Back in the early ’60s, when every musician I knew, including me, was trying to learn guitar so we could play folk songs like Bob Dylan or blues like Lightnin’ Hopkins, one of the guys we all copied was Dave Van Ronk, the bearded finger-picker with the brawny, salt’n'pepper voice whose life story has now inspired the Coen Brothers’ poignant new film about the early-’60s Greenwich Village folk scene, “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
Why did we like Dave? Partly because his chord progressions were so cool — like the way he went to E major for the pay off on “Cocaine” (already a racy subject, back then), or moved from A minor to C major to D major to F major on “House of the Rising Sun,” which allowed for the sweetest little descending bass line you ever heard.
“House of the Rising Sun”: You’re thinking Eric Burdon and the Animals, right? Because they had the monster hit on it 1964. But guess what? Van Ronk wrote that chord progression. (The original recorded version, a 1937 field recording by Alan Lomax of a Kentucky woman named Georgia Turner didn’t go like that.) Even juicier, before the Animals ripped off Van Ronk’s arrangement, so did Bob Dylan, for his first album, which came out in 1962.
How do I know all this? Because it’s all in Van Ronk’s delightful, keenly-observed, cantankerous autobiography, “The Mayor of MacDougal Street,” which, if you love “Inside Llewyn Davis” you owe it to yourself to read. (It’s been re-released, of course, with a big fat plug for the movie on the cover; boy, those Coen Brothers sure know how to market.)
In the book, Van Ronk explains how his work with Dixieland jazz bands hipped him to chord progressions folkies knew nothing about. (“The joke in the early ’60s,” he writes, “was that I was the only folksinger in New York who knew how to play a diminished chord.”) He also tells a story about how Dylan, who had been sleeping on Dave’s couch, gallantly asked Van Ronk if he could record his arrangement, and when Van Ronk said no, Dylan sheepishly admitted he’d already done it.
There’s also a very cool coda to the whole “House of the Rising Sun” saga, which is that it turns out the place wasn’t a brothel, after all — which of course we all thought it was, which made that song kind of racy in its own way, too — it was a women’s prison, something even Van Ronk didn’t find out till much later. So when the girl who’s telling her sad tale says she’s going back to New Orleans “to wear that ball and chain,” she’s not just whistling a metaphor.
But getting back to the film: Is Llewyn Davis, the hero of the new movie, really based on Dave Van Ronk? Well, yes and no. Like Llewyn Davis, Van Ronk lived in Queens; moved to the Village in the late ’50s to make it as a folk singer; slept on a lot of peoples’ couches; had a folksinger friend in the Army (Tom Paxton) and was a helluva a finger-picker; sang at the Gaslight, the basement folk club; got hooked up with the sometimes less than scrupulous Moe Asch, at Folkways Records who did once offer to give Van Ronk his winter coat; shipped out as a seaman; and made a fateful trip to Chicago to audition at the famous folk music club, The Gate of Horn.
All that’s in “The Mayor of MacDougal Street.” But what’s not in there is the angry, feckless loser named Llewyn Davis who is facing a turn in the road because his folk singing partner just died and he can’t figure out how or what to do next. Dave Van Ronk, by contrast, was a solo act. He even turned down the “Paul” part in Peter, Paul & Mary when promoter Albert Grossman was putting together that group (Noel Stookey, also not named Paul, took the gig).
Van Ronk also was a mensch, a successful leader everyone looked up to, not a guy who couldn’t babysit a cat. And until Dylan came along and transformed the whole scene by writing original songs with modern poetics (then electrified them), Van Ronk and Paxton were the biggest fish in the small folk music pond. So the outline of “Llewyn Davis” is based solidly on Van Ronk’s life, but the character is an entirely different guy.
There are some fictional elements in the plot of the Coen Brothers film, too — like the William Burroughs-ish beatnik who gives Davis a ride to Chicago (and his driver, who quotes Allen Ginsberg’s lover, Peter Orlovsky!) that give the movie a ton of period resonance. But Van Ronk didn’t truck with beatniks (in fact, the folk singers were trying to chase the beat poets out of the Village clubs).
But like T Bone Burnett (Q & A here), who produced the music for the film, said when it was pointed out that nobody said they were going “crash” on your couch in 1960, “Hey, it’s not a documentary.” Indeed, it is not, but your experience of the film will be very much enhanced by reading the “real story” in Van Ronk’s book.
And let’s not forget the music. In the wake of the film, Smithsonian Folkways has issued “Down in Washington Square,” a compilation of the folk singer’s recordings for the Folkways label, along with previously unissued recordings. Granted, Van Ronk himself said his best work was on Prestige. But there’s a passel of terrific listening on this three-CD set, starting with “Bamboo,” which was on Peter, Paul & Mary’s first album, as well as a terrific version of the old Bessie Smith tune about the 1927 Mississippi River flood, “Backwater Blues.”
Van Ronk, who knew his early jazz backwards and forwards and really was a blues singer, at heart, doesn’t do a bad job with Jelly Roll Morton’s “Winin’ Boy,” either. And “Dink’s Song,” Van Ronk’s sad, scratchy “fare thee well” signature song, which moves like an early rock slow-dance romance with way more pathos, is a gem. “Please See My Grave is Kept Clean” is one of the many songs Van Ronk sang that came from Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music,” and Van Ronk’s clean finger-picking and just-breaking voice, makes it dark and stark.
And did I mention there’s also a live version of “House of the Rising Sun” on the set? There is, not to mention “Stackalee” (aka “Stagolee”), “In the Pines,” “Hootchie Kootchie Man,” “Careless Love,” “God Bless the Child,” “St James Infirmary” and “Ace in the Hole.”
Van Ronk sings all of these songs with the conviction and passion of a man intimately involved in the vintage times they come from, and yet always with a contemporary feel, in the present tense. It’s a wonderful thing that “Inside Llewyn Davis” has sparked interest in his life and work.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” opens Friday in Seattle.