Dave Van Ronk - Biography

By J Poet

Dave Van Ronk never finished high school and lived most of his life in New York City’s Greenwich Village, but his achievements as a guitarist, singer, songwriter, intellectual, fighter for social justice and champion of traditional folk, blues and jazz music make him a towering figure in the 60s folk revival. He recorded albums of blues, folk, jazz, pop and jug band music during his lengthy career, and while he was never a prolific songwriter, the songs he penned are all stunning examples of the songwriting craft. He mentored several generations of young singers and performers, the most notable being Bob Dylan who slept on the floor of Van Ronk’s apartment when he first came to New York in 1961. As guitar teacher, raconteur, record collector, and charismatic performer he left an indelible mark on friends and fans, performing indefatigably until his death from complications of colon cancer surgery in 2002. He lived long enough to receiver recognition for his contributions to music receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from ASCAP in 1997.


Van Ronk was born in 1936 into a working class family. He started playing guitar early, influenced at first by traditional jazz and bebop. He sat in with cats like Coleman Hawkins and Johnny Hodges while still a teenager, able to pass for older because of his six foot-plus frame. He dropped out of a catholic high school to join the merchant marine in 1951 and between voyages played in various folk and jazz venues, with no thought of becoming a professional musician. Odetta “discovered” him at a folk club and told him he was good enough to be a professional. An early demo tape he sent to Albert Grossman, late Dylan’s manager, went unheard, but when the folk boom started in 1960, Van Ronk became a local star and started recording for Folkways Records. His first album Dave Van Ronk Sings Ballads, Blues and a Spiritual (1959 Folkways) set the tone for his future recordings, a mélange of styles today known as roots music. Van Ronk Sings (1961 Folkways) did well enough to be picked up by Verve and it was reissued in 1965 on Verve Folkways. His precise way of picking, his syncopated fills and ragtime flavor made his guitar work unique and his gravel-throated vocals have never been duplicated.


Van Ronk gained a national reputation when he was signed by Prestige, a jazz label that was testing the waters with folk and blues artists. Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger (1963 Prestige) and Inside Dave Van Ronk (1965 Prestige) still sound vital 45 years later. His precise way of picking, his syncopated fills and ragtime flavor made his guitar work unique and his gravel throated vocals have never been duplicated. Ever the eclectic, he also cut In The Tradition (1964 Prestige) a collection of old time jazz and blues tunes with The Red Onion Jazz Band.


His prestige albums led to a short lived major label deal. Just Dave Van Ronk (1964 Mercury) is another solid collection, just Van Ronk and his guitar, marked by the sparkling clarity that only a major label could provide in the early 60s. Dave Van Ronk And The Ragtime Jug Stompers (1964 Mercury) was another side trip into trad jazz, ragtime and jug band music.


No Dirty Names (1966 Verve/Forecast) contains one of Van Ronk’s first original songs “Zen Koans Gonna Rise Again.” In 1968 Van Ronk made an aborted attempt at wider fame with a folk rock band. Dave Van Ronk and The Hudson Dusters (1968 Verve/Forecast) is a great, sloppy (in the best sense of the word) romp, but Van Ronk soon quit the band and went back to his solo acoustic sets. 


As the folk revival gave birth to folk rock, rock and singer/songwriter, Van Ronk’s popularity faded somewhat, but he had enough of a following to continue to record and perform.

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