Oscar Isaac in a scene from the film "Inside Llewyn Davis." | AP Photo/CBS FIlms, Alison Rosa
Read a review of “Inside Llewyn Davis” in today’s Sun-Times Movies section.
Updated: December 19, 2013 12:44PM
For most of his 40-plus-years as a singer and songwriter, Dave Van Ronk was mostly known within folk music circles, where he was cherished as a major figure whose fingerpicking style nurtured dozens of admirers he mentored over decades, including Bob Dylan, Suzanne Vega, and Joni Mitchell. His thick catalog of albums did not wander far from what he did best: perform traditional jazz, folk blues, jug band music, Chicago blues, and originals with just a guitar and his haunting raspy voice.
Now the world will know much more about Van Ronk thanks to “Inside Llewyn Davis,” a new film by the Coen brothers that opens in Chicago on Dec. 20. The film is loosely based on Van Ronk’s 2005 memoir that recounts his early struggles to make a living in the Greenwich Village folk scene and his coming of age during the post-war folk revival.
Sadly, but not unjustly, the film is prompting a wider interest in his music than what he experienced during his lifetime. The greatest coup is “Down in Washington Square,” a three-disc collection on Smithsonian/Folkways that spans four decades of Van Ronk music, the earliest from a live 1958 performance to the latest tracked just one year before his untimely death in 2002. Fantasy Records is reissuing “Inside Van Ronk,” his 1964 album, on vinyl. That album features songs that are covered in the film, and the album art, an iconic shot featuring Van Ronk standing in a Village doorway, is recreated in the film.
Van Ronk died at New York University Medical Center while undergoing treatment for colon cancer at age 65. Time off the road left him hurting for an income; one website raised money for expenses. Andrea Vuocolo Van Ronk, the singer’s widow, who still lives in the apartment he started renting in 1970, says that her husband did not get into the music to become rich and famous but “was just happy to make his living doing music his whole life.”
“Everybody wants to be acknowledged and noticed. But he didn’t seem bitter. He was happy to be able to do what he did. Because all he ever did was he performed, he taught, and he wrote. He never was forced to go outside of the music to make a living and he was very grateful for that,” she says.
Van Ronk’s earliest work showcased his unusual fingerpicking style that, to this day, guitarists often say is hard to replicate as he incorporated elements of traditional jazz, and also classical music, into his songs. His voice, although raspy, also reached a high pitch. In his autobiography, “Chronicles Volume One,” Dylan called him “passionate and stinging.”
The film also documents an early moment of Van Ronk’s life: going to Chicago to audition for Albert Grossman, the music impresario from the West Side who operated the Gate of Horn, the first folk club in the U.S. Grossman, who later moved to New York City to manage Dylan, as well as Odetta and Peter, Paul and May, sent Van Ronk packing back to Manhattan, a rejection that he carried with him the rest of his life as commercial success eluded him.
“He came on as a curmudgeon, but I never met anyone who liked being around people like he did,” says Ed Holstein, the Chicago folk singer who also operated several folk clubs along Lincoln Ave. in the 1970’s and early 1980’s where Van Ronk frequently played. “Dylan had more respect for Van Ronk than anybody else. He revered him. I always got the feeling from Dave that Dylan was like his little buddy.”
Holstein says Van Ronk never stopped learning the American songbook. “He was really all about the music,” he says. “He did everything he could to sell out but it wasn’t working so he had to be who he was.”
Andrea Van Ronk remembers her husband as an avid music scholar and a self-taught history buff, devouring books at night. He also cherished teaching, holding master classes by demand while on tour, whether in Chicago or Japan.
She says she hopes the new film and new releases of Van Ronk’s music will show the younger generation “there was a lot going on [in New York] in the 1950s and 1960s and that everything didn’t begin with Bob Dylan. And that people did continue to have careers even though they didn’t become superstars.”
“A lot of them are still out there doing it,” she says. “And they’re great.”
Mark Guarino is a freelance writer.