There has been a lot of press over the release of the new Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis, the music for which was produced by T Bone Burnett, the same collective brains responsible for O Brother, Where Art Thou? which saw a rising resurgence of interest in American Roots music. Whether this film which was inspired (albeit loosely) by Dave Van Ronks The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir of the 60’s Folk Revival, results in a similar re-focus of musical attention from the general public remains to be seen. But one argument that still remains valid when talking about revival which I’ve seen several mentions in relation to this film is that this music never actually went away…the term revival is often banded about by journalists as it sounds better in their headlines.
The film which has picked up three Golden Globe nominations has not been without some niggles over interpretation, despite taking inspiration from Dave Van Ronk’s book the film’s protaganist is nothing like the character of Van Ronk who was a very caring person and a great teacher compared to the selfish Llewyn Davis. There has also been some interesting discussions around creative liberties taken in the depiction of the Greewich Village folk scene which is given a very hard cold edge whereas other’s recall a scene that had a strong and warm community which they look back on fondly (read the ‘Vulture’ interview with Terri Thal, Van Ronk’s first wife, and Sylvia Topp, wife of Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs).
The songs chosen for the film soundtrack are a great selection which are varied including some surprising ones such as covers of Ewan MacColl’s ‘The Shoals of Herring’ which was written for the BBC Radio Ballad ‘Singing the Fishing’ broadcast in 1960 and Brendan Behan’s well known ‘The Auld Triangle’ which featured in his first play The Quare Fellow produced in 1954. Although Dave made no mention of Behan in his autobiography/memoir he clearly had a fondness for him…Elijah Wald who co-authored the book stated that Dave enjoyed remembering the big dinners Behan would host when he had a play opening on Broadway, at which he would treat the guests to food, booze, and self-penned ditties like “Don’t Muck About with the Moon.”
Despite the niggles that have been made I’m looking forward to seeing the film which is released in the UK on 24th January 2014. I will be applying a liberal pinch of salt to any poetic license that unfolds on the screen but if you are wanting to delve into the history of the Greenwich Village folk scene then Van Ronk’s memoir is a great start. I came across many new revelations such as Tom Paley’s (founding member of New Lost City Ramblers…now resident in London) intervention that led Dave from jazz to folk music. Up until around 1955 Dave had never used fingerpicking to play his guitar and it was after seeing Tom Paley playing Stackolee that he “buttonholed” him and got him to show him what he was doing. Tom saved the day. His often candid view is entertaining and is not without many moments of great humour such as his first recollection of Greenwich Village:
By this time I had heard and read a good deal about Greenwich Village. The phrase “quaint, old-world charm” kept cropping up, and I had a vivid mental picture of a village of half-timbered Tudor cottages with mullioned windows and thatched roofs, inhabited by bearded, bomb-throwing anarchists, poets, painters, and nymphomaniacs whose ideology was slightly to the left of “whoopee!” Emerging from the subway at the West 4th Street station, I looked around in a state of shock. “Jesus Christ,” I muttered. “It looks just like fucking Brooklyn.”
From there I would head straight for the new Smithsonian Folkways release Down in Washington Square (3CD) which is the best Dave Van Ronk collection out there. It has also been painstakingly put together by Jeff Place, an archivist at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. This is the perfect tribute to the grand mentor of many a folk singer who ventured to The Village including Bob Dylan and Suzanne Vega. The liner notes (download pdf), as you’d expect from Smithsonian Folkways, are extensive (40 pages long) and features 54 tracks including 16 never-before-released recordings.
Finally Dave Van Ronk get’s his day…go and discover!
“Dink’s Song” (Smithsonian Folkways)
Gaslight Rag (1974) Tompkins Square