Dave Van Ronk (June 30, 1936 – February 10, 2002) was an
American folk singer, born in Brooklyn, New York, who settled in Greenwich
Village, New York, and was eventually nicknamed the "Mayor of MacDougal
He was an important figure in the acoustic folk revival of the 1960s. His
work ranged from old English ballads to Bertolt Brecht, blues, gospel, rock,
New Orleans jazz, and swing. He was also known for performing instrumental
ragtime guitar music, especially his transcription of St. Louis Tickle and
Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag.
Dave Van Ronk was regarded as the friendly uncle of Greenwich Village,
presiding over the coffeehouse folk culture and acting as a friend to many
up and coming artists, inspiring, aiding and promoting them. Folk performers
whom he befriended included Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Patrick Sky, Phil Ochs,
Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Joni Mitchell.
Van Ronk received the Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Society of
Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), in December 1997.
Van Ronk died of cardio-pulmonary failure while undergoing post-operative
treatment for colon cancer in a New York hospital.
Van Ronk moved from Brooklyn to Queens in 1951 and began attending Holy
Child Catholic High School (Queens, New York). He had been performing in a
barbershop quartet since 1949, but left before finishing high school, and
spent the next few years bumming around lower Manhattan, except for shipping
out twice with the Merchant Marine.
His first professional gigs were with various traditional jazz bands around
the New York area, of which he later observed: "We wanted to play
traditional jazz in the worst way...and we did!" The jazz revival did not
take off though, and Van Ronk turned to performing blues music he had
stumbled across and enjoyed years earlier, by artists like Furry Lewis and
Mississippi John Hurt. Van Ronk was not the first white musician to perform
African-American blues, but became noted for his interpretation of it in its
original context. By about 1958, he was firmly committed to the folk-blues
style, accompanying himself with his own acoustic guitar. He performed
blues, jazz and folk music, occasionally writing his own songs but generally
arranging the work of earlier artists and his folk revival peers.
He became noted both for his large physical stature and his expansive
charisma, which bespoke an intellectual, cultured gentleman of many talents.
Among his many interests: cooking, science fiction (he was active for some
time in science fiction fandom, referring to it as "mind rot", and
contributed to fanzines), world history, and politics. During the 1960s he
supported radical left-wing political causes and was a member of the
Libertarian League and the Trotskyist American Committee for the Fourth
International (ACFI, later renamed the Workers League, predecessor to the
Socialist Equality Party). Attracted to the commotion from a neighboring
bar, and no stranger to police violence, he was at the famous Stonewall
Riots during which he was grabbed by police, arrested, briefly jailed and
charged with felony assault on a police officer. In 1974, he appeared at
"An Evening For Salvador Allende", a concert organized by Phil Ochs,
alongside other performers such as his old friend Bob Dylan, to protest the
overthrow of the democratic socialist government of Chile and to aid
refugees from the U.S.-backed military junta led by Augusto Pinochet. After
Ochs' suicide in 1976, Van Ronk joined the many performers who played at
Phil's memorial concert in the Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden, playing
his bluesy version of the traditional folk ballad "He Was A Friend Of
In 2000, he performed at Blind Willie's in Atlanta, clothed in garish
Hawaiian garb, speaking fondly of his impending return to Greenwich Village.
He reminisced over tunes like Good Ol Wagon, a song teasing a washed-up
lover, which he ruefully remarked had seemed humorous to him back in 1962.
He was married to Terri Thal in the 1960s, lived for many years with Joanne
Grace, then married Andrea Vuocolo, with whom he spent the rest of his life.
He continued to perform for four decades and gave his last concert just a
few months before his death. He found it amusing to be called "a legend in
his own time".
Van Ronk died before completing work on his memoirs, which were finished by
his collaborator, Elijah Wald, and published in 2005 as The Mayor Of
In 2004, a section of Sheridan Square, where Barrow Street meets Washington
Place, was renamed Dave Van Ronk Street in his memory.
Van Ronk has been described[by whom?] as an irreverent and incomparable
guitar artist and interpreter of black blues and folk, with an uncannily
precise ability at improvisation. Joni Mitchell often said that his
rendition of her song "Both Sides Now" (which he called Clouds) was the
He is perhaps underestimated as a musician and blues guitarist. His guitar
work is noteworthy for both syncopation and precision. In its simplest form,
it shows similarities to Mississippi John Hurt's, but Van Ronk's main
influence was the Reverend Gary Davis, who conceived the guitar as "a piano
around his neck". Van Ronk took this pianistic approach, and added a
harmonic sophistication adapted from the band voicings of Jelly Roll Morton
and Duke Ellington. He ranks high in bringing blues style to Greenwich
Village during the 1960s, as well as introducing the folk world to the
complex harmonies of Kurt Weill in his many Brecht-Weill interpretations,
and being one of the very few hardcore traditional revivalists to move with
the times, bringing old blues and ballads together with the new sounds of
Dylan, Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. During this crucial period, he performed
with the likes of Bob Dylan and spent many years teaching guitar in
Greenwich Village, including to Christine Lavin, David Massengill, Terre
Roche and Suzzy Roche. He influenced his protégé Danny Kalb and The Blues
Project. The Japanese singer Masato Tomobe, American pop-folk singer Geoff
Thais and the musician and writer Elijah Wald learned from him as well.
Known for making interesting and memorable observations he once said,
"Painting is all about space, and music is all about time."
Thanks to what he had learned from Davis, Van Ronk was among the first to
adapt traditional jazz and ragtime to the solo acoustic guitar. His guitar
arrangements of such ragtime hits as "St. Louis Tickle", "The Entertainer",
"The Pearls" and "Maple Leaf Rag" continue to frustrate and challenge
aspiring guitar players. He also did fine compositions of his own in the
classic styles, such as "Antelope Rag".
His song "Last Call" is the source of the title of Lawrence Block's book
When the Sacred Ginmill Closes.
The Coen brothers are writing a screenplay for a film based on Van Ronk's
Van Ronk refused for many years to fly and never learned to drive (he would
use trains or buses or, when possible, recruit a girlfriend or young
musician as his driver), and he declined to ever move from Greenwich Village
for any extended period of time (having stayed in California for a short
time in the 1960s). Van Ronk's trademark stoneware jug of Tullamore Dew
was frequently seen on stage next to him in his early days.
Robert Shelton described Van Ronk as, "the musical mayor of MacDougal
Street, a tall, garrulous hairy man of three quarters, or, more accurately,
three fifths Irish descent. Topped by light brownish hair and a leonine
beard, which he smoothed down several times a minute, he resembled an unmade
bed strewn with books, record jackets, pipes, empty whiskey bottles, lines
from obscure poets, finger picks, and broken guitar strings. He was Bob
[Dylan]'s first New York guru. Van Ronk was a walking museum of the blues.
Through an early interest in jazz, he had gravitated toward black music -
its jazz pole, its jug-band and ragtime center, its blues bedrock... his
manner was rough and testy, disguising a warm, sensitive core. Van Ronk
retold the blues intimately... for a time, his most dedicated follower was