Pete's Blog

Dave Van Ronk

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Quite independently of my previous post, my father sent me Dave Van Ronk's album "Going Back to Brooklyn" (Hightone HCD8192) this week. This is Dave's only complete album of original songs and I would recommend it to anybody, but especially to anyone involved in making "folk" music today. Dave always insisted on using the term "folk" but I doubt he would recognize most of what passes for "folk" today. Dave was a dangerous man who made dangerous music. His sets went every whichaway through the history of jazz, blues, Celtic, and ragtime, with none of the smugness or tinkly goodvibesmanship that fills "folk festivals" today. Dave wasn't interested in good vibes. He was interested in good music. You hear this most strikingly in his guitar-playing. What sets him apart is the complete avoidance of perfection. These are brilliant parts, drawing on Lonnie Johnson, Eddie Lang, Django Reinhart, Josh White, John Hurt, and other greats. They are tuneful and rooted and full of unusual twists. But it's easy to focus on the fact that some notes are flailed at, some fudged, and dismiss them as lazy or technically deficient. Then you try playing them, and you discover a) they're hard as Hell and b) the flailings and fudgings actually serve an expressive purpose. Afterwards, most folk and New Age guitar sounds utterly empty and soulless. Then there's Dave's iconoclasm. He was farther to the Left than anybody you will ever meet, but his patience with the Tolerance/Inclusion school of lyric-writing was, at best, thin. There are no wimpy anti-war songs here. There is the a cappella "Luang Prabang." It opens "When I came back from Luang Prabang/I didn't have a thing where my balls used to hang/But I had a wooden medal and a fine harangue/Now I'm a fucking hero." There's enough anger there to peel paint, which is what I felt in 1968 and it's what I feel now. Thanks, Dave.

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