(Note to readers: this is #4, the last in a series, so I’d recommend you start by reading #1, Chuck Berry, and read your way back up)
Combined with his 6.4 height and big muscular body, Dave Van Ronk’s seemingly smoke-and-booze saturated, decidedly big-piped voice would scare you if you didn’t know him. He looks rough, tough and unkempt, but he’s the proverbial sweetheart. Not really a ‘bad boy,’ at all, and not particularly Dutch either, despite his name.
A member of the Greenwich Village coffee house and folk music aristocracy along with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, he was slightly older than most and supported and promoted Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell in their early folk-revival days. Dylan performed Van Ronk’s arrangement of ‘House of the Rising Sun,’ which the Animals then catapulted into a standard of the rock repertoire.
A huge presence, I drew him in action twice, first at the Van East Cultch and later at the Folk Festival. Too bad they don’t make ‘em like this anymore: a former Merchant Mariner, a Trotskyite, an anarchist, a socialist, and a Wobbly who got arrested at Stonewall when he happened upon the scene and immediately joined in on the riot. He admitted in court to assaulting an ‘officer’ who was busy assaulting a demonstrator (the cop proceeded to assault Dave during the arrest, too). It was the only ‘bad boy’ thing Van Ronk ever did and it was good.
The Van East was difficult because of the blue, magenta and white stage lights that threw weird, seemingly conflicting shadows over him, but I think you get the idea of his intensity as a performer. His virtuosic guitar playing incorporated influences from traditional blues, jazz and ragtime: his complex chops were decidedly innovative in the ‘sixties already, and of course people loved him for his political activism (with Dylan, the big concert protesting the overthrow of Salvador Allende!) as well as his extensive knowledge of literature and poetry. All that was reason enough at the time for Dylan to consider him his ‘guru.’
Dave Van Ronk died in 2002, much too young. Glad to have been in your aura briefly, Dave, thank you. Often I’d literally bounce out of the Folk Festival gate with this sky-high feeling of ‘Yes We can!,’ thoroughly inspired after another day of rousing songs like yours.
So that’s the end of this bunch of four stories. My ‘Bad Boys of Music’ series should have included Tom Waits of course, but he has eluded me so far. And it’s already too late for Little Richard. I tried James Brown – the outrageous Godfather of Soul with a proven ‘anger-management problem’ – but I couldn’t get past his handlers who didn’t know what to do with my request to draw him in action, so I lost that potential ‘trip’ of a drawing experience, too.