The “mouldy fig wars” had erupted, pitting the bebop scene against traditional jazz, with its deep New Orleans, mouldy fig, roots. Progressive or traditional, a choice had to be made, and Dave Van Ronk drew down with guitars in support of the traditional movement.
In this endearing and insightful first person narrative of Van Ronk’s life as an influential musician and personality within the fledgling folk movement, the reader is transported to 1950s New York City, more specifically Greenwich Village. At that time Washington Square was the unofficial meeting place for the silent minority – mostly young people who felt the corporate dream of happiness being sold by the party establishment was not kosher.
Having cast his lot with the mouldy figs, Van Ronk dispatched his guitar temporarily, since it wasn’t perceived to be an instrument of traditional jazz, and began to make piece with the banjo.
“I did not like the banjo much – it clanged like some kind of wind-up toy, and I had trouble fitting my fingers on the neck – but there was a lot of pressure on me, so I switched over and quickly became one of the worst tenor banjo players on the ‘trad’ scene. And to be the worst at tenor banjo, you’re really competing, because that’s a fast track. I couldn’t keep time in a bucket, I kept blowing the chord changes, and no sane jazz musician would ever have hired me, except for one thing: I had a loud voice and I didn’t mind taking vocals,” writes Van Ronk.
This literary snapshot reveals much of Van Ronk as a person. He was a big guy with an amplified voice, unique among folk musicians. His voice got him noticed. Van Ronk was well read but impulsive, often becoming the victim of his own intellectual snobbery. But this characteristic is part of what makes him such a compelling individual. He’s flawed but knows it and is capable of bringing out his self-effacing nature to the reader.
Name dropping is at a premium throughout these pages, with the likes of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Joni Mitchell, Bobby Dylan, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Mississippi John Hurt, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane all coming to life.
After setting the table for the underlying story behind why battle lines were drawn between bebop and ‘trad’, the story evolves into the folk revolution.
An effective picture emerges of how a changing of the guard occurs as the likes of Dylan enters the scene and protest songs are mixed with singer/songwriters and blues musicians, leading into the mid-1960s when the hippie movement began to take shape and forever altered the fabric of the musical landscape.
Unfortunately Van Ronk died before his memoir could be completed but Elijah Wald ably stepped in, having spent time with the author and learned musically from him. Wald seamlessly picked up on Van Ronk’s riff to complete the writing.
The phrasing in the retelling of Van Ronk’s life, like his lyric and guitar work, is an improvisational masterpiece. It may not be the finest prose ever written but its authenticity and attention to detail sells it. There’s no pretension in Van Ronk’s retelling, just the dues paid for a hard earned life.
The scene setting is par excellence! Take a moment to stroll through the Village with “The Mayor of MacDougal Street.”