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‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ film explores late music maker’s hard-knock life

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Updated: January 21, 2014 6:11AM



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.

These admirers include Bob Dylan, Suzanne Vega and Joni Mitchell. Van Ronk’s 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 more about Van Ronk thanks to “Inside Llewyn Davis,” a film by the Coen brothers that opens on Dec. 20 on some big screens. The film is loosely based on Van Ronk’s 2005 memoir that recounts his struggles to make a living in the folk scene of New York’s Greenwich Village neighborhood and his coming of age during the postwar 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 on Washington Square,” a three-disc Smithsonian Folkways collection 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 Dave Van Ronk,” his 1963 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 re-created in the film.

Van Ronk died at age 65 at New York University Medical Center while undergoing colon cancer treatment. 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 her husband “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.

Dave 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 Van Ronk “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 Chicago’s West Side who operated the Gate of Horn, the first folk club in the United States. Grossman, who later moved to New York City to manage Dylan, as well as Odetta and Peter, Paul and Mary, sent Van Ronk packing back to NYC’s Manhattan borough, 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 Avenue in the 1970s and early 1980s 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,” Holstein 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, conducting 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.



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