The imminent release of Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers movie based on Dave Van Ronk’s memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street, impels me to tell the story of a few encounters with him over the course of almost 25 years. We met at the Rusty Nail Saloon, Sunderland, MA twice in the mid and late 1970s and then did an interview before a concert at the Eighth Step Coffeehouse in Albany, NY in 1999.
I had been turned on to Van Ronk my first week at college in 1967, when an upperclassman told me that I looked like him. I hadn’t heard of Van Ronk, so I borrowed his copy of Gambler’s Blues, and loved it right off the bat. Before long I added Gambler’s Blues and Dave Van Ronk Sing the Blues to my record collection, which already held 5 or 6 Bob Dylan LPs.
I wasn’t aware of the relationship between Dylan and Van Ronk until I read Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography, by Anthony Scaduto several years later. In it, Scaduto reports that Dylan recorded Van Ronk’s version of House of the Risin’ Sun without asking permission. Even to a Dylan freak, that seemed pretty rude. In the fall of 1975, both of them made appearances in my neck of the woods – Van Ronk played a mid-week show at the Rusty Nail Saloon in Suderland, MA and Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue played back-to-back shows in Springfield.
Beside Dave Van Ronk at the Rusty Nail Saloon
The latter was announced about one week in advance and the rumors were that Dylan’s musical cronies were showing up and playing. Van Ronk’s concert was a couple days before and so when I arrived and saw him sitting alone at the bar, I was excited to say hello and ask if he’d be appearing with Dylan later that week.
He had a glass of whiskey in front of him and was holding his guitar in his lap, slowly moving his palm along it, as if he were warming it up. I said hello, told him I was a big fan, and asked about the Dylan shows. His reply, made in a polite and not unfriendly manner, was that he didn’t want to talk about Dylan. Oops, I thought, and left Van Ronk alone with his pre-concert routine.
I thoroughly enjoyed the show, surprised that he was so entertaining, with a dimension of personality that I hadn’t noticed listening to the records. But I couldn’t help myself later, seeing him getting ready to leave the club; after saying great show, nice to meet you, I asked him to verify Scaduto’s House of the Risin’ Sun report. Dave stopped in his tracks, stared into the vacuum of my eyes, and said, “I told you I do not want to discuss that man.”
Besides feeling like an idiot, and not a litle rude myself, that was all the verification I needed. I attended both Rolling Thunder Revue shows in Springfirld, but didn’t get a chance to run the story by Dylan. (Story about the Rolling Thunder Revue.)