Music Reviews
12:04 pm
Mon November 25, 2013

Will The Real Llewyn Davis Please Stand Up?

Originally published on Mon November 25, 2013 1:15 pm

In the early '60s, Dave Van Ronk, still in his 20s, had become the grand honcho of the Washington Square folk scene in New York. He never managed to get as far beyond that role as he deserved. (His autobiography, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, helped inspire Joel and Ethan Coen's new movie, Inside Llewyn Davis.) Perhaps the fine new anthology Down in Washington Square will give Van Ronk, who died in 2002, a long-needed boost.

Van Ronk was not a rambler like Woody Guthrie or even a New York City outsider like Bob Dylan, so it's understandable that he would see the folk-music-revival movement as his favorite neighborhood phenomenon. Besides, he never considered himself strictly a folk performer: His first love was traditional jazz tunes. Down in Washington Square does a particularly fine job of presenting Van Ronk as a conveyer, an apostle even, of diverse modes of old music. It enables him to be black, white, male, female, young, old, a murderer and a martyr.

Aside from a brief, ill-considered foray into rock 'n' roll, Van Ronk was very consistent in his presentation and at his best when most simple — voice and guitar. But if you merely toss a batch of tracks together, that voice can make them tough to get through. Van Ronk was gruff at the start of his career and downright raspy later, with very little range. Certainly, he gave hope to unconventional singers like Dylan. It was in concert, however, that Van Ronk's personality overwhelmed and redeemed his vocal limitations. Down in Washington Square makes a convincing case for Van Ronk as a witty charmer and commanding storyteller on stage. Most of the 16 unreleased tracks are live and top-quality, whether from a show in 1961 or one from 1997.

Down in Washington Square also emphasizes that Van Ronk would have nothing to do with the pretty tunes and sentimental sweetness that made too much '60s coffeehouse folk music a soundtrack for nice people. Van Ronk's grit comes across, not just in amoral murder ballads and salacious double-entendre tunes like "Ya-Yas-Yas" — more scandalous in 1961, but a mere naughty novelty now — but in his blunt declarations for low-life itself, such as his late-period original "Losers."

For me, the most surprising and thought-provoking cover on Down in Washington Square is Van Ronk's 2001 version of Bob Dylan's "Buckets of Rain." Van Ronk gives the song a timeless guitar setting, but while Dylan assembled the lyrics from equally universal components — such as little red wagons, oak trees and lots of good lovin' — there's a modernist, coded wit and the cadences of pop in Dylan. It's to Van Ronk's credit that he can make it clear that "Buckets of Rain" is a message from the music chapter after his own.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new Cohen brothers movie, "Inside Llewyn Davis," is set in 1961 in the Greenwich Village folk music scene just before the arrival of Bob Dylan in New York. The movie is partly inspired by a memoir by Dave Van Ronk called "The Mayor of MacDougal Street."

Van Ronk was a central figure in the folk village - in the Village folk scene of the late '50s and the '60s, so the timing is perfect for the release of a new three CD collection of Dave Van Ronk's recordings called "Down in Washington Square." Music critic Milo Miles has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WINING BOY BLUES")

DAVE VAN RONK: (Singing) I'm the wining boy. Don't deny my name. Yes, the wining boy. don't deny my name. Well, the wining boy, don't deny my name. Pick it up and shake it like sweet Stavin' Chain. Yes, the wining boy. Don't deny my name.

MILO MILES, BYLINE: In the early '60s, Dave Van Ronk, still in his 20s, had become the grand honcho of the Washington Square folk scene in New York. He never managed to get as far beyond that role as he deserved. Perhaps the fine new anthology "Down in Washington Square" will give him his long-needed boost. Van Ronk was not a rambler like Woodie Guthrie or even a New York City outsider like Bob Dylan.

So it's understandable that he would see the folk-music-revival movement as his favorite neighborhood phenomenon. Besides, he never considered himself strictly a folk performer. His first love was traditional jazz tunes. "Down in Washington Square" does a particularly fine job of presenting Van Ronk as a conveyer, an apostle even, of diverse modes of old music. It enables him to be black, white, male, female, young, old, a murderer and a martyr.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH, LORD SEARCH MY HEART")

RONK: (Singing) Oh, lord, search my heart. Oh, lord, search my heart. Oh, lord, search my heart. So I know when I'm right, when I'm wrong. When I'm in misery, search my heart. When I'm in misery, search my heart. When I'm in misery, search my heart. So I'll know when I'm right and when I'm wrong. Oh, lord...

MILES: Aside from a brief, ill-considered foray into being a rock 'n' roller, Van Ronk was very consistent in his presentation and at his best when most simple - voice and guitar. But if you merely toss a batch of tracks together, that voice can make them tough to get through. Van Ronk was gruff at the start of his career and downright raspy later, with very little range.

Certainly, he gave hope to unconventional singers like Dylan. It was in concert, however, that Van Ronk's personality overwhelmed and redeemed his vocal limitations. More than any other collection I know, "Down in Washington Square" makes the case for Van Ronk as a witty charmer and commanding storyteller on stage. Most of the 16 unreleased tracks are live, most of those top-quality, whether from a show in 1961 or one from 1997 such as "Don't You Leave Me Here."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T YOU LEAVE ME HERE")

RONK: (Singing) Don't you leave me here. Don't you leave me here. If you just must go, sweet baby, leave a dime for beer. Don't you leave me here. The rooster crowed and the hen ran around. If you want my fricassee, you've got to run me down. Don't you leave me here.

MILES: "Down in Washington Square" also emphasizes that Van Ronk would have nothing to do with the pretty tunes and sentimental sweetness that made too much of the '60s coffeehouse folky music a soundtrack for nice people. Van Ronk's grit comes across not just in amoral murder ballads and salacious double-entendre tunes like "Ya-Yas-Yas" - more scandalous in 1961, and more naughty novelty now - but in his blunt declarations for low-life itself, such as his late-period original "Losers."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOSERS")

RONK: (Singing) I blew my wad playing seven card stud. I was playing for money; they was playing for blood. On the way back home the big winner got mugged. Now he's just another loser like me. Losers. Losers. I got took from my whossis. That sharp got crowned, now he's blown, been bound. He's just another loser like me.

MILES: For me, the most surprising and thought-provoking cover on "Down in Washington Square" is Van Ronk's 2001 version of Bob Dylan's "Buckets of Rain." Van Ronk gives the song a timeless guitar setting, but though Dylan assembled the lyrics from equally universal components - such as little red wagons, oak trees and lots of good lovin' - there's a modernist, coded wit and the cadences of pop in Dylan.

It's to Van Ronk's credit that he can make it clear that "Buckets of Rain" is a message from the music chapter after his own.

GROSS: Milo Miles reviewed the new Dave Van Ronk collection called "Down in Washington Square" on the Smithsonian Folkways label.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUCKETS OF RAIN")

RONK: (Singing) Buckets of rain, buckets of tears. Got all them buckets coming out of my ears. Buckets of moonbeams in my hand. I got all the lovin', honey baby, you can stand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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