Dave Van Ronk did not mean to write an autobiography. According to Elijah Wald—writer of the book’s epilogue, friend of the author, and guitar student during the slow denouement of Van Ronk’s musical career—Van Ronk’s book was supposed to chronicle the folk music boom in Greenwich Village in the 1950s and 1960s. The Mayor of MacDougal Street was meant as a history lesson for those interested in music, or New York City, or both. Van Ronk thought he could describe the scene’s political turmoil, auditory deconstruction, and social revolution without paying too much attention to his own influence. But his story was the one that needed to be told; his story encapsulates the time when the Village bred musicians and folk music defined a generation.
Van Ronk begins the story of the “Great Folk Scare”—a term coined by his friend Utah Phillips—with his own story of how he first discovered music. He recalls growing up in Queens in the 1950s and his deep appreciation for jazz. He distills his childhood into a string of “swells” and “trading licks” that make “boring… perfectly miserable” Queens tolerable, if not quite picturesque. He remembers taking guitar lessons from “Old Man” Jack, a local jazz aficionado, well known in the music community, who taught Van Ronk techniques he would adopt as his own. Jack also instilled in Van Ronk the ever-more-important lesson of listening.
He would sit his students down, put on a Duke Ellington or a Joe Venuti-Eddie Lang record, and analyze with us… he would play a record without saying who it was and then ask, ‘Who was that on tenor?’ This was not just some kind of parlor game… he was making us listen… To be a musician requires a qualitatively different kind of listening, and that is what he was teaching us.
Van Ronk carried this moral with him through the rest of his musical career.
He barrels through his formative years with quick anecdotes about getting kicked out of school, taking up the ukulele one day while painfully bored during a summer trip to Ohio, and starting a quartet called the Harmonotes with some neighborhood kids. These events happen one right after the next, from good fortune to perfect timing, with the rough patches still feeling altogether acceptable and necessary. He chalks up every encounter to “well, this was just the way it was” as if it could not have happened any other way. But if the reader retraces the steps of his past self and questions the what-ifs, the serendipity of Van Ronk’s life events is fairly astounding. If Van Ronk didn’t get kicked out of school, if he continued with the piano instead of the ukulele, and if he didn’t meet a girl who introduced him to the musicians of Washington Square Park, would we know him at all? (Time travel is terribly complicated, so all we can say is good thing it happened in the exact order it did.)
America was rocked by political unrest and social upheaval in the 1960’s, and Van Ronk dedicates almost half the book to explaining the different teams on the playing field. He himself searched for a happy medium between socialism and individualism, and eventually settled on libertarianism. But his search offers a deeper understanding of what folk meant to the musicians of the time, and why the genre caught on so fervently. About twenty years prior to the folk revolution, musicians including Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie had begun to use folk as a vehicle for political activism, and they formed a commune in the Village called the Almanac House.
Almanac House became a kind of song factory, churning out topical, occasional, and protest songs at an unbelievable clip… Art was considered to be a tool… As odd as it may seem now, many of these people were embarrassed to write a love song because the Spanish Civil War was going on, or the steelworkers were on strike, or Mussolini was invading Ethiopia… their compositions ended up being as obsessively focused on one subject (politics) as the commercial music they despised was on another (romantic love).
For Van Ronk, politics and folk music go hand in hand, and he describes the connection in a way that is both touching and amusing. He recounts the ugly effects that the Red Scare had on his Communist (and Communist-supporting) counterparts with stories about blacklisting and rough treatment by authorities. According to Van Ronk, Pete Seeger was often turned away from performances because of his affiliation with Communism. Van Ronk notes that everyone had an affiliation, and everyone had an opinion.
“What are your politics anyway?”
“I’m an anarchist,” I said. That usually shut them up.
“Oh yeah? Have you read Kropotkin? Bakunin? Nechaiev?”
I was caught flat footed. This was the first I had heard that you had to read to be an anarchist.
Soon, it seemed everyone was jumping in on the folk game, a genre that Van Ronk defines in this way:
We used the word ‘folk’ to describe a process rather than a style. By this definition—to which I still subscribe—folk songs are the musical expression of preliterate or illiterate communities and necessarily pass directly from singer to singer.
Well known influencers soon joined his folk music party: Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez became Van Ronk’s friends and musical rivals. More to the point, the surge of new talent highlighted this profound time in history when ordinary people came together to make extraordinary music. (We’re still living in its wake: Mumford and Sons and The Avett Brothers are just two contemporary bands that draw inspiration from folk music.) With a nonchalant flair for storytelling that borders on bragging, Van Ronk sprinkles in stories about his musical collaborations with Mitchell and falling out with Dylan. He meanders through this part of the book, injecting the timeline with stories about living through winters in Greenwich Village, cutting a record, playing gigs at this bar or that coffee house, struggling to pay rent, and eventually becoming the Mayor of MacDougal Street. To him, the sequence of events don’t matter as much as the accumulation, and the swell of creative expression during the time can be told in different ways, from different points of entry.
Van Ronk presents the origins of folk music in the most indeterminate way, as if he could never truly articulate the energy that surrounded this community of players. He seems to be trying to convince himself that it happened at all. On numerous occasions, he recalls, “there was an exhilarating sense of something big right around the corner.” But for him, fame never came. He never earned the same degree of recognition as Dylan or Mitchell or some of his other contemporaries. But that is why his story needs to be told. He is the godfather of folk, and, in some ways, the glue that held this folk revival together: he was there from the beginning to set up the careers of those we know well.
The Mayor of MacDougal Street is a history lesson that acknowledges those special moments in time, for all of us, when ordinary stories have extraordinary consequences.
– Christine Perez is a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles School of Theater, Film, and Television with a BA in Playwriting. She is currently getting her MS in Publishing, Print and Digital Media at NYU. When she is not studying or working or playing with technology or writing, Christine is out with her camera, photographing friends and concerts and posting her shots on Instagram.