Elijah Wald: The Digital Folk Life Interview
Dave Van Ronk
[Elijah Wald is the unobtrusive editor of the series of interviews, from a number of cited sources, which became The Mayor of MacDougal Street, the richly rambling memoir of Dave Van Ronk, who was the first white bluesman to incorporate and adapt the music of the Rev Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, and other African-American bluesmen into the mingled tradition of American folk music which became known as “The Great Folk Scare” of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s – one of the periodic “revivals” of the genre, often involving left-wing politics along with “pop” music aspirations on the part of some of its adherents; one need only mention Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, on the one hand, and Tom Paxton or Ewan MacColl on the other.
How did Elijah Wald come to be involved with Van Ronk, by some accounts a gruff, sardonic figure who had “a talent a yard wide and an ego to match”? Or was that a complete misreading of a kind and gentle mensch, whose towering figure belied his ability to let intrusive children climb all over him in the process of his enduring yet another persistent, fascinated interview (you can find that one on record on the Internet)?
Perhaps we should let Elijah Wald, a friend of Dave Van Ronk for many years, correct the record. Let’s begin:]
The Digital Folk Life: Can you start by telling us how you came to meet Dave Van Ronk in the first place, Elijah?
Elijah Wald: I first met him because I loved his music, I saw him in concert when I was twelve years old [Ed: 1972?]. It happened that a friend of my family, of my parents, knew him, so when he came to town she took me to see him, and introduced us, when I was just a kid. This happened a few times. And then when I was 16, 17 I guess, I graduated high school, and did one year of college, at the only college I applied to, which was NYU, which was the college that was near Dave Van Ronk, so I could study with him, taking guitar lessons with him, and for some reason we hit it off. After the second week, he moved my lesson to the end of the day, it was Tuesday, and every Tuesday I’d go over there, I’d have a one-hour guitar lesson, and then he would cook dinner, and I’d stay for dinner, and he’d open the first bottle of whiskey, and then about eleven, before the liquor store closed [Laughter…], he’d send me out for the next bottle of whiskey, and then, next morning, sometime around six or seven, I’d stumble back to my dorm….
TDFL: Boy… That’s an amazing story, Elijah. Was he well known in your circle at that time?
EW: My circle in high school? No. Nobody knew who he was. I mean, we were kids. And times had moved on. I mean, he was still very well known to anyone who was into folk music. I mean, he had been one of the major figures of the Sixties. When I first started studying with him, that would have been ’76, 77, and we weren’t that far from the Sixties. Plus Cambridge [where Elijah grew up] was not that far from New York, and he was playing at the major folk club there [Club 47, at 47 Mt Auburn Street across the street from Harvard’s Quincy House, later moving to the alley behind the Harvard Co-op, and being named Passim’s] at least two or three times a year, and always to a full house.
TDFL. Right, right. What attracted you, personally, to Dave back then? Was it his personality, his repertoire…?
EW: Oh, it was everything! – I loved the way he sang, I loved the way he played guitar, but also, the first time I ever saw him perform, it was just a life-changing experience. When he was really on, he was really on that night. Umm. He was just an incredibly charismatic performer! The first time I saw him, it was in a concert hall, it was almost empty, but it just felt like he had filled up the whole place! I said I was twelve years old, and I went with my mother, and we walked out of there, and my mother turned to me, and she said, “Boy, that must have been like what it was to see Dylan Thomas when he was at his best!”
EW: It may seem like an odd comparison, but her great regret in life was that she had never seen Dylan Thomas, who was supposed to be the most charismatic figure who had ever stepped onstage, and it felt like that. I mean, he was just amazing. And once I get to KNOW him, it was even more, he was I would say to this day, and I’ve taught at universities, he was the best educated man I’ve ever known, he was phenomenally well known on just an incredible range of subjects, he was a magnificent talker, he was an enormously funny man. And wise, and smart.
TDFL: Can you recall any other musicians, students, who were hanging around, taking lessons from Dave?
EW: The only person I recall doing it back when I was doing it was Christine Lavin. She was, at that point, a regular student of Dave’s. There were some other people later, but there was nobody else at that time, in the mid-Seventies, who went on to do anything professionally, it was mostly just the sort of people who take guitar lessons, you know, dentists and lawyers, who remembered him from the old days, and wanted to play a little guitar, and it was exciting for them to be in the same room with the great Dave Van Ronk. But Christine’s the only other serious person, from what I remember.
TDFL: So Bob Dylan would have made his appearance much earlier?
EW: Oh Bob Dylan – well, Bob Dylan was never really a student of Dave’s – Dylan just sort of hung out with him, slept on Dave’s couch, jammed with him, but never really a student of Dave’s in terms of lessons [Ed: Although it is on record that Bob Dylan lifted Dave Van Ronk’s personal arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun” from Dave for his own first record, without asking permission, and Dave had to teach Bob about that, eventually]. But yeah, that would have been ‘way earlier, Dylan was just hanging out with Dave for the first year or so that he got to New York. So that was back in 1961.
TDFL: Right, right. So Joni Mitchell would have come even before you met Dave.
EW: Oh yes, I mean, Joni would have moved to the West Coast by ’67 or ’68. So Dave and Joni were pals during the years she was in the Village. I don’t know how long that was, but it wouldn’t have been more than a couple of years. And it would have been in the mid-Sixties.
TDFL: So you were teaching at university later on?
EW: I did. I taught some university in the 2000’s. I taught a history of blues class, just for two or three years. As I say, I never went to college. I haven’t had a lot of academic appointments! I played music or about fifteen years, professionally, and then I began writing about music. Basically, I’ve been a freelance writer and historian ever since. I did a little bit of teaching, but not that much.
TDFL: Ahh. Can I ask you the first time Dave gave you his nod of approval, as an up and coming musician, if I’m putting that correctly?
EW: Well, it’s a little hard to answer that one. You have to understand that, in the mid-1970’s, umm, very, very few young people had the slightest interest in old folk or blues music. It was really a dead period.
EW: I mean, there had been a lot of people a generation before me, and now there are a lot more, again. I mean, I played at the Brooklyn Folk Festival, and it struck me that everybody else who was playing was either 20 years older than me, or 20 years younger than me. There was nobody anywhere like my age, and that’s what it was like. And for Dave, the mid-Seventies was probably – it was – the low point of his life. I mean, it was a period when the Sixties were over, it was clear by the mid-Seventies that he had had his one chance to become a well-to-do star, and it hadn’t worked. And he was going to be stuck playing lousy little clubs for the rest of his life, and he was not feeling cheerful about THAT. And then I showed up, this teenager, who was just wildly enthusiastic! –
EW: - about him and about all the music he loved. So I think it was really exciting for him. You know, I walked in, and he said, “So what can you DO?” You know, the way a teacher does when a new student arrives. And I played him something from Blind Willie McTell that he’d recorded back in the 1920’s. And I guess it had been a while since he heard a teenager who wanted to play like Blind Willie McTell…! So it was exciting for him from the moment I walked in the door, because it suggested to him that there might still be teenagers who might be interested.
TDFL: Ah. Could you remember the first tune – or tunes – that you first learned from Dave himself?
EW: Well, he tended to teach in a pretty organized way. I can’t tell you for absolute sure, but I’m pretty sure he started people off with “Spike Driver Blues,” from Mississippi John Hurt, and I may have already been a good enough player that he didn’t give me that one. But if he didn’t give me that one, he probably started me off with “Wilson Rag,” from Elizabeth Cotton. Um, I mean that was a little bit more complicated than “Spike Driver,” but not much. He was pretty, he had his way of teaching. He had tunes that he pretty much tended to give people in order. He had them arranged in a little file case next his couch, and he just tended to start at the front and go to the back. And we probably skipped a few, because I was relatively advanced compared to a lot of his students at that period. But I remember learning “Wilson Rag,” and that would probably have been the first. And then we started getting on to Dave Van Ronk things. There was something we never did – he never taught me “Cocaine.” I learned it later, because I got the tablature from his guitar book. So I had to sit down with some of the more basic things I’d never learned. I do remember we did not do that one. And then, you know he would move to the fancier ragtime pieces. Up to things like “Maple Leaf Rag,” and “The Pearls,” and something he’d written himself called, “Antelope Rag.”
TDFL: I ran a radio program from 1978 until this past summer, and my theme music was, “The Pearls.” And I always thought of that as sort of like, “casting pearls before swine,” as I wasn’t sure who listened to the program. [Laughter]
EW: Yeah [laughter], I think he felt a little that way about the people he was playing it for too. He was intensely aware that everyone he was playing that for would rather that he was shouting a blues song! But he made them listen to it anyway.
TDFL: Beautiful. I remember reading somewhere that, once he put on music for listening purposes, all talking had to end in the room. Is that a fair – or too mild! – a description of the listening process in Dave Van Ronk’s presence?
EW: That was usually true, but it depended upon how much Jamison’s had been drunk! I mean, he didn’t like anyone else to talk over the music, but by a certain point in the night, it wasn’t necessarily true that he wasn’t talking over the music! Particularly because, with someone like me, he was laying the music as an educational thing, you know? He would play stuff and then talk about what I should be listening to, and that would lead into something else. Or he would sing along with the music, when he would, for example, put on the Bulgarian ensemble of folk singers, recorded in Paris in he 1950’s, it was the Bulgarian women, recorded for the radio in Bulgaria, and he would put that on and sing bass with them. He was good at it too – he really understood those Balkan harmonies!
TDFL: I’m sure he did. Look, he discusses what other people have called, “the folk process,” as proceeding like “the game of whisper,” around a room. Do you recall his getting into this kind of “theory of folk music” discussion in your own presence?
EW: You know, Dave didn’t care that much about “folk” music, quite honestly. I mean, he talks about defining it and explaining it all in the context of our book, because he meant the book to be the history of the folk revival, but Dave always felt he had ended up in the “folk scene” by default. What he loved was jazz. And particularly when he had someone like me in the room, who had grown up on Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger but who had never listened to Bing Crosby! What he was mostly doing was making me listen to Bing Crosby and Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and crazy stuff like Groucho Marx and Jerry Colonna, Jo Stafford, whom he loved – you know, someone like me, he was educating me in different directions, he didn’t talk to me about much of folk music. Which was OK by me, because I thought of folk music as old songs, which is what he thought of it as. Vernacular songs. I mean, keep in mind, Dave was a Marxist-anarchist, I mean when Dave defined folk music, he did not define it in musical terms. He defined it in sociological terms. It was he music of the illiterate proletariat.
TDFL: OK. Some of that is what I myself called at one time, “acanemic theory.”
EW: Yeah, that’s right. But he loved that kind of stuff! Dave loved arguing those kinds of points. .
Dave with Kenny Goldstein
TDFL: Boy, I wish I’d interviewed him myself…! Apart from the blues, and of course the tunes of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, what would you call Dave Van Ronk’s personal favorites, of all the kinds of music – “
EW: - I wouldn’t really say, “apart from the blues” – I would say his pantheon started with Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. Not necessarily in hat order, maybe Jelly Roll Morton then Louis Armstrong, followed by Duke Ellington, followed by Joe Venuti followed by Eddy Lang – ah, he got into blues, Bessie Smith – Bessie Smith was definitely hi favorite blues singer. And then he got into people like Leadbelly – o course the Reverend Gary Davis, whom he actually knew and worshipped. And then when the songwriters came along, you have to understand, um, Dave listened to different music a lot of times than he played. I mean, he liked a lot of Bob Dylan’s songs, and he played a lot of Joni Mitchell’s songs. But his idea of a great songwriter was Cole Porter.
TDFL: I know at one point he was playing Joni Mitchell songs on each of his LP’s.
EW: Oh yes, he thought Joni Mitchell was far and away the bet writer to come out of that scène. And he also felt like her material suited him very well. And as you’ve mentioned, she felt the same way. In a number of interviews, she described him as the only person who was doing her stuff better than she did. She loved the way he sang the things because when you listen to Joni's own versions, you can sometimes drift on just how pretty hr voice is? But when he sings he stuff, it really forces you to pay attention to every word, and I think as a writer she really liked that.
TDFL: “That Song About the Midway”?
EW: Yeah, there you are.
TDFL: I know this is a hard question I’m going to ask you, but I’m going to sky u anyway: how would you evaluate Dave Van Ronk’s influence on you, as a person as well as a musician, over the years?
EW: Oh, it’s hard to even know where to begin! After that first year’s studying with him – he was like a second father to me – I was always staying at his place, I never got any sleep, I mean, I can’t count the number of hours I spent listening to that man talk! [laughter] when I began writing for a newspaper in the early eighties, he began loading me down with all of the books that I needed to read if I was going to be a serious writer, I mean, newspaper writers I needed to read, if I was going to be a serious writer, I mean, newspaper people like Mencken, AJ Liebling, Calvin Trilling – particularly Liebling – he made me read everything Liebling wrote, and I would still describe Liebling as my main influence as a writer. I mean, as I said earlier, he was ust a phenomenally well-educated and intelligent man. I mean, the book that made me professionally was “Escaping the Delta,” and it’s kind of a revisionist rewriting of blues history, and it’s all based on hat Dave used to say. I mean, he had a very, very clear-eyed view of the world, I mean I suppose a lot of it from his teenage years, raging Anarchist Socialism with all of the other political extremists around the Village, he loved to argue! And he really knew his stuff.
TDFL: I think once, when we exchanged a little conversation, I mentioned to him that I regarded myself as a, “Libertarian Socialist.” And he wasn’t too sure about that….
EW: Oh, he certainly went towards that – I mean, he was a member of the Libertarian League – he was a Libertarian Soclalist for a while. As a young person, he wound up for a while as a member of the IWW, [Ed: International Workers of the World] and he continued to pay dues to the IWW until he died. He was also a very active member of the Socialist Workers Party, and led a split, and was one of the founding members of a group called The Workers’ League, which was the American wing of the – we’re really getting into details here – but split from the British Socialist Workers Party led by Jerry Healey, and Dave was part of the group that followed the English - - the British – party out, and became the American wing of the English IAS. And he was serious about that stuff.
TDFL: Oh sure. My younger brother Bill was for a while the MC for the Young Communists Folk Club in Glasgow, and I always wondered if it could have been possible that he got Dave Van Ronk to play for that club.
EW: That’s an interesting question. I mean, I don’t know, but he was – there was no love lost between him and the Stalinists. On the other hand, if they had been willing to pa him, he would have gone! [Laughter] He wasn’t picky that way?
TDFL: I dunno, there’s so much…One more question – perhaps – one of the standard “closing ‘er up” folklorists’ questions, because I’ve taken a lot of your time – what do you think the effect of the new Coen Bothers’ movie, the new edition of your book, the new Smithsonian releases of his music, will be on the reputation of – and perhaps re-awakened interest in - this (to me) seminal figure in American folk music, Dave Van Ronk?
EW: Well, I mean, to start off with, let’s just talk about what’s already happened. When I just heard that the Coen Brothers’ movie was going to happen, I got in touch with Universal Music, which by now has gobbled up all of the various companies Dave recorded for, from 1963 to 1973, Universal now owns Prestige, and Mercury and Polydor and Cadet, which were all labels that Dave recorded on, and I got in touch with them, and I wanted to put together a “Best of” album, and they’re all up for download on Amazon – this last year is the first year since the 1960’sthat you could buy all of those albums. Already the film has had the effect of getting all of Dave’s classic work back where you can for the first time hear them. The book [Mayor of MacDougal Street] had never been translated, and the Italian and Japanese translations are being worked on for the first time right now! I just did an interview with someone about Dave for a big piece in the New York Times, an interview for a big piece in Esquire, there have been pieces in French newspapers and magazines. I mean, I don’t know how far it’s going to lead, but already it’s had a huge effect in just getting hi name out there again.
TDFL: I’m glad to hear that. I wanted to ask, are there any questions I should have asked you but didn’t?
EW: Well, one thing I would just mention, relative to the fact that everything is back in print, I put up a page on my website, just www.elijahwald.com, there’s a Dave Van Ronk page, but I’ve added a listeners’ guide, just because it occurred to me, there are people who never heard of him, and there are probably 20 albums out, and I felt I needed to put up something for people who are new, and I needed to explain here they might want to start. What the difference were and what it all was like. So I’d jus like to mention that, for people who’re just coming to him and don’t know his work it might be useful.
TDFL: Thank you very much. Are there any closing thoughts? I don’t want to take up any more of your time – I know you’re busy –
EW: I’d just like to say that we were terrifically pleased when it turned out the Coens were doing this movie, and particularly that they were not using the book to do a movie about Dave, coz when we wrote that book, it was not the book that he and I had originally planned because he died very early in the proves, and so I basically had to write the book myself, and I was stuck working with a lot of interviews he’d done with a lot of different people, over the years, and most of the interviews had been about him, and his career, so the bok wound up being more of a memoir than he wanted to write. What he wanted to do was to write a book tat would capture the flavor, the spirit of that period. Rather than being about him. And I think he would love the fact that the film it has inspired is not about Dave Van Ronk, it’s about the period, and is using the book as the best picture possible of that period, not being specifically about him.
TDFL: He came out to East Stroudsburg University in the Poconos when I was teaching there, with a friend who invited him to talk about The Great Folk Scare –
TDFL – And that’s what Dave did. He was very interested in that context,
EW: He was a great lover of history – a huge reader – he wanted to write a book on it. And it’s interesting because after that book came out, all sorts of people from the folk scene approached me about writing their memoirs, and they all wanted to talk about themselves! And that was never what Dave wanted to do! He wanted t write the definitive history of the Sixties folk scene. He thought he was the best person to do that, which I think was true. I wish we had completed it just the way he wanted to do it. I tried to do it the best I could, but the idea was, “I’d like to do this book, because I’m the best person to do it, “ not, “People need to know more about me!” [Laughter]
TDFL: Thank you very much – thank you for your courtesy and patience with a stranger, Elijah.
EW: No problem at all.
[And you can find the link to the Dave Van Ronk listening guide by going to www.elijahwald.com and browsing in its riches… I’m exhausted from transcribing the cassette tape on which we recorded this interview! Thank you for reading it. I think it’s one of the most fascinating pieces of taping that The Digital Folk Life has ever done…