The Folk Revival
I WAS IN HIGH SCHOOL in the 1960s, when I first saw Dave Van Ronk at the Gaslight, one of those little cellar clubs that used to line a Greenwich Village that now lives in myth and legend. I didn't understand what he was doing. It didn't fit anywhere neatly, musically speaking. It seemed like a jumble whose elements I recognized—folk tunes, ragtime, early jazz, Delta blues—but couldn't line up into what my 15-year-old mind thought was coherence but was really my expectations, which were being uncannily exposed and exploded. I felt like Dr. P in Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, scanning deconstructed faces for that single telltale feature that would reveal to me who I was looking at. It took me several days to recover from that set, to piece together what had hit me. Aside from nagging annoyance, I didn't know how to think about it. I couldn't have been more confused if Louis Armstrong suddenly ambled onto the Ed Sullivan Show and followed “Hello Dolly” with “The Times They Are A-Changin'.”
Two things, however, I knew even as I was alternately squirming and transfixed through Van Ronk's show: he was a hellacious guitar picker, a real—and therefore, in pop and folk circles, rare musician (I later studied with two of his students), and he was the only white guy I'd ever heard whose singing showed that he truly understood Armstrong and Muddy Waters. When he roared and bellowed, it felt like a hurricane blast shaking that little club.
Oh yeah: Van Ronk was funny. Really funny. He did bits from W. C. Fields, whose irreverently transgressive movies were being revived, part of the 1960s rediscovery of great American anarcho-comics like the Marx Brothers. He did “Mack the Knife” in mid-show with a suddenly acquired tremolo I later found out was Marlene Dietrich's; it threw my teen spirit and forced me to rethink what I thought I knew about folk music. When he did “Cocaine,” the perennial crowd-pleaser and set-closer he'd adapted from the Reverend Gary Davis, his friend and teacher, his asides (“Woke up this morning and my nose was gone”) seemed made to order for the drug counterculture. (Of course, some of us had already discovered how