The Mayor of MacDougal Street passed away nearly 12 years ago but his influence and imprint upon the American folk scene remains. He was among the first of the folk revivalists who appeared in the late 1950s and early 1960s. His gravelly voice, imposing stage persona, leftist politics, and resurrection of many forgotten folk songs influenced the artists in the Greenwich Village folk scene. Artists such as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs, and Tom Paxton were all influenced by Van Ronk. While he would never achieve the commercial success of many of his contemporaries, he would continue to record for independent labels and play on the small club circuit until his death.
The Fantasy label has now re-released the music from two of his early albums. He went into the recording studio in April of 1962 and produced two albums of material. While recorded at the same time, Dave Van Ronk/Folksinger (issued 1963) and Inside Dave Van Ronk (issued 1964) are different in style and approach.
The first 13 tracks comprised his Folksinger album and have a nice bluesy feel. His sound is sort of a folk/blues hybrid in the tradition of Bukka White. In fact his cover of White’s “Fixin’ To Die” would in turn be covered by Bob Dylan. His gritty voice is perfect for “Cocaine Blues,” “Motherless Child,” and “Poor Lazarus.” He was always a story teller and songs such as these are brought to life with just his guitar and voice.
The 12 songs that were released as Inside Dave Van Ronk are closer to a straight folk approach. He accompanies himself on 12-string guitar, dulcimer, and autoharp. He was always on the look-out for interesting and unusual traditional folk songs. “I Buyed A Little Dog,” “Fair And Tender Ladies,” “Silver Dagger,” and “Kentucky Moonshiner” were the type of tunes that he would play on stage for the rest of his life.
Van Ronk was a larger than life performer who had a unique style of picking, especially when playing his 12-string. His authentic and passionate style was taken and expanded by many of the artists that he mentored, which cemented his place in the development of American folk music.
Inside Dave Van Ronk catches him at the height of his influence. While the progression and development of folk music would leave him behind, the music contained here is a fine introduction to his music and the era.