Dave Van Ronk is perhaps a man more mentioned than listened to these days as the Greenwich Village folkies who preceded Dylan slowly fade into history. However Van Ronk’s profile has probably never been higher than in the past few months following the release of the Coen Brothers latest movie, Inside Llewyn Davis which is very loosely based on Van Ronk’s early career. Tying in with the film release Smithsonian Folkways have collaborated with Van Ronk’s widow, Andrea Vuocolo to produce this very handsome triple disc selection of his Folkway recordings commencing in 1958 until 1963 along with a brace of live recordings (some from the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music reissue launch in 1997) ending with five studio recordings made in 2001 shortly before his death. Altogether there are 16 previously unreleased songs on the set.
A strapping figure of a man Van Ronk became a mentor to several notable figures on the folk scene (Dylan, Ochs, Paxton) and was a faithful proponent of old blues songs, folk ballads and ragtime tunes. The majority of the songs here are staples of the old American songbook with version of John Henry, Willie The Weeper, Please See That My Grave is Kept Clean, Hesitation Blues and Stackalee all present and correct. He might have been too authentic for the general Peter Paul and Mary audience back in the sixties but these days his rough hewn voice and singular guitar style would earn him a place alongside the likes of Charlie Parr and Otis Gibbs no problem. As it is the two discs of mainly vintage recordings here are as fine a primer to American folk, blues, shanties and spirituals as one could wish for with his rendition of Ya-Ya-Yas a particular delight. Included of course is Van Ronks’ rendition of House Of The Rising Sun which caused some friction with Dylan and eventually the Animals as to who first came up with this arrangement. Van Ronk’s version is unique however with his voice pushed up some octaves and almost sounding like Nina Simone.
Disc three continues with early recordings for the first five songs including a fine version of Hoochie Coochie Man and previously unreleased live recordings ending up with God Bless The Child which Van Ronk delivers with style, almost scatting at times. Thereafter we come up to the eighties and beyond with some Van Ronk penned tunes that stick to old themes although they’re updated for the times with Losers referencing John Wayne and cats with guitars. By now Van Ronk sounds gruffer (and somewhat similar to Shel Silverstein) but these live recordings show that he was a masterful performer with drama and pathos aplenty alongside being (yet again) a mentor for a later generation of performers. His final recordings portray him in a frailer manner, the voice, still dramatic but aging but again he retains the fire and belief he had back in 1958. Of the five songs four are covers of fairly old songs but a small treasure is unveiled with his arrangement of Dylan’s Buckets Of Rain. Fragile and venerable Van Ronk does sound in his twilight year but it’s a beautiful version of a wonderful song.
A handy compendium of Van Ronk then although it lacks his middle period where he tackled the likes of Brecht and recorded in a folk rock style. With informative liner notes on all of the selections and with the previously unreleased recordings it’s well worth seeking out as is Van Ronk’s own memoir of the period, The Mayor of MacDougal Street.