05 September 2015

The Mayor of MacDougal Street, by Dave Van Ronk with Elijah Wald

With a foreword by Lawrence Block.

I saw Dave Van Ronk at Caffe Lena a long time ago. The memory is dim, but I remember his big, wheezy, wonderful voice and fabulous guitar. I think this was circa 1967, but I can't be sure. I also have a faded recollection of owning at least one Dave Van Ronk LP, but the only thing I really recall is that the record itself was bright red.

This book was a pure pleasure to read. Van Ronk recalls the late 50s and early 60s in Greenwich Village. He knew many of the luminaries of that period, including Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, and Bob Dylan. In addition, he was friends with Mississippi John Hurt and other famous American root-musicians.

Van Ronk was a consummate musician. He put everything into his music. He began with jazz. He describes himself as a "mouldy fig," of the traditional New Orleans Jazz school -- as opposed to the be-bop revolutionaries like Charlie Parker -- but he loved it all. He listened to all kinds of music, including musical theatre and classical. As his personal style developed, he fell into the genres described as "blues," and "folk," but he devotes several paragraphs to the meaninglessness of said categories, specifically as useless barriers that do nothing to enhance or describe the art of music, and musical performance.

Reading this book was a pleasant visit to my teenage years, when I listened to every note played by Jack Elliot, Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, or Joni Mitchell as if it contained the key to all understanding.

Elijah Wald did a loving and thorough job of co-authoring this memoir. Van Ronk died before it was completed, and Wald had to do his best to pick up the pieces. The result should make him very proud.

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