A compilation from his Folkways Recordings, Compiled and annotated by Kip Lornel and Dave Van Ronk
1991 Smithsonian/Folkways Recordings
1. Duncan and Brady
2. Hesitation Blues
3. In the Pines
4. Willie The Weeper
5. Twelve Gates To The City
6. River Come Down
7. Careless Love
8. Betty And Dupree
9. Bed Bug Blues
10. Leave Her Johnny
11. Yas, Yas, Yas,
12. Please See That My Grave Is Kept Clean
13. Winin' Boy
14. Just A Closer Walk With Thee
15. Gambler's Blues
16. Spike Driver's Moan
17. Georgie On The IRT
18. Come Back Baby
19. Black Mountain Blues
20. My Baby's So Sweet
Reflections on This Recording, by Dave Van Ronk
In 1955, after a particularly horrendous gig with a pick-up trad. jazz group in New Jersey replete with drunken fraternity boys, a 50% pay back to the contractor, and my first on-stage experience with the demon marijuana (my pick kept missing the banjo strings), it seemed to me that my future as a jazz musician was due for an agonizing reappraisal. The Traditional Jazz revival of the '40s and early '50s was definitely over. The survivors were a few cornballs in funny hats, moonlighting insurance execs and a handful of dedicated musicians gumping meals at the automat. (Gumping is when you race the busbuy to an unfinished plate of food, finish it, and repeat the procedure until you are no longer hungry or you are thrown out--whichever comes first.) My formal education had ended decisively three years earlier when I was expelled from Richmond Hill High for mopery and general moral turpitude, so a career in comparative philology or nuclear physics appeared less than probable. There was no G.I. Bill for veterans of the Moldy Fig Wars. In any case, I was hooked. Except for vague yearnings to he an archaeologist and find a lost city or two, I had never wanted to be anything but a musician.
I had acquired a ukelele when I was twelve, and my first guitar a year later (given to me by a grammar school classmate, Conrad Fehling--thanks heaps, Connie). The banjo was a later accretion; I never liked the banjo--it clanged like some kind of wind-up toy, and I never learned to play it well. But no matter. Traditional jazz had to have a banjo, so I clanged away, occasionally hitting the right chord, tolerated by my confrerees mainly because I didn't mind doing vocals and I sang real loud. Still, aesthetics aside, the gigs were drying up and I was getting very hungry.
Of course I was aware
of the folk music thing in Washington Square. I had been hanging
around the village for a few years by this time, and the sight and sound
of happily howling Stalinists
offended my assiduously nurtured self-image as a hipster, not to mention my political sensibilities, which were at the time vehemently I.W.W.-.anarchist. (To this day, I cherish a deep-seated loathing for anything that smacks of good. clean fun.) In due course I came to realize that there were some very good musicians operating on the fringes of the radical Rotarian singalongs: pickers and singers like Tom Paley, Dick Rosmini, and Fred Gerlach, who were playing music, cognate with early jazz, with a subtlety and directness that sinply blew me away. The technique they employed was called 'fngerpicking, wherein the right thuirib keeps time--not unlike the left hand in the stride piano playing I was already familiar with--while the index and middle fingers pick out melodies and harmonies. What struck me most forcefully was that if you can do this you don't need a band. I immediately cast off my carefully cultivated snobbery and set out to learn. Like the man said: 'Sometimes you have to forget your principles and do what's right.'
What all this boils
down to, I suppose, is a kind of cofession; I never really thought of myself
as a 'folksinger' 'at all. Still don't. What I did was to combine
traditional fingerpicking guitar with a repertory of old jazz tunes, many
of which I had been singing for years. These recordings from '59
and '61, I regard as a journeyman's progress report. Kenny Goldstein,
who kindly set up the arrangement with Folkways and produced the first
album, told me 1 should hold off a year or so, and he was probably right.
There were lots of kinks that needed ironing out.
This then is the first recorded statement not of a folk musician, but of a kind of jazz singer manque. I like to think 1 was starting to get the hang of it.
1. Duncan and
I don't think there have ever been two singers as unlike one another as Paul Clayton and myself. Yet Paul had considerable influence on me, as he did somewhat later on Bob Dylan. I think it was the way he had with a lyric. He was not only a singer of great talent, but a folklorist and collector of songs in the field. Paul collected this song on one of his field trips, and taught it to me. The character "Old King Brady" was lifted from a popular dime novel series circa 1890-1900. The electric car image, and the refrain "He's been on the job too long" strike me as especially vivid.
I learned this from Gary Davis around '56, although I was singing something very much like it a few years earlier with a group fetchingly called "The Brute Force Jazz Band."
3. In the Pines
From the Kossoy sisters, Irene and Ellen, whom I met in Washington Square. They were identical twins (still are) with perfectly matched voices. They subsequently recorded a lovely album for Tradition which, unfortunately, is out of print.
4. Willie the
I picked this up from a record by Shep Ginandes (whom I never met, and whose name I hope I am not misspelling). I gradually evolved away from the kind of roughhewn guitar style I used for this one, but there was a time when "Willie" was regarded as my signature song, and I couldn't get off the stand without doing it. No matter how good songs like these are, singers begin to thirik thoughts of scarlet letters, albatrosses, and kind words from Donny Osmond. Some years later, standing in the wings at an Arlo Guthrie concert, I sympathetically watched his eyes roll heavenward as he trudged back to do "Alice's Restaurant" for an encore, at the screaming insistence of his adoring fans.
Back-stage after the show, I offered to teach him "Willie the Weeper."
5. Twelve Gates
to the City
From Gary Davis. The "Rev" was probably my single greatest influence as a guitarist. Although I never studied with him formally, I am still learning from what he taught me. With a couple of notable exceptions, however, I have always made it a point not to copy any of his guitar charts in toto. The arrangement here is in the aforementioned percussive style that I was fond of in those days.
6. River, She
The only song I ever wrote that ever made me any money, and I hate it. It started out as a guitar exercise, but since I usually taught songs in those days, I needed lyrics. Vaguely remembering a piece that Dick Weissman used to do on the banjo, I carelessly flung together some
nonsensical doggerel and used Dick's chorus - "River, river she come down." My students seemed happy enough, and that should have been that, except that Peter, Paul & Mary, who were in the process of getting their act together, took a fancy to it. Renamed 'Bamboo,' PP&M performed it on their first album, which sold seven trillion copies. Particularly embarrassing was the way some of the pop music critics homed in on the lyrics. I cringed when they called them "surrealist." One erudite soul (I forget who) compared them with Garcia Lorca. Fortunately, the Muzak version was an instrumental. I shared the royalties (and the chagrin) with Dick.
Does anyone know a lyric to this tune that isn't mawkishly sentimental? I still love the melody and the first verse, but after that things go pretty much downhill. I keep promising myself to write a few new verses, but I never seem to get around to it. I have no idea where 1 learned this one. I checked an ancient repertory file that I still keep, which lists sources for my songs. The card for 'Careless Love' simply says: 'Osmosis.' So be it.
8. Betty and
Kenny Goldstein's excellent notes to the first edition of this record inform me that this is a true ballad. Frank Dupree, "a white South Carolinian ... robbed an Atlanta jewelry store in 1921 and killed a policeman while making his escape. Dupre was later captured in Detroit, was tried and convicted, and was hanged on September 1, 1922.- Kenny's notes further inform me that I learned this song from an "old friend, Jerry Levine" (which 1 had forgotten). My cards inform me that Jerry probably got it from Brownie McGhee.
9. Bed Bug
As you may have noticed, nostalgie de la boue was a big item on my agenda back in '59. This is from Bessie Smith, whose wry and ribald reading of it remains unsurpassed.
10. Leave Her,
From Folk Songs and Shanties, sung by Paul Clayton & the Folk Singers (Folkways 2429). This may seem like a Viennese waltz in the middle of a break dance contest, but to me it fits in just fine. Paul Clayton, my aforementioned guru, was one of the most frequently recorded singers of the time, with upwards of twenty albums to his credit. When the opportunity presented itself to do a sea shanty album with chorus, his first thought, naturally, was to go over to Washington Square and round up the usual suspects. They were Bob Yellin, bluegrass banjoist and alto singer par excellence; Bob Brill, blues singer, guitarist, and kazumpet virtuoso (also called the trumpoo); Rog Abrahams, balladeer and folklorist (but not yet the distinguished Doctor Roger D. Abrahams); and Dave Van Ronk, self-anointed hog-calling champion of upper MacDougal Street.
Rehearsal space was no problem. Art D'Lugoff had just opened his Village Gate. and was having trouble obtaining the necessary license to hire entertainment. Singers were welcome to come in and sit around and table, or, in our case, bellow, with Art only too happy to supply pitchers of beer or wine to fend off dehydration. The problem with this was that after a few pitchers we were so well fended that our attention was apt to wander a bit. A diligent hour or so of 'Haul on the Bowline' and 'Santa Anna,' and somehow we would find ourselves harmonizing 'Friggin' in the Riggin" or 'D'Luguff Fill the Flowing Bowl.' Impromptu barbershop quartets would form as other singers arrived, and by the end of the evening, Paul and I would be debating whether to form a 'Patrick Henry Brigade' of folksingers and go off to the Sierra Maestra to liberate Cuba, or to take our group, to the Sierra Catskills, liberate Grossinger's, and turn it into a folk club.
More rehearsals were scheduled, with pretty much the same results. Imagine our surprise when the tiine came to actually make the record, and we discovered that we only knew eight tunes. We needed twenty. With the help of (appropriately enough) a goodly supply of Demerara rum, and miracle little short of direct divine intervention, we improvised and head-arranged our way through the whole album in one session. The result was one of the best records I have ever had anything to do with. I can't understand it to this day.
11. Yas Yas Yas
I thirik I learned this from a record by the Spirits of Rhythm, and it was originally called 'The Duck's Yas Yas.' In any case, various versions of it were kicking around the jazz scene when I was. Some of the raunchier verses were omitted in deference to the tender sensibilities of the folk audience.
12. See That My Grave
is Kept Clean
Blind Lemon Jefferson's curiously macabre secular spiritual. A few years later, my friend and colleague Geoff Muldaur went down to Wortham, Texas, and swept Lemon's grave. ..a weird thing to do, but I wish I had thought of it.
13. Whinin' Boy
When Jelly Roll Morton walked into the studio at the Library of Congress on May 21, 1938, it was his firm purpose to set the record straight. Jazz, in the form of Swing, was sweeping the world, and he was one of the founding fathers. After more than a decade of obscure poverty, here was a chance to put himself on the map. Unfortunately, he did no such thing. Morton's oldfashioned piano playing, his carry bombast (at times he sounds remarkably like W.C. Fields). and his preposterous claims ('I invented jazz in 1906') were, for the most part, ignored, and, to the extent that they were not, served mainly to add public
ridicule to his list of musical and personal misfortunes. But Morton was essentially right. In over four solid recorded hours of talking, singing, and piano playing, he amply demonstrated his seminal role in the history of jazz, and created a masterpiece of Americana that is funny, sad, and, ultimately, touching.
This reading of 'Whinin' Boy' is based on Morton's. I perform it to this day.
14. Just a Closer
Walk With Thee
My favorite cut on the whole record, mostly because of Dick Rosmini's guitar playing. His supple 12/8 feeling against my relentless 4/4 engenders a kind of relaxed tension that jazz people call 'swing.' When you worked with Roz the whole was always more than the sum of its parts. Dick also appears on 'Georgic on the I.R.T..' where, along with some lovely picking, he provides the magnificently deranged vocal harmony. Since the 'Born Again" dementia, I have been forced to jettison most of the religious songs I used to do. They have the effect of turning you into a magnet for glassy-eyed, fanatical bores.
15. Gambler's Blues
As Jelly Roll Morton said: 'This is the first blues I no doubt heard in my life.' Although it isn't exactly a blues, and I didn't exactly hear it, I read it. When I was thirteen years old, give or take, and the second hottest ukelele basher in the nabe (Tommy McNiff could run me anytime), I ran across a copy of a book called The Fireside Book of Folksongs. Along with 'Abdullah Emir' and 'Barbara Allen," there was a song called 'Saint James Infirmary,' Now, I couldn't read music, but I took one look at those lyrics and said, 'Hoo Boy, that's for me.' I sought out a friend who was studying piano, and in no time at all I had the funkiest ukelele version of 'Saint James Infirmary' since Cliff Edwards. (Tiny Tiin hadn't been invented yet.) Louis Armstrong and.Josh White made some involuntary contributions here, and so did the irrepressible Jinirny Rushing, whose habit uf bursting into song at the bar of the old Stuyvesant Casino while he was on a break between sets led to some (to me) memorable duets.
This is not the original 1959 recording, but one I did a year or two later for Ken Goldstein's remarkable compendium album The Unfortunate Rake: A Study in the Evolution of a Ballad (Folkways 3805).
16. Spike Driver's
From the 1928 recording of Mississippi John Hurt, re-issued on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music (Folkways double albums 2951, 2952, 2953). At that point we all assumed that John was dead. When he emerged a year or so later alive and picking, it was exactly like a dream.
17. Georgie on the
By Laurence Block, now a distinguished mystery novelist, but back then just a bum like everybody else. As a satirical songwriter Larry has few equals and no superiors. This is a parody of an old Carter Family favorite, 'Engine #143.' This was re-issued by Folkways as part of Harry Smith's monumental Anthology of American Folk Music, six LPs of traditional American music recorded in the '20s and '30s by traditional singers (Folkways double albums 2951. 2952, 2953). The scope of this collection was panoramic: Uncle Dave Macon, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie Johnson, Buell Kazee, Lemon Jefferson, the list goes on and on. The Anthology was our bible. We all knew every word of every song on it, including the ones we hated. They say that in the 19th century British Parliament, when a member would begin to quote a classical author in Latin the entire House would rise in a body and finish the quote along with him. It was like that.
With 'George. on the I.R.T.,' the parody is sometimes line by line, and by the mid-sixties, when Harry's Anthology had been more or less superseded by the beginnings of the present flood of re-issues, fewer and fewer people were getting the whole joke.
For those of you without benefit of a 'Classical Education, I herewith append the lyrics of Maybelle Carter's 'Engine #143' as best I remember them.
Along come the F.F.V.,
the swiftest on the line
Running over the C&O road, just twenty minutes behind
Running into Sunville (?), her quarters on the line
Receiving very strict orders from the station just behind.
George's mother came
to him with a bucket on her arm
Saying, 'My darling son, be careful how you run
Many a man has lost his life, in trying to make lost time
But if you run your engine right, you'll get there just on time'
Up the road he darted,
against the rocks he crashed
Upside down the engine turned, and Georgie's breast was smashed
His head lay against the firebox door, the flames were rising high
'I'm glad to be born for an engineer on the C&O road to die.'
The doctor said to
Georgie, 'My darling boy, be still
Your life may yet be saved, if it is God's blessed will.'
'Oh no,' said George, 'that will not do, I want to die so free
I want to die for the engine I love, one hundred and forty- three.'
The doctor said to
Georgie, 'Your life may not be saved.
Murdered upon the railroad, to die in a lonesome grave.'
His face was covered
up with blood, his eyes you could not see
And the very last words that Georgie said were 'Nearer My God to Thee'
(Seeing these lyrics in cold print. you might wonder what attracted me to folk music. A good question.)
18. Come Back Baby
The 'Washington Square Circle Jerk' was a Sunday only institution. As I recall. we had six other days in each week back then. and you had to go someplace. One someplace was the 'Caricature' on Macdougal Street, a tiny coffeehouse, with an even tinier back room where you could pick and sing as long as you didn't disturb the marathon bridge tournament out front. (Cheeseburgers were also available on the cuff -- genesis of my ongoing addiction.) There the clans would forgather to teach. and learn, show off, and maybe do a bit of courting on the side. Dick Rosmini, Barry Kornfeld, Polo Goldsmith. Luke Faust, Bruce Langhorn, Eric Weisberg -- God knows who else all. And there was Dave Woods.
Dave was a real musician, a jazz guitarist who had studied with Lennie Tristano, and did some country blues picking for his own amusement. He really knew theory; diminsheds, fourths, augmented chords, thirteenths -- he knew how they worked and he was only too happy to show you. It was like having coffee witli Einstein few times a week. This arrangement is Dave's, only he did it a lot better.
19. Black Mountain
From Bessie Smith, one of my early idols. Bessie's singing was an especially useful model for me in my jazz band days, since, like her, I was singing against a six or seven-piece group without a mike. In the upholstered armpits we worked, microphones were about as common as single malt scotch. I gradually evolved away from this approach toward something a bit more intimate, but when I really need to open up, Bessie is still there.
20. My Baby's So
From the recording by Blind Boy Fuller, whose work I was just getting familiar with.
COMMENTS: This is
definitely a "must-have" for Van Ronk fans. It represents not only an important
document of Van Ronk as an early, developing musician, and some great music
that stands the test of time, but an important piece of history. It is
no accident that Smithsonian-Folkways has issued this record as just that:
a very valid and relevant historical masterpeice. Van Ronk here is seen
heralding the folk revival of the 60's and on this recording one can almost
literally see the link between the old jazz, blues, folk, and traditional
music of the past and that of the next generation, bubbling and boiling
to rise up: rock music, the urban and British blues, the folk boom, Bob
Dylan. It may be a subtle connection, but this album is a bridge between
the music of the Bessie Smith's, the Carter Family's, the John Hurt's of
yesterday, and the Neil Young's, Kurt Cobain's, and Eddie Vedder's of today,
to name but a few.
That aside, the music is great! "Leave Her Johnny" had me haunting record stores for Paul Clayton shanty albums, "Spike Driver's Moan" sent me searching for Mississippi John Hurt recordings, and songs like "Yas Yas Yas," "Duncan and Brady," "Gambler's Blues," and the rest, were just plain good! Though the guitar playing is rougher and not as sophisticated as the style DVR has acheived today, there's something pure and simple about these recordings, and hearing Dave's earliest efforts, one is all the more awed to hear him today.
As you may have noticed in earlier liner notes, this album is a compilation of Dave's first recordings, all for Moses Asch's Folkways label in the late 50's and early 60's. They have appeared, in varying order (and often with other songs accompanying), on at least three other albums: "Gambler's Blues," "Dave Van Ronk Sings the Blues," and "Ballads, Blues, and a Spiritual," all of which are out of print. Thankfully, Smithsonian-Folkways has issued this compilation on CD (and even cassette!), although several songs from the other albums are missing. If you're interested in which ones, click on the liner notes to those aforementioned LP's (at least the ones that have liner notes, not all of them do yet!).
I have not yet added Kip Lornel's excellent contribution to the liner notes, but it will be added soon.