The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin, The Pretty Things and to a lesser extent The Beatles and The Kinks re-introduced American baby boomers to their own blues heritage beginning in 1963 with their British Invasion covers and originals inspired by postwar electric blues artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed and B. B. King.
Elvis Presley had electrified acoustic blues artist Arthur Big Boy Crudup’s “That’s Alright” in 1955 for the seminal Sun label in Memphis and created a hybrid of blues and country and western music that became the template for rock and roll. But by 1961, the pop charts that had embraced Elvis had been taken over by a pallid cadre of pompadoured pretty boys who reduced rock and roll to teen idol pap, leaving its blues roots out of the mix and producing a vacuum for high energy “electric” music that the British Invasion would soon fill.
Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen Brothers film, focuses on that brief period in pop music history between the introduction of rock and roll and the British Invasion. Set in 1961 Greenwich Village, the film focuses on the prelude to a phenomenon that folksinger U. Utah Phillips, humorously referred to as “the great folk scare.” The Coen Brothers were inspired to create this film by The Mayor of McDougal Street, an autobiography written by the father figure of this emerging scene, Dave Van Ronk. The book was completed by blues journalist Elijah Wald following Van Ronk’s death in 2002.
Llewyn Davis is a fictional character loosely based on Van Ronk. The film follows a homeless and starving young folksinger struggling to survive in the thankless Greenwich Village coffeehouse scene just prior to the breakout of Bob Dylan, who would become the voice of a generation of young people heretofore forgotten by the dumbing down of the pop music scene.
Van Ronk described the scene to me in a 1989 interview. “There weren’t too many professional singers around. There were a lot of gifted amateurs, and at that point I’m not sure I could have been counted as a professional. I certainly had aspirations, but in order to be a professional you had to make your living at what it is you’re doing, and very few of us could do that.”
Too old for Fabian and having little in common with Chicago ghetto blues, college kids and young blue collar malcontents in 1961 began frequenting coffeehouses that were transitioning from their staple in the late 50s as a podium for beat poetry to music that explored the great American songbook of “authentic” folk music. To these folksingers blues music was considered — but one arrow in a quiver that included Woody Guthrie dust bowl anthems, sea shanties, Irish laments, protest songs, etc.
Go see Inside Lleywn Davis or pick up the soundtrack album, produced by T Bone Burnett, best known to blues fans for his work with Gregg Allman and the multi-million-selling O! Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. You won’t hear any blues, but if the film sparks your interest in Dave Van Ronk and you decide to listen to the three-CD set Dave Van Ronk Down in Washington Square, The Smithsonian Collection, you will hear, scattered among the folksongs representing the genres mentioned above, such blues gems as a previously unreleased and seminal version of “House of The Rising Sun,” “Spike Driver Blues” by Mississippi John Hurt, Bessie Smith‘s “Blackwater Blues,” “Sweet Substitute” by Jelly Roll Morton, “My Baby’s So Sweet” by Blind Boy Fuller, and “Careless Love.”
He does a version of “Please See My Grave Is Kept Clean”, learned from a Blind Lemon Jefferson recording. His “Hesitation Blues” goes back to W.C. Handy, but Van Ronk learned it and the spiritual “Oh, What A Beautiful City” from his friend and mentor Rev. Gary Davis. A majority of the cuts come from the era of the film, but many have since become more familiar to contemporary blues fans like “Stackalee;” Willie Dixon’s “Hootchie Kootchie Man;” “Reckless Blues” recorded by two of Van Ronk’s heroes, Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong; “Mean Old Frisco” by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup” who wrote “That’s All Right” and “My Baby Left Me;” and “God Bless The Child” recorded at the Cambridge coffeehouse Club 47 in 1963. Overall, the collection is a gem that is a revelation in its illustration of just how unique an interpreter he was. You may be surprised at how fresh these chestnuts sound since so many have been codified by countless cover versions in the ensuing half century.
Dave Van Ronk was older than most of the other singers in the Village in 1961. Dylan describes him as a father figure in his Chronicles book. Van Ronk always saw himself in a more self-effacing form. “If I’m hired to perform and entertain, I will perform and entertain, period,” he told me in 1970. “And if someone wants me for my opinion, I won’t simply call the students asses. For one, that’s a dumb thing to do. It’s kind of a blunt accusation that is asinine in and of itself, but there is on the campuses today, a spirit of anti-intellectualism.”
While others covered songs, he made them his own. Blues-rock veteran Danny Kalb of The Blues Project was his student at age 17. “Dave Van Ronk wasn’t a racist,” says Kalb. “He used black materials as a painter would. He evolved as an artist into doing the blues in an authentic, powerful way — though not the same as imitating blacks like most of the English ones.”
“I had a great deal of interest in country blues and still do,” Van Ronk said in 1989, “and I got a great deal of repertory from listening to country blues people, but essentially my approach was, then as now, a jazz approach. When in combination with the guitar finger picking style, I suppose it sort of made something new, but the elements I assembled had been around for quite some time.”
To many of the folksingers in 1961, rock and roll was an anathema, and their covers of old blues songs sounded like just that, covers of old blues songs. Dave lived the songs as if their message could spell the difference of life and death. And he loved rock and roll. His version of “House of The Rising Sun” preceded both The Animals’ version and Dylan’s. His Hudson Dusters album in 1968 was psychedelic rock at its best. In 1970 he described the album as an opportunity to “ham it up from here to Halifax,” admitted that the album hadn’t sold and that the group was starving to death.
His voice ranged from a gentle whisper to a bronchial, primal scream, and his delivery was as much about his facial expressions as his voice. “Dave had the rock and roll soul as well as the Jelly Roll Morton soul as well as the Bessie Smith soul” explains Kalb. “He had the uptown soul. He had all of it, and he was an Irishman, so he had that punch, and he was not a feminine man. He was the real deal.”
When I first saw Danny Kalb and the Blues Project featuring Al Kooper on keyboards headline over Muddy Waters at the Café Au Go Go in 1965, I knew Kalb was advancing Van Ronk’s legacy by connecting the dots between rock and roll, folk and blues. “I learned how to live Dave Van Ronk,” says Kalb today. “The guitar and the singing was the way to get through to my growing up from a boy to a man. Everything about Dave was a man, not a boy, not a semi-man. He’d been in a branch of the left in New York that was involved in fights early on on the street, street fights. And he was no fool.
“He was also intellectual, self-educated and he’d been in the Merchant Marines,” continues Kalb. “He wasn’t one of these pussies. He was the real thing, and I learned how to be a man from him just by being his persona, grounded, by listening to his music and by going further into the black music, to understanding black music and to a lot of things. I was opening up to like Rev. Gary Davis who Van Ronk was very into 10 years before I even knew about it and rock and roll, which he liked and emulated. A real artist is someone who does things his own way and is unafraid of the consequences.”
Inside Llewyn Davis is being hailed as the best film of the year, and Oscar Isaac is wonderfully evocative in the lead role. But I wonder what Dave Van Ronk would think of him and the film. He sounds nothing like Van Ronk. There is no blues in the film, and the plot revolves around the conflict of surviving on the street rather than Van Ronk’s always obvious joy of making music. “P.T. Barnum used to say no one ever lost a cent by underestimating the intelligence of the public, and a lot of people have gotten by following that,” Van Ronk told me, “but I just can’t bring myself to do that. So, an audience is worth at least the best that I know.”