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Published:December 20th, 2013 08:36 EST
Dave Van Ronk`s 'Down In Washington Square' Is a Proper Education In American Music!

Dave Van Ronk`s 'Down In Washington Square' Is a Proper Education In American Music!

By John G. Kays

Suddenly I`ve discovered Dave Van Ronk (1936-2002) after picking up a copy of the 3 CD set, Down In Washington Square (The Smithsonian Folkways Collection), more than 50 years after the folk singer made the cool Greenwich Village scene! Well, perhaps, it`s the story of my life; often the last one to hear about a good thing. I love the package, but the going is still a tough, slow grind. Why? 

There`s so much behind every song; Dave obviously spent his entire life studying American Music, learning many of the songs from blues veterans, or maybe from mere street musicians, then making them his own. I have to break it down, learn the history, see who wrote it, when and where Dave recorded it, then look into the tune, you know, the lyrics, vocal, and Dave`s cool fingerpickin`, before I can make a meaningful assessment.

I couldn`t get by without the Smithsonian Folkways` liner notes, which I think were mostly written by Andrea Vuocolo, while the annotations and credits for 54 songs were provided by Jeff Place, (not such an easy job). This morning I loaded the 3rd disc onto my Imac, so I could listen to the tracks on headphones, whereas my Sony boombox has no headphone jack. if this almost looks like filler to you, I`ll have to correct you in the sense, that as I just mentioned, to get what Dave`s doing, you have to pretend you`re in the Village audience watching him in person, and the year is say, 1961 (yea, JFK is President!).

Yeh! Inside Llewyn Davis starts today; that will help me even more, I suspect, to get myself into a Dave Van Ronk State-Of-Mind. To show you how difficult this gets, and I`ll terminate my endless whining here pretty soon, but Track 11, Disc 3 is Spike Driver Blues, which is a variation on John Henry, which in turn is probably the most famous American folk song in our history. There are like 200 different versions of this one, which I think is about a labor situation; that is, the digging of the Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia (liner notes). The Smithsonian has 200 renditions of the tune in their museum; help! I need to get down the road a ways on the CD - but stuck on Track 11!

Take Track 12, Down South Blues is written by Scrapper Blackwell (1903-1962); I don`t have any Scrapper Blackwell in my collection, but sure do wish I did. The line about the matchbox reminds me of The Beatles` song, and they got it from Carl Perkins who must have learned the line or lick from Scrapper, but I`ll have to confirm this; perhaps the Smithsonian employees do this type of arduous research on a daily basis, but I`d need a lot of free time to do this kind of digging. Now I`m starting to appreciate Dave quite a bit more; I fare much better with Track 13, St. James Infirmary (Gambler`s Blues), which I love considerably. I performed this one in high school with The Good News Singers (originally an Irish ballad, believe it or not).

Track 14, Ace In The Hole sounds like a Vaudeville ditty to me, written by George Mitchell and James Dempsey in 1909; the notes tell us Dave added some of his own lyrics here. The line selling catnip for dope must be his. How `bout Van Ronk`s version of Dylan`s Buckets of Rain (From Blood On The Tracks)? Not too bad, huh? Smooth and cool vocals, nice pickin` - Dylan influenced by Dave, then Dave reciprocates in kind. Now when I go see the Coen Brothers` movie tomorrow I can say, I`ve begun a little bit of my homework; alright, so I still need to read Dave`s autobiography (with Elijah Wald), The Mayor of MacDougal Street. And a visit to the Smithsonian in Washington DC wouldn`t be too bad of an idea either.