Kirkus Reviews QR Code


A Memoir

by Dave Van Ronk with Elijah Wald

Pub Date: May 1st, 2005
ISBN: 0-306-81407-2
Publisher: Da Capo

Charming, evocative autobiography by one of the key figures in the mid-20th-century folk revival.

The charisma, humor and storytelling chops that made Dave Van Ronk (1936–2002) a Greenwich Village legend are abundantly on display in this memoir, assembled after his death by long-time friend and blues historian Wald. A blue-collar boy from the outer boroughs, Van Ronk dropped out of “Our Lady of Perpetual Bingo” at 15 and headed to the Village to hang out with anarchists and Wobblies. He began his musical life as a jazz fanatic convinced that “folk music was irredeemably square.” But Harry Smith’s paradigm-altering Anthology of American Folk Music in 1951 introduced Van Ronk and a lot of other “neo-ethnics” to the astonishing diversity of traditional American music. They aimed to play it with “authenticity,” scorning the bland sounds of pop-folk acts like the Kingston Trio. Nor did they initially have much interest in writing their own material; among Van Ronk’s many shrewd observations is the reminder that what we now think of as folk music—a singer-songwriter performing self-penned compositions accompanied by an acoustic guitar—is what it was changed into during the ’60s by artists like Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. Big names like Dylan’s enter late in Van Ronk’s narrative, which focuses on the fruitful, unpublicized early years when everyone scraped by with occasional jobs while playing for tips in all-night coffee shops, doing a lot of drinking and dope smoking on the side. It sounds like wonderful fun, and Van Ronk bestrews his pages with sharp, intelligent asides on such matters as the divide between the Cambridge, Mass., folk crowd, who viewed themselves as “pure guardians of the sacred flame” and the more professional singers of the Village, who viewed them as “upper-middle-class kids cutting a dash on papa’s cash.”

A must for those with an interest in the music, and of great appeal as well for anyone who enjoys a roistering life story recounted in a lively narrative voice.