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Date: Wed, 13 Feb 2002 23:18:33 -0800
From: radtimes <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Dave Van Ronk, folk and blues artist, dead at 65
Dave Van Ronk, folk and blues artist, dead at 65
By Fred Mazelis
14 February 2002
Dave Van Ronk, the acclaimed blues and folk singer, guitarist, songwriter
and teacher, died February 10 at the age of 65. His death came three months
after surgery for colon cancer.
In a career spanning more than 40 years, Van Ronk won the respect and
affection of countless of his peers as well as fans in the US and around
the world. His first album was recorded for Folkways Records in 1959, and
was followed by more than two dozen others. He continued performing and
teaching until the end of his life.
Van Ronk's musical style is not easily categorized. He called jazz his
biggest influence, tracing it back to the days in the early 1950s when he
haunted jazz clubs in New York and met the likes of Coleman Hawkins and
Jimmy Rushing. He was also heavily influenced by the blues masters,
recording his own version of classics by Blind Lemon Jefferson and other
pioneers. His work was always marked by a reverence and serious study of
what has come to be called American roots music.
He knew and worked with legendary performers like Odetta and Pete Seeger,
as well as his own contemporaries and younger musicians, most famously Bob
Dylan, along with Jack Elliott, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Joni Mitchell, Janis
Ian, Christine Lavin, Suzanne Vega and many others. Dylan often stayed
with Van Ronk and his wife in the months after he arrived in New York's
Greenwich Village at the age of 20 in 1961. Van Ronk, then 25, influenced
the younger musician both through his technique on the guitar and in other
ways, including urging him to read Bertolt Brecht and the French symbolist
Though he worked with and respected Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary and other
folksingers, Van Ronk's work was somewhat different, broader and more
varied. His repertory spanned the work of Louis Armstrong, Leonard Cohen,
Randy Newman and blues masters like the Rev. Gary Davis. He drew from jazz,
blues, folk and country.
Though he didn't usually perform "political" or protest songs, Van Ronk's
political and intellectual outlook, shaped in the mid-twentieth century,
informed his entire life and career.
Jon Pareles, pop music critic of the New York Times, writes in his obituary
of Van Ronk's "sense of history, sense of humor and a gift for making
fellow musicians feel at home." This is undoubtedly true, and it would not
be an exaggeration to say that Van Ronk was beloved by thousands of his
colleagues, as demonstrated by the outpouring of support for him when his
illness was disclosed last fall.
The sense of history and where it came from, however, must be explained.
For his whole life Van Ronk identified with the working class and expressed
a hatred of capitalist exploitation and sympathy for socialism. In his
teenage years he was attracted to the ideas of anarcho-syndicalism, and in
the early 1960s he declared his agreement with the Trotskyist analysis and
perspective. He joined the Workers League, the forerunner of the Socialist
Equality Party, and remained associated with it until the end of the 1960s.
In May 1998, Van Ronk had a long and wide-ranging conversation with WSWS
Arts Editor David Walsh [A conversation with Dave Van Ronk].
Born in Brooklyn in 1936, Van Ronk moved to Queens as a child and attended
Richmond Hill High School. He dropped out of school at the age of 15, and
was largely self-educated. A voracious reader, his broad knowledge and
interests were communicated, though usually with typical self-deprecatory
humor, both in conversation and performance.
Van Ronk joined the Merchant Marine as a teenager, and at the same time
began hanging around Washington Square, in Greenwich Village, just as the
folk revival movement that peaked in the early to mid-1960s was beginning
to emerge. He performed at famous clubs like the Gaslight and Folk City,
which have long since left the scene. With his early recordings and
performances it became clear that he was a major talent. Many of his best
known songs and interpretations date from the 1960s, including "Cocaine
Blues," "You're a Good Old Wagon," "He Was a Friend of Mine," "Stackerlee"
and "House of the Rising Sun."
As acoustic music and the folk revival declined in the late 1960s and
1970s, Van Ronk persevered with his work. He had never been interested in
fame for its own sake, or in wealth for any sake at all. He briefly gave up
performing in the mid-1970s but came back to it within a year, unable to
part with that important part of his life's work. He continued, adding to
and developing his craft, neither simply discarding his past work nor
merely repeating it. He remained open to new avenues for his whole career,
something that fit completely with his attitude towards teaching guitar to
successive generations of students.
Van Ronk's last album, the jazz-influenced "Sweet and Lowdown," was
released only a year ago. Until he became ill, he continued to tour,
singing before old and new audiences in clubs and coffeehouses around the
country, as well as in Canada and Europe.
The admiration and love for Van Ronk was amply demonstrated when he became
ill. A number of benefit concerts were held to assist him during his
illness. Last November Arlo Guthrie, Tom Paxton and Peter, Paul and Mary
performed at New York's Bottom Line to raise funds for their friend.
Earlier, in December 1997, Van Ronk received the Lifetime Achievement Award
of ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. Nearly
100 fans and fellow musicians posted congratulatory messages at that time
on the web site set up by the host of the award ceremony, Christine Lavin.
Dave Van Ronk's musical legacy will live, not only in his many recordings,
but in the thousands he taught and influenced in his course of his long career.
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