked had seemed humorous to him back in 1962. He was married to Terri Thal in the 1960s,[8] lived for many years with Joanne Grace, then married Andrea Vuocolo, with whom he spent the rest of his life. He continued to perform for four decades and gave his last concert just a few months before his death. He found it amusing to be called "a legend in his own time".

Van Ronk died before completing work on his memoirs, which were finished by his collaborator, Elijah Wald, and published in 2005 as The Mayor Of MacDougal Street.

In 2004, a section of Sheridan Square, where Barrow Street meets Washington Place, was renamed Dave Van Ronk Street in his memory.[9]

Cultural impact

Van Ronk can be described as an irreverent and incomparable guitar artist and interpreter of black blues and folk, with an uncannily precise ability at impersonation. Joni Mitchell often said that his rendition of her song "Both Sides Now" (which he called "Clouds") was the finest ever.

He is perhaps underestimated as a musician and blues guitarist. His guitar work, for which he credits Tom Paley as fingerpicking teacher, is noteworthy for both syncopation and precision. It shows similarities to Mississippi John Hurt's, but Van Ronk's main influence was the Reverend Gary Davis, who conceived the guitar as "a piano around his neck". Van Ronk took this pianistic approach and added a harmonic sophistication adapted from the band voicings of Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington. He ranks high in bringing blues style to Greenwich Village during the 1960s, as well as introducing the folk world to the complex harmonies of Kurt Weill in his many Brecht-Weill interpretations, and being one of the very few hardcore traditional revivalists to move with the times, bringing old blues and ballads together with the new sounds of Dylan, Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. During this crucial period, he performed with the likes of Bob Dylan and spent many years teaching guitar in Greenwich Village, including to Christine Lavin, David Massengill, Terre Roche and Suzzy Roche. He influenced his protégé Danny Kalb and The Blues Project. The Japanese singer Masato Tomobe, American pop-folk singer Geoff Thais and the musician and writer Elijah Wald learned from him as well. Known for making interesting and memorable observations he once said, "Painting is all about space, and music is all about time." In his autobiography Bob Dylan states, "I'd heard Van Ronk back in the Midwest on records and thought he was pretty great, copied some of his recordings phrase for phrase. [...] Van Ronk could howl and whisper, turn blues into ballads and ballads into blues. I loved his style. He was what the city was all about. In Greenwich Village, Van Ronk was king of the street, he reigned supreme."[10]

Thanks to what he had learned from Davis, Van Ronk was among the first to adapt traditional jazz and ragtime to the solo acoustic guitar. His guitar arrangements of such ragtime hits as "St. Louis Tickle", "The Entertainer", "The Pearls" and "Maple Leaf Rag" continue to frustrate and challenge aspiring guitar players. He also did fine compositions of his own in the classic styles, such as "Antelope Rag".

His song "Last Call" is the source of the title of Lawrence Block's book When the Sacred Ginmill Closes.

Van Ronk was among the thirteen people arrested at the Stonewall Inn June 28, 1969—the night that the Stonewall Riots, which many cite as the start of the gay rights movement, began. The New York Times reported the next day that he was arrested and later parolled on his own recognizance for having thrown a heavy object at a patrolman.[11] City records reveal he was charged with felony assault in the second degree[12] and pled guilty to the lesser charge of harassment, classified in 1969 as a violation under pL 240.25. Articles published at the time in The New York Post and the Village Voice reveal that Van Ronk was pulled by police from the crowd outside and dragged inside the Stonewall.[13][14]

The Coen brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis follows a folk singer similar to Van Ronk, and incorporates anecdotes based on Van Ronk's life.[15][16] The release of the film coincides with Down in Washington Square: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection from Smithsonian Folkways which was released on October 29, 2013.

Unlike the title character in the Coen Brothers' film, Van Ronk was actually a swanky dresser who initiated many clothing styles in Greenwich Village during the early and mid 60s.

Personal characteristics

Van Ronk refused for many years to fly and never learned to drive (he would use trains or buses or, when possible, recruit a girlfriend or young musician as his driver), and he declined to ever move from Greenwich Village for any extended period of time (having stayed in California for a short time in the 1960s).[17] Van Ronk's trademark stoneware jug of Tullamore Dew was frequently seen on stage next to him in his early days.

Critic Robert Shelton described Van Ronk as "the musical mayor of MacDougal Street":
[A] tall, garrulous hairy man of three quarters, or, more accurately, three fifths Irish descent. Topped by light brownish hair and a leonine beard, which he smoothed down several times a minute, he resembled an unmade bed strewn with books, record jackets, pipes, empty whiskey bottles, lines from obscure poets, finger picks, and broken guitar strings. He was Bob [Dylan]'s first New York guru. Van Ronk was a walking museum of the blues. Through an early interest in jazz, he had gravitated toward black music - its jazz pole, its jug-band and ragtime center, its blues bedrock... his manner was rough and testy, disguising a warm, sensitive core. Van Ronk retold the blues intimately... for a time, his most dedicated follower was [Bob] Dylan.

Bibliography and discography

Van Ronk releases

Studio recordings

Live recordings

Compilations of previously released material

Van Ronk on compilations/other people's albums

  • 1958: Skiffle in Stereo (The Orange Blossom Jug Five)
  • 1959: Fo'csle Songs and Shanties (by Paul Clayton)[18] - Van Ronk sings on all songs.
  • 1995: Peter, Paul and Mary, "Life Lines." Van Ronk sings on two tracks.
  • 1999: Tom Russell, The Man From God Knows Where. Van Ronk sings lead on "The Outcast."

Van Ronk on various artist compilations

  • 1959: The Unfortunate Rake[19]
  • 1963: Newport Folk Festival 1963 The Evening Concerts Vol. 2(Various Artists- Van Ronk performs two songs: Candy Man and Hold On)
  • 1964: Blues from Newport (Various Artists- Van Ronk performs two songs: That Will Never Happen No More and Gambler's Blues)
  • 1964: The Blues Project (Various Artists – Van Ronk performs two songs: Bad Dream Blues and Don't You Leave Me Here)
  • 1999: The Man from God Knows Where (Tom Russell- Van Ronk featured performing two songs: The Outcast and The Outcast (revisited))


Van Ronk was author of a posthumous memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street (2005) written with Elijah Wald.[5] Anecdotes from the book were used as a source for the film Inside Llewyn Davis.[15][16]


Van Ronk along with Richard Ellington collected and edited The Bosses’ Songbook: [32] Songs to Stifle the Flames of Discontent, Second Edition -- A Collection of Modern Political Songs and Satire. (Richard Ellington, publisher, New York 1959). This originally 50¢ staple-bound paperback of lyrics in 1959 carried an asking price of $265 on (accessed Feb. 6, 2015). The booklet is downloadable as two files: and


  1. ^ Larry Rother. "For a Village Troubadour, a Late Encore", The New York Times, December 5, 2013.
  2. ^ Eric Von Schmidt and Jim Rooney (June, 1994), p. 261. Baby, Let Me Follow You Down: The Illustrated History of the Cambridge Folk Years".
  3. ^ Chris Morris (February 12, 2002). "Influential Folk Artist Dave Van Ronk Dies". Billboard Bulletin. Archived at
  4. ^ Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll. Pearson: 1987 ISBN 0137822936 pg 255
  5. ^ a b
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ Terri Thal Dave Van Ronk's Ex-Wife Takes Us Inside Inside Llewyn Davis, Village Voice, Dec. 13 2013
  9. ^ Dave Van Ronk street naming ceremony & pictures by Otto Bost. Retrieved July 9, 2008.
  10. ^
  11. ^ Eskow, Dennis. "4 Policemen Hurt in 'Village' Raid: Melee Near Sheridan Square Follows Action at Bar", The New York Times, June 29, 1969, p. 33.
  12. ^ Criminal Court of the City of New York, docket number A9798: original charge against Van Ronk: pL 120.05
  13. ^ page scans
  14. ^
  15. ^ a b
  16. ^ a b "the Coens mined the work "for local color and a few scenes":
  17. ^ Van Ronk & Wald (2005). pp. 113-114.
  18. ^ Van Ronk & Wald (2005). p 88: "... The LP was issued as Fo'c'sle Songs and Chanties, by Paul Clayton and the Fo'c'sle Singers, and has remained in the Folkways ..."
  19. ^

External links

  • Dave Van Ronk – The Mayor of MacDougal Street, About the book.
  • Stefan Wirz. Illustrated Dave Van Ronk discography
  • Otto Bost (June 30, 2004). Dave Van Ronk Street Renaming Ceremony Photo essay.
  • Charles Freudenthal (August 2005). Walking Down Dave Van Ronk Street. Anecdotes. e*I*21. (Vol. 4 No. 4)
  • Lee Hoffman (2010). Lee Hoffman, My Folknik Days. Anecdotes. Gary Ross Hofmann.
  • Dave Van Ronk Discography. Smithsonian Folkways.
  • Jon Pareles (February 12, 2002). Dave Van Ronk, Folk Singer And Iconoclast, Dies at 65. New York Times.
  • Dave Read (December 2, 2013). Remembering Dave Van Ronk article about meetings with Dave Van Ronk in the 1970s and 1999.
  • David Haglund (December 2, 2013). [1] Van Ronk was a source for the screenplay, 'Inside Llewyn Davis'.
  • David Browne (December 2, 2013). [2]] Rolling Stone. Meet the folk singer who inspired 'Inside Llewyn Davis'.
  • Milo Miles (November 25, 2013). [3]] National Public Radio. Will the real Llewyn Davis Please Stand Up?
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