By Bruce Poli
Dave Van Ronk was a folk singer’s folk singer. In fact, he personified Greenwich Village, as the “local” who never left for fame and was always trusted—the very symbol of Washington Square Park in the 1960s.
You know “House of the Rising Sun”? It’s on Bob Dylan’s first album… But guess what? He (sort of) stole it from Van Ronk (it’s a traditional folk song) and didn’t tell Van Ronk he was recording it… Then came the world-famous Eric Burdon and the Animals version.
Did David sue or even take revenge? No, he was a true mensch. He told stories about it.
On June 28, 1969 the sounds of the Stonewall Rebellion startled Van Ronk, who was dining nearby. He rushed over to the fracas, joined the riot against the Stonewall’s police occupation, and was dragged from the crowd into the building by Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine. The police slapped and punched Van Ronk to the point of near unconsciousness, handcuffed him to a radiator near the doorway, and decided to charge him with assault. A formidable force in the activist crowd, he was one of only 13 arrested at the uprising.
Nicknamed The Mayor of McDougald Street (the title of Elijah Wald’s 2005 biography), Van Ronk’s influence on both the Village scene and the evolution of folk music in general was inestimable.
Van Ronk’s repertoire ranged from old English ballads to blues, gospel, rock, New Orleans jazz, and swing. He was also known for performing ragtime guitar music, especially his transcriptions of “St. Louis Tickle” and Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” A widely admired fatherly figure in the Village, he presided over the coffeehouse folk culture and acted as a friend to many up-and-coming artists by inspiring, assisting, and promoting them.
In 1974 Van Ronk appeared at “An Evening with Salvador Allende,” a concert organized by Phil Ochs, alongside Bob Dylan and others, to protest the overthrow of the democratic socialist government of Chile and to aid refugees from the US-backed military junta led by Augusto Pinochet.
Among other notable traits, Van Ronk inspired the Coen Brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis about a Village folk singer—loosely based on Dave Van Ronk, who was a 6’5” 250-pound Swede. (Davis is a much different singer from Van Ronk, who had a gruff, commanding style that was 180 degrees removed from Oscar Isaac’s sonorous balladeering.)
Van Ronk received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) in December 1997. In 2002 he died of cardiopulmonary failure while undergoing postoperative treatment for colon cancer in a New York hospital. In 2004, a section of Sheridan Square, where Barrow Street meets Washington Place, was renamed Dave Van Ronk Street in his memory.
A Greenwich Village legend if there ever was one…