It's no secret to repeat visitors to the Vinyl Cave that I have a fondness for 1960s folkies. One of the urban traditional music revivalists most responsible for my love of this segment of pop music history is perhaps finally going to get some appreciation beyond enthusiasts due to a fairly random source: filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen.
The brothers' latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, is a tale of the early '60s New York folk scene loosely translated from the memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street by Dave Van Ronk, which was completed/compiled by music writer Elijah Wald after Van Ronk's death. While the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack does include one recording by Van Ronk, the album mostly consists of new recordings for the film. But I'm hoping the movie will help spur more listeners to seek out Van Ronk's own music. The recent release of Down in Washington Square, a three-CD Van Ronk set compiled by Smithsonian Folkways, can't hurt, either.
For those fearful of the idea of yet another earnest dude with an acoustic guitar, don't be afraid of Van Ronk. Much of his material is indeed in the dude-with-a-guitar mode, but in the hands of Van Ronk, this solo guitar accompaniment is hardly typical due to his creative finger-picking and arrangements. His voice and singing style was also utterly unique -- rough or gentle, playful or dire, friendly or frenzied as the song dictated. He's one of a small group of singers who can send chills up my spine.
Van Ronk may have been (still is, really) associated/lumped in with the folk boom, but he considered himself more of a trad jazz and blues man, a truth best understood by hearing him sing and play. Of course, a look at his discography also would make one wonder about the folkie appellation, considering there's skiffle- and jazz-specific discs, as well as a foray into fairly straight up rock with the Hudson Dusters.
Unlike many of the '60s-era traditionalists who weren't prolific songwriters, Van Ronk continued periodically releasing worthwhile recordings of songs both old and new right up until his death in 2002. Most of his albums after the 1960s slipped into the marketplace unheralded and remain fairly obscure today, though it has become far easier to track them down thanks to the Internet. Not all his side trips were completely successful -- attempts at a more mainstream pop band sound such as the Hudson Dusters disc and 1971s somewhat slickly produced Dave Van Ronk are respectively a bit under- and over-cooked -- but there are always highlights, and even lesser Van Ronk is better than just about anyone.
One of my favorites also uses supporting players (and drums) but the arrangements, this time by Van Ronk and Barry Kornfeld, are much more complementary to his iconoclastic style. Songs for Ageing Children was a 1973 one-off for the Cadet subsidiary of a gradually declining Chess Records; it's sometimes identified as Let the Feeling Talk to You because that's what the labels say.
For the uninitiated, Children offers a compact overview of many of the facets of Van Ronk's discography, since the extra players give Van Ronk the freedom to change up the sound of the album. There are acoustic numbers, a couple rock songs, a chamber pop arrangement, a jug band-ish tune, Hawaiian (!?), and more. In less-able hands, this could be a total mix-and-match mess, but it all flows together well as an album thanks to the sympathetic arrangements and Van Ronk's personality. It probably didn't hurt either that producer Michael Brovsky (Jerry Jeff Walker, Joe Ely) was along for the ride.
Where other than a Van Ronk LP would it be possible to hear a Brecht-Weil song followed by "The Teddy Bear's Picnic"? Other highlights include a hypnotic reading of Joni Mitchell's "River," Randy Newman's "Sail Away" recast as gospel, and one of Van Ronk's best originals, the stunning "Last Call."
While many of Van Ronk's albums have been reissued at least once on CD (and even vinyl!) over the years, Songs for Ageing Children has never resurfaced. However, it is available as an Amazon download, surprisingly enough. Highly recommended. (Cadet CA 50044, 1973)