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February 2, 2008

Dave Van Ronk - Sunday Street

Dave Van Ronk isn't very well-known to most people. But most of those who have heard him really treasure his music. Among folk and blues guitarists, he's something of a god, or a grandfather (are the two not the same?). He pivotal in Bob Dylan's development, housing the young Bobby Zimmerman, who slept on his couch for months; teaching him songs, which Dylan later ripped off and recorded before Van Ronk could; and exposing him to surrealist literature, which Dylan pretended to ignore but secretly studied avidly. Like John Fahey and Davy Graham, he accidentally started a whole school of guitar playing: all the Kicking Mule records from the '70s, featuring pretzel-fingered guitar arrangements of ragtime music, can be traced back to Van Ronk's arrangement of the St. Louis Tickle in the early '60s.

Dave Van Ronk was the musical conscience of the folk movement. While hordes of Boston and New York 'folk' musicians were strumming guitars, writing topical songs, and singing quaintly, Van Ronk was diligently crafting exquisite arrangements of old folk and blues tunes (he was one of the first white blues singers). It's hard for most people to judge just how good of a guitar player he was because he never did anything extravagant. But there is an intricacy to his timing, a purity to his tone, and a stark beauty to his sense of phrasing which mark him apart from those guitarists who manage to get their fingers to do what his do.

As Van Ronk explained:

"I am an accompanist. With the exception of a brief time in the 1950s when I wanted to be Mr. Superchops I've never been interested in that. I'm a singer. And I'm a singer who's very, very fussy about accompaniments. So I think about what I'm doing. My idol in this regard is Duke Ellington, who paid attention to voicings, timble, dynamics, tone color and all that kind of thing. When I play 'Maple Leaf Rag,' there are probably 150 guitarists who could tear me a new asshole playing pretty much the same arrangement I do. But I didn't do that so I could do that. That was a research project, and what I learned from learning how to do that has been applied hundreds and hundreds of times since -- to accommpaniments, which is what I do do."
I should mention his singing. Like many of his blues forebears, a life of drinking hard liqour and singing his pipes out has left its mark on his voice. It is not a pretty voice. It's rough around the edges, and in the middle too. But ther is more than gravel in this voice; there is white-hot rage, impoverished sorrow, and tender gaiety. By 1976, Dave Van Ronk's voice was raspy and ragged, but his singing had grown widely expressive, able to convey a multitude of emotions, moving from a growl to a moan to a murmur in a single line. His singing power can be felt in Nobody Knows the Way I Feel This Morning and his devastating cover of Joni Mitchell's That Song About the Midway.
The tempo of this album is rather slow. But it never lags. Quite the oppisite, it keeps you on your toes, always apprehensive and grasping for the next bar. By sticking to a pensive pace, Van Ronk makes every note ring with distinction. The single-riff accompaniment to Mamie's Blues is a remarkable example of simplicity that not only never gets boring, but actually becomes more intense through its endless repetition. This intensity is only bolstered by the repetitive sound of his heavy breathing.

As Elijah Wald (student and biographer of DVR) wrote in the liner notes:
Without a doubt, this is Dave's greatest single album. Every song perfectly displays one or another facet of his work, from the straight, traditional blues of "Down South Blues," a direct homage to one of Dave's early idols, Scrapper Blackwell, to the last of Dave's string of unique interpretations of Joni Mitchell's work. Then there is the title song, which announced a new commitment to songwriting and shows the skill and humour that Dave brings to that overburdened art. After a ten year hiatus from solo, acoustic, blues-based music, Sunday Street was like Dave coming back and saying, "This is what I do." He has done a lot since, from swing jazz to a jug band version of "Peter and the Wolf," but this album was the perfect summary of his basic artistic approach. Though he may not have thought of it that way, Sunday Street was a musical manifesto, stating Dave's aesthetic and demonstrating its pwer. It is also, incidentally, one of the few genuine masterpieces to come out of the folk-blues revival.
Notes on the Songs:
by Dave Van Ronk and myself
1. Sunday Street (Dave Van Ronk)
Most twelve bar blues have only two lines of lyrics per verse, which is all right, if somewhat predictable. I tried to make this one a little different by giving each musical line a separate lyric, thus reaching a grand total of six lines -- and absolutely no spot for the singer to inhale. Back to two lines.

2. Jesus Met the Woman at the Well (Traditional)
Any woman who can candle five husbands should have no difficulty with Jesus Christ
Ian & Sylvia do a very boisterous version of this song, to constrast the mournful treatment here.

3. Nobody Knows the Way I Feel This Morning (Traditional)
In the 1950s while working with a traditional jazz band, I had the good fortune to accompany a vastly talentad woman, Phoebe Ingram by name. L>ike Bessie Smith, she was something of a protégé of Clarence Williams. I'm not sure if Clarence wrote this song, but Phoebe sure sang the bejesus out of it. I've made some changes, not because the song needs them, but because I have no recordings of it and twenty years is a long time. I wish someone would record Phoebe so there'd be no need for this type of nonsense.
Check the version by Sippie Wallace and the Kweskin Jug Band to be found in this blog's archives.

4. Maple Leaf Rag (Scott Joplin)
Composed by Scott Joplin and published in 1899.
And sold over a million copies of sheet music!

5. Down South Blues (Traditional)
Originally recorded by Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell. Scrapper was from Indianapolis -said all the best blues guitarists were from Indianapolis.

6. Jivin' Man Blues (Traditional)
This piece sounds to me like it was originally a "toast," which is a long, narrative poem meant to be recited rather than sung. They are usually incredibly filthy. This would be very much in character for Frankie "Half Pint" Jaxon, who recorded it in '29. He also recorded "Freakish Man Blues" and a version of the "How Long Blues," the lyrics of which were simply "How long?" over and over and over.

7. That Song About the Midway (Joni Mitchell)
Seems like no album of mine would be complete without a Joni Mitchell song. The images are mostly carney.
An even more profoundly devastating take on middle age than Radiohead's High and Dry.

8. The Pearls (Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton)
This is the hardest song I no doubt played in my life. Jelly Roll Morton composed it as a piano solo. The guitar transcription takes some liberties, but what can you do?

9. That'll Never Happen No More (Traditional)
Blind Blake, of whom nothing is known, even his real name is in dispute. He spent some time in Chicago, we think.
To make matters more confusing, there was an early calypso singer named Blind Blake (Blake Higgs), altogether different from the ragtime guitar virtuoso Blind Arthur Blake. Though the place of his birth is not certain, he is likely from Jacksonville, Florida. This fact singlehandedly disproves Scrapper Blackwell's claim above.

10. Mamie's Blues (Traditional/Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton)
Again, Jelly Roll Morton, certainly the greatest jazz composer before Ellington and a singer of incredible subtlety who claimed to have invented jazz in 1906. There is little point in argument.

11. Would You Like to Swing on a Star? (Van Heusen-Burke)
I can think of nothing whatever to say about this song -- it is perfect.
Cute song. Dave's performance a compelling case for that claim. He did another version of this song with a rock band, on Dave Van Ronk and His Hudson Dusters. Maria Muldaur also did a nice version of it on her album On the Sunny Side.

Year: 1976
Label: Philo/Rounder

hear it here
mr | mp3 192+kbps vbr | with cover | 76mb

there are a few other DVR posts floating around the blog pool:
Somebody Else, Not Me at Fourth String, Thrid Fret --> new album link:,
The Folkways Years 1959-61 at Merlin in Rags
Just Dave Van Ronk at Lost in Thyme or Entre a Mi Mente
Dave Van Ronk & His Ragtime Jug Stompers at Broke Down Engine
Two Sides of Dave Van Ronk at freebornman

Also check out this fine discography.


Anonymous said...

Thanks! Maybe, you'll need this also:

brokedownengine said...

Great post! Thanks for the link to my blog too.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this and all your other great posts. Just wanted to let you know that the download of this file from ZShare brought up several virus warnings from AVG (first time that ever happened using that service), although it seems to have downloaded fine via Badongo.


The Irate Pirate said...

no viruses; ripped it myself. so unless it got one while going from sharebee to zshare...

Anonymous said...

thanks - love ronk - be sure to check out his autobiography (mayor of Macdougal Street?) - nice parallel to Dylan's Chronicles -

Strawberry Ed said...

Ich wuensche Euch einen guten Rutsch ins Neue Jahr 2011. Vielen Dank fuer Dave Van Ronk--