I post a weekly diary of historical notes, arts & science items, foreign news (often receiving little notice in the US) and whimsical pieces from the outside world that I often feature in “Cheers & Jeers”. For example …..
OK, you’ve been warned – here is this week’s
tomfoolery material that I posted.
ART NOTES – works by Romare Bearden in the exhibition A Black Odyssey are at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas through August 11th.
HAIL and FAREWELL to the former Jefferson airplane drummer Joey Covington – who struggled replacing Spencer Dryden, and whom I thought was much better-suited to his stint as drummer of Hot Tuna – who has died in a car accident at the age of 67.
BRAIN TEASER – try this Quiz of the Week’s News from the BBC.
FOOD NOTES – it is becoming more difficult in a restaurant to find plain mashed potatoes on the menu …… now, one sees “garlic mashed potatoes” or “cheddar mashed potatoes” or “rosemary mashed potatoes”.
OF NOTE – Washington University in St. Louis has decided to stop using live cats in their pediatric training, a move that former TV host Bob Barker has been pushing for for months.
FRIDAY’s CHILD #1 is among those performing in a re-opened cat theater in Moscow, run by a circus family.
IN a PROFILE by New York magazine writer Frank Rich – one of his early mentors was a closeted gay man, whose influence he recalls fondly.
SCIENCE NOTES – the Swiss physicist Martin Schadt – known as the “father of the pixel” for his pioneering work in LCD screens – has been awarded a lifetime achievement award by the European Patent Office.
LEST YOU THINK this is an American affliction, payday loans are also a major problem in Britain.
CHEERS to Britain’s royal family member Prince Harry – whom a gay soldier revealed had intervened (five years ago) to save him from a homophobic attack.
FRIDAY’s CHILD #2 is Chester the Cat – a “living welcome wagon” in a historic village in Texas.
…… and finally, for a song of the week …………………. he never made it big during the folk revival of the early 1960’s – or, as he put it, the “Folk Scare of the 1960’s” – as he was not a prolific songwriter (when one was expected to write their own material), his voice was gruff and he was overweight … but Dave Van Ronk was everybody’s friend in Greenwich Village from the mid-50’s on. He crashed at others’ places (or returned the favor), befriended Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs, and helped mentor the young (and newly-arrived in town) Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Not for nothing was he known as “The Mayor of MacDougal Street”.
The Brooklyn native grew up in Richmond Hill, Queens and always described himself as “more Irish than Dutch” – with a stoneware jug of Tullamore Dew whiskey on-stage with him. A high school dropout, he began bringing his guitar into Greenwich Village’s noted hangout Washington Square Park … until as he noted, it was “overtaken by the bongo players”. As noted in his memoirs, he scrounged for meals and board … eventually joining the merchant marines in order to earn a nest-egg.
While he is remembered as a folkie, he pointed out that he learned (and performed) with Dixieland jazz bands in the 1950’s and – while that style faded in Manhattan during the decade – it remained a valuable part of his sound. Eventually settling-in as a solo performer, he adapted ragtime tunes to the guitar, and also became a devotee of Kurt Weill, and of Woody Guthrie and traditional folk tunes.
But it is fair to say that his music is more based upon the blues than any other style, adapting the songs of Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt and especially the Reverend Gary Davis. In the 1950’s, few white musicians were playing these tunes, which made his adaptations stand out. And so songs such as “12 Gates to the City” and “Cocaine Blues” – which the Rev. Gary Davis eventually stopped playing, to focus on religious music – became Van Ronk standards. He also performed songs by the young musicians he helped out, such as Bob Dylan’s “If I Had to Do It All Over Again”, Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning” (whom Bill and Hillary Clinton named their daughter after) and eventually began writing some of his own songs (such as “Sunday Street” and “Gaslight Rag”). But that came too late in his career to help him join the burgeoning singer-songwriter movement.
After trying to scrape out a living in the mid-50’s New York coffeehouse scene – still a few years away from the explosion – Van Ronk talks about hearing encouraging words from the folksinger Odetta, who promised to bring a tape to tell the Chicago club owner Albert Grossman about Van Ronk. Van Ronk then ventured to Chicago to audition for Grossman at his famous Gate of Horn club …. but who never received the tape (and was unimpressed, anyway).
His career began in earnest with his 1959 release on Moe Asch’s legendary Folkways Records label – which he felt was more authentically folk music than, say, the Kingston Trio (whom he disliked) – and his first album garnered some notice. But he had more success in the 1960’s when he was signed to Prestige Records – the jazz label owned by the legendary producer Bob Weinstock – when it opened itself to folk music in the early 1960’s, with much better distribution channels. They released perhaps his most noted solo album – Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger – in 1963. Just a few years earlier, that great “folk scare” had finally arrived, years after it was forecast. Van Ronk was largely overlooked by it, later saying:
If there was ever any truth to the trickle-down theory, the only evidence of it I’ve ever seen was in that period of 1960 to 1965. All of sudden they were handing out major label recording contracts like they were coming in Cracker Jack boxes.
But it almost didn’t pass him by: Albert Grossman – by then, Bob Dylan’s manager – had grown fonder of Van Ronk’s singing and asked if he was interested in joining the trio he was forming. And when Van Ronk declined, it was Paul Stookey who became the third partner in Peter, Paul & Mary – which Van Ronk realized he would have been horribly suited for …. yet from time-to-time pondered his bank balance …. and wondered …..
His wonderful memoirs are entitled The Mayor of MacDougal Street – completed by its ghostwriter after his death – and only continue until the end of the 1960’s, as he wanted less of a true bio, and more of the ‘end of an era’ accounting. It turns out that he had come out of the old Lions Head Pub to see what the loud commotion he heard was about … and wound up in the middle of the Stonewall Riots of 1969.
But though his time in the limelight had faded, his career lasted another thirty years, recording over thirty albums and now mentoring a new group of musicians (with The Roches and Christine Lavin in particular). He supported left-wing politics all his life (appearing at many benefit shows) … just not via his songwriting (as he felt that Phil Ochs had pigeon-holed himself, needlessly). And when you listen to the early acoustic Hot Tuna recordings …… you will hear many songs that Dave Van Ronk had popularized a few years earlier.
And it may extend further yet: as the Coen Brothers filmmakers are planning to release a feature film (perhaps this year) entitled Inside Llewyn Davis …. which is largely based upon the life of Dave Van Ronk.
Of all of his songs, it is a traditional tune (naturally) with its own interesting heritage called Hesitation Blues – also performed by musicians ranging from W.C. Handy to Janis Joplin to Willie Nelson to Doc & Merle Watson – that is my favorite. And below you can listen to it.
The eagle on the dollar says,
‘In God we trust’
A woman says she wants a man
But wants to see that dollar first
Ain’t never been to heaven
But I’ve been told:
St. Peter taught the angels
How to jelly roll
Tell me how long
do I have to wait?
Can I get you now
Or must I hesitate?