Dave Van Ronk

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The Independent Online

Dave Van Ronk, folk singer and guitarist: born New York 30 June 1936; married; died New York 10 February 2002.

When the young singer-songwriter Bob Dylan first arrived in Greenwich Village, New York, in the early Sixties, Dave Van Ronk, the singer, composer and blues guitarist, was an important influence on him.

Van Ronk was already a respected artist on the burgeoning folk scene, although he had first established his reputation as a jazz musician. He was even known as "the Mayor of Greenwich Village", because of his wide knowledge and deep appreciation of jazz, folk and blues. He would become a mentor not just to Dylan, but also to many other aspiring blues and folk guitarists.

A native of Brooklyn, Van Ronk taught himself to play the guitar and worked with various local jazz groups during the Fifties. His first love was New Orleans style, but he became increasingly interested in folk during 1957, when he performed with the singer Odetta. He was also intrigued by the raw earthiness of the blues, a musical form largely ignored and unrecognised by the public and music industry at the time.

He especially appreciated the work of Josh White and began playing and singing blues in his own distinctive gruff vocal style. He was keen to share his knowledge and taught other would-be blues guitarists. Among those who benefited from his teaching was a fellow Brooklynite, Danny Kalb of the Blues Project. Kalb, also a fan of Josh White, studied guitar under Van Ronk who became his mentor. Van Ronk regarded him as his best student and later employed him in his own group.

Van Ronk recorded some 20 albums during the next four decades. Apart from writing his own material, he also performed critically acclaimed interpretations of songs by such diverse artists as Louis Armstrong, the Rev Gary Davis, Leonard Cohen and Randy Newman. He was originally signed to the specialist label Folkways in 1959 but his first album, Sings Ballads, Blues and Spirituals, appeared on the Lyrichord label the same year. His next collection was Fo'csle Songs and Shanties (1959), followed by The Unfortunate Rake (1960). He then switched to Prestige and released Inside (1962) and Dave Van Ronk, Folk Singer (1963). He also cut In the Tradition with the Red Onion Jazz Band the same year.

During those pioneering days, there was a strong sense of community within the tight-knit music scene. When Bob Dylan arrived in New York, Van Ronk befriended the young Minnesotan and Dylan frequently stayed in Van Ronk's Greenwich Village apartment. Van Ronk described Dylan as

nervous. Nervous energy, he couldn't sit still. And very, very evasive. You never could pin him down on anything; he had a lot of stories about who he was and where he came from. He never seemed to be able to get them straight.

Even after Dylan became a major star, he and Van Ronk maintained a "sporadic but warm" relationship, according to Van Ronk's friend Mitchell Greenhill, president of Folklore Productions. On the cover of Dylan's self-titled début album in 1962, Dylan credited Van Ronk with introducing him to one of his favourite songs: "The House of the Rising Sun".

The Van Ronk influence on Dylan went further. Dave had expanded the melody of the old blues song "He was a Friend of Mine", which was later adapted by folk rock heroes the Byrds as a tribute to John F. Kennedy. Van Ronk also added chords to a song called "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down", and Dylan recorded both those songs, along with other tunes covered by Van Ronk, including Bukka White's "Fixin' to Die Blues", Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave is Kept Clean" and "Cocaine Blues".

After his early preoccupation with the blues, Van Ronk began to concentrate more on performing a blend of goodtime traditional jazz and jugband music with his band the Ragtime Jug Stompers that included Danny Kalb (guitar), Sam Charters (piano) and Artie Traum (guitar). In 1964 he signed a new recording deal with Mercury Records and subsequent albums included The Genius of Dave Van Ronk (1964), Ragtime Jug Stompers (1964), Just Dave Van Ronk (1964) and Gamblers Blues (1965).

It was a busy period during which he played concerts and toured throughout the US and abroad. In 1965 he performed a concert at New York's Carnegie Hall, during the city's folk festival. The following year he released No Dirty Names (1966), Dave Van Ronk and the Hudson Dusters (1967), and Van Ronk (1969).

Despite the acceptance of singer/songwriters in the pop mainstream during the Seventies, Van Ronk remained more of an "underground" figure, although in 1974 he appeared on stage with Dylan and Phil Ochs for a benefit concert for Chilean political prisoners called "An Evening with Salvador Allende" to join in a chorus of "Blowin' in the Wind". In 1976 he released the album Sunday Street.

His most recent album was the jazz-influenced Sweet & Lowdown (2001). He had received a Grammy nomination for Traditional Folk in 1996 for From . . . Another Time & Place. Although Van Ronk never achieved the great commercial success enjoyed by his peers, he continued to tour, record and teach guitar until November last year, when he underwent surgery for colon cancer surgery. His last concert, in Adelphi, Maryland, on 22 October 2001, was recorded and Van Ronk spent his last weeks in hospital going through tapes to prepare a live album.

Chris Welch