The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir by Dave Van Ronk with Elijah Wald (DaCapo, $15.99, 272 pages)
“And so we’ll drink the final toast/That can never be spoken:/Here’s to the heart that’s wise enough/To know when it’s been broken.” Dave Van Ronk, “Last Call”
Largely Unheralded Van Ronk Puts Interesting Life and Career on Paper with Ease and Authority
When a book begins like this, it’s a pretty good sign the reader is in for one helluva ride:
Back at Our Lady of Perpetual Bingo, where I went to school, along with the rack, thumbscrew, and bastinado, they had a curious custom of announcing grades in the final exams and then making everybody hang around for an extra week before turning us loose for summer vacation. Presumably they did this to reinforce our belief in Purgatory.
And so begins The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Dave Van Ronk’s outstanding first-person memoir (finished after his death by Elijah Wald).
While there are the tales of the boozing and other types of mildly unseemly behavior that one might expect, the book is first and foremost about the musician and the music. Van Ronk tells of his complete disinterest in school; how he started out as a jazz guitarist; was coaxed into singing; became a ringleader of the folk scene in Greenwich Village in the late 50s and early 60s; his migration out West because that’s where there were more, higher paying gigs; a short-lived attempt at a rock band in the late 60s; and his continued singing and song writing career that slipped largely under the radar from the 70s on.
Along the way, there’s some interesting political commentary, but don’t be fooled into thinking that the book is about the politics of the folk era. The book is about the music.
There are stories of late night guitar sessions, his love of literature, and a few shenanigans and narrow escapes, but what is most interesting is the context in which other great musicians are discussed as Van Ronk’s tale unfolds. You get just about everybody: Odetta, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Leonard Cohen, Woody Guthrie, Joni Mitchell, Leadbelly, Mike Porco, Izzy Young, Bob Dylan – of course – and many, many more. You get places: Cafe Wha?, Gerde’s Folk City, Gaslight Cafe, White Horse Tavern, Kettle of Fish, and more. You get songs: some more obscure such as “Duncan and Brady” and “Dink’s Song,” and others that one might expect such as “This Land Is Your Land” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”
The cover of the book states, “The life story that inspired the Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis.” For modern movie goers who might not otherwise know about Greenwich Village and many of the seminal performing artists referred to in these pages, that might be a hook, but for any serious music lover, this book is a must read, movie or no movie.
The last chapter brings much of the scene into perspective. Of “Hard Rain,” Van Ronk writes, “The tune was borrowed from ‘Lord Randall,’ and it was in the same question-and-response form, but the imagery was right out of the symbolist school. It was not a flawless work – the ‘clown who cried in the alley’ always sounded to me like the verbal equivalent of a painting on velvet – but the overall effect was incredible. I heard him (Dylan) sing it for the first time during one of the hoot nights at the Gaslight, and I could not even talk about it; I just had to leave the club and walk around for a while. It was unlike anything that had come before it, and it was clearly the beginning of a revolution.”
For those who were envious when Dylan hit it big, Van Ronk simply states, “All you had to do was write ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ – for the first time.” And, of himself, he states acceptingly, “I have never made a fortune – as a matter of fact, I have often been deeply in debt – but dammit, this is what I wanted to do, and I have been able to do it for almost fifty years, and I haven’t been able to do anything else, and what more can I ask? I wanted to be a musician, and I am a musician, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Yes, Dave, it is.
A review copy was provided by the publisher. Dave Moyer is an educator, drummer, and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.
“Dave was the man on MacDougal Street when I arrived in the Village over forty years ago, and he is once more raucously ruling the street in these pages.” Tom Paxton
“Brilliant writing.” Christine Lavin
“In Greenwich Village, Van Ronk was king of the street, he reigned supreme.” Bob Dylan