Folk Music

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@ K. 2004 01 29


Woody Guthrie is the greatest American song writer.
Dave Van Ronk

Dave Van Ronk

K a b r o n g g !


K a b r o n g g !

It’s 1961, Saratoga NY. Some hall in town. (August, flat track season) Dave Van Ronk has come onto the stage — hulking, surly. He’s put his big foot onto an inadequate looking folding chair, put his big Gibson onto his knee … glowered at the audience (contemptuous eye-miss: just past each face), lifted his big fist … and Kabronng! Chords that shook the room.

Could Leadbelly have been louder?


K a b r o n g g !


K a b r i n g g !

K a b r i n g g !

Van Ronk’s limp hair was hanging in his face. His impudent lip was all lopsided. His fist, those sausage fingers that could nevertheless perform miracles on both fretboard and strings, rose, ready again to attack those strings: steel strings.

K a b r i n g g !

K a b r o i n g g !

the G R E A T E S T!

K a b r o i n g g !

Tcha Jing a Jing

A bit of harmony, melody, mixed with the continuing thunder from that intimidating Gibson.

American song writer!

J o n g ! J o n g !

Ka Jing a Ling

Three or four old ladies had had enough. They rose — cringing — and exited.

“Good. Now I can sing,” Dave Van Ronk rasped.

And did he ever. What a holler we had from him that night. A lot of Guthrie, but plenty of the rest of what would become the Van Ronk repertoire too.

I’d seen the sign in front of the hall, known the name … remembered Van Ronk from 1958 or so when he was plenty ambitious, hard practicing, but was certainly no master. Neither did anyone in my awareness expect him to become one. (In fact I remember people making fun of the grotesque kid from Brooklyn (two years older than I, but I was just a sophomore or so) But I’d said to my buddy, “We gotta catch that guy, see what’s he’s up to.” What he had done was become unique: the only signer who sang black and white at the same time: Guthrie, Appalachian stuff … but with soul: alone — like a field holler; abused — like a plantation work song; yeah, and just a touch of the delta …

In fact we saw Van Ronk a lot that week: every night, in fact — at the new coffee house … and next week Reverend Gary Davis would come up for a few days.

Reverend Gary Davis

Dave’s Terry was with Dave. She even helped me talk him into writing out for me ALL of the lyrics to Little Mattie Groves! (She even passed onto Dave something I’d whispered to her:

“Dave reminds me of Leadbelly’s mother.”
“Wha???” from Terry.
“Yeah. Leadbelly talked about his

shoutin’ mother”

which she knew would please him no end: “my shoutin’ mother”.

No one was going to argue with Dave or his thundering Gibson that night; but I don’t know that I agreed that Woody Guthrie was our greatest song writer, troubadour, folk singer … at that time. I’ve certainly come to. And that’s in part because of Van Ronk’s use of his material … and then coming also to know and appreciate Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s homages, imitations, clonings … (and eventually Bob Dylan’s, etc.) Actually, nothing helped me more than Alan Lomax’s American Song Book that printed so much Guthrie: not just the songs, but his amazing folk-poetry tall-tale reminiscences too: a short order Mark Twain.

Ramblin’ Jack asked Woody, “Howdya do that?”
Woody quoted what Leadbelly had said when he’d once asked the same question:
“You can steal what you like, but I ain’t givin’ it away.”

A bio pic on Ramblin’ Jack by a life-long neglected daughter put me in mind of all this once again. Woody, falling apart by the late 1950s (and who can blame him), said that Jack sounded more like Woody than Woody did. If you haven’t heard Jack sing Woody’ 1913 Massacre, go, find it right now: listen to it, five … or a hundred times. But I woke up this morning hearing Woody, but with a Van Ronk wail. Man, was I lucky, jazz guy as I am especially, to have sat in the middle of so much of that other stuff: the American folk revival of the 1950’s and ’60s. I sought Monk, Miles, Silver … but also knew guys who talked only Muddy Waters … and other guys who did talkin’ blues, and talked mostly Woody Guthrie.

Find that Lomax song book and read the anecdotes too: the autobiography. Then listen to Ramblin Jack sing Tom Joad.

Steinbeck said that Ford’s dime movie was better than his quarter novel. Steinbeck later added that Woody’s free song was better than both!

Yep. If you want your heart broken, it is.

(Woody had said that the people that Grapes of Wrath was about couldn’t afford either the novel or the movie: so he made them the song.)

Folk Music Scrapbook

So Bill Clinton awarded Ramblin’ Jack some award, some order-of-merit. Roosevelt had hired Woody to write songs in the thirties, and I ask if anybody ever got more for their money from an artist. But, mostly, when Woody was at his best (like Jack, like most), he sang, and wrote, and talked … for nickels, for nothing … for jeers …

Fred Hoyle said that the trouble with posthumous fame was that you couldn’t buy any beer with it. An awful lot of great art floats past our heads for not all too much beer.

2015 04 15 Reflection: beer is an ancient human beverage. Beer is a social human beverage: people drank it in groups, sharing, like sharing a houka, or a medicine pipe. Yeah, the right way to “read” Grapes of Wrath isn’t to read it but to sit in a circle and hear about Tom Joad.
In the 1950s I’d go into Harlem to hear jazz at Minton’s Playhouse. Bill was the bartender, I loved him (he took care of me: white boy too stupid to know when he was out of his element). Bill explained to me how the black guys wanted their Bud from a bottle where everyone could read the label: Budweiser! meaning quality: this ain’t the cheap stuff: community swill with bugs floating amid the hops. That’s a different world, bottled beers all lined up like Ford assembly parts.

A guy like Miles, a prince among men. Still, he should have had his lights punched out, that son of a bitch, an awful lot more often than he did: and always by the wrong guys: some drunken cop. Wagner borrowed and defaulted, borrowed more and defaulted more … But if anyone could possibly have known at the time what was among them, giving him the national treasury still wouldn’t have been justice.

So there’d better be a heaven.
There damn well better be a heaven: and a hell too.
Or I’m going to find that god and punch his lights out.

I’d narrowly missed the opportunity to see Guthrie in person, hanging around Washington Square just a few years after he’d stopped hanging around there. At least I got to watch Van Ronk when he was very young. I even remember him coming into my Mexican gallery one or two times: summer of 1958. Another year and the cellar next door on MacDougal would become the Gaslight. (The owner even tried to get me and Al to clean that old mess out for him so he could renovate. “Good luck with your plans, but no thanks,” we said.)

2006 07 14 I was just playing East Virginia on the keyboard, guided for melody and chords by a pop music fake book: and I think a series of things, some several points of which I want to comment on: but in a more general file. I started one under Scholarship: got arrested: will work on it and add.

2013 09 04 Now I see somebody has made a movie with Van Ronk in mind as the protagonist. Should I see it? How many of these people know what they’re talking about? Did Clinton? Did his White House?
(I suffered through a biopic on Jack Elliott made by his daughter! It wasn’t about Rambling Jack; it was about her! and her poor little neglected daughter neuroses.)
I see I’m repeating some things, what the hell, it’s a scrapbook.

What a revelation I had around 2000 trying to watch the John Ford Grapes of Wrath with Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. I was all set to relive the sympathy for suffering I’d felt when I saw that movie at the Macmillan Theater in the late 1950s. Ah, but bk’s heart was hardened against it! He writhed against it as leftist propaganda! My son! How did that happen?
His mother stole a lot when she kidnapped him away from me at kindergarten age.
Of course now I see that he’s at least partly right, it is propaganda, and a bit leftist. Still, I grieve at the hardened-heart part.
Oh the other hand, I recognize: he’s my son no matter what Hilary did (and, no matter what I do, he’s very much Hilary’s son).

[Pic credits: nytimes,, springsteen lyrics, crashotels …]

When I wrote this, a decade ago, the post was celebrating Van Ronk, just mentioning a couple of others. But here I add pix: of Woody, of Blind Gary Davis … Well, hell, it’s titled Folk Music!

Note: Dylan hadn’t yet appeared at the time I’m recalling. Oh, he was seeing the country, Ramblin’, like Jack, I don’t doubt. But he had not yet, in my awareness, ensconced himself in the ‘Village. (And once he did, Jeez, you couldn’t avoid him!) For me, if you weren’t on Bleeker Street, or Macdougal Street, or in the Whitehorse, you didn’t exist.

Inside Llewyn Davis
thanx wiki

2014 03 27 OK, I’m just watching Inside Llewyn Davis, Coen Brothers, supposedly based on the folk scene: Dave Van Ronk, Jack Elliott … I really hate it, I can’t stand it; but: that poster shows the character walking on Macdougal Street. The sign for the Caricature coffee house is visible. The brownstones are residences, old old Italian families, lived there for generations, conservatives. The street level splits between stores up a half a flight and other stores down a half a flight. The Gas Light Cafe opened in the basement below the Caricature (as I now see I mentioned above). That has folk music significance: but I mention it because the store the next basement west was the Si Como No, my Mexican gallery! My buddy Al and I took it over one summer while the owner went to Mexico to replenish supplies. He picked up PreColumbian pottery sculptures that had been lying around the pyramids since the Fifteenth Century! Illegal, immoral now, but not then. I sold unique ancient treasures, $40 retail.
Brancusi’s would pay my $40 and sell them uptown for $80! Now it’s all a different story: as is everything else too.

An hour after watching the credits roll I have some good things to add: and a negative or two to detail.
Nora’s Dove gets sung a few times. Van Ronk sang …

Woman I love / Long and tall / She moves her body / Like a cannonball …

The movie changes the gender! Why?? “moves his body, like a …
Dave continued:

Fare thee well, oh, Honey / Fare thee well.

My great folk music friend of the time, my army buddy, Phil, commented that the word “Honey” was anything but sweet the way Dave sang it. Verily, amen.
I also add that when Dave sang “She moves her body …” the word “body” is pronounced to have about as many syllables as “hippopotamus”!

Maybe most important: the actor plays OK, sings OK; but no way does he thrum the Gibson to a huge sound the way Dave Van Ronk did. And in no way does he dazzle the way Ramblin’ Jack did.
But you know I used to suspect that music biopics were a waste of time: you can’t cast for Caruso, or Mozart, or Bird; then again we’ve had some astonishing receptions in these modern times: Ray, Walk the Line … And some failures, with other great singers, that don’t quite come off: La Vie En Rose, Lady Sings the Blues

2014 09 19 I add commendations for the recent James Brown biopic: used Brown’s own music on the sound track, fabulous body imitation: fabulous.
Jack Elliott’s been on my mind: I recently saw the lyrics for The South Coast printed out: my favorite Elliott song. His Guthriee is what attracted me to him, and his technique on the guitar (his eastern cowboy mannerisms too), but audiences and I went nuts for his tawdry tragedy about Lonjeno deCastro who won his wife in a card game. One night Jack credited the composer: I wish I’d remembered the name.
Ah! thanx, wiki: Lillian Bos Ross and Sam Eskin. I think Jack was referring to Sam Eskin, I don’t remember the Lillian Bos Ross part: but now I gotta check her out!

Whoops, my mistake: above I refer to “ramblin'” as though it meant touring the geography. In Jack Elliott’s case it seems it referred to how he went on and on in his comments: Odetta’s mother said it: Jack sure did ramble: on the stage, with the mic in his face.

Folk Fraternity
2015 04 15 I’ll be scribbling a series of reactions to The Last Waltz, the Scorsese / The Band documentary, in a sec: scribble first, edit, organize second:
The Band played on the road for sixteen years! Then they planned a climactic concert, invited guests, jammed everybody with everybody. Mixed in a lot of drugs from the looks of it: Scorsese doing a lot of the mixing himself apparently.
Last night I watched closely, like a homework assignment.

I became interested in one Band member, only recently, Lavon Helm: thanks to his performance as an “actor” in Shooter. I now see I’t also seen him in Coal Miner’s Daughter and The Right Stuff, but it was Shooter that got me sitting upright, riveted. Jesus, what a hillbilly. Can the guy possibly be real? Yes: improbably, improbable as Tom Wolfe, not only is he real, he knows exactly what he’s doing! Knows what he looks like, sounds like.
Bob Dylan’s affectations of speech, of manner drive me nuts; Helm’s I adore.

Everybody in America heard of the Band, admired the Band before I did. Finally I bought an album, listened to it repeatedly. But: this movie, these colleagues, these guests: Neil Young, Van Morrison, I didn’t know or recognize: so, I studied them: now I can recognize them, name them. Muddy Waters I knew very damn well. And Jini Mitchell a bit.

Other females, the Staples family, fit in just fine. But Emmylou Harris isolated like a sore thumb. She looked good, sounded OK; but she had a taboo ring around her. Neil Young looked to be on the edge of eclipse, drugged out, ready to absorb his environment like a frog; Emmylou Harris was neat, female, untouchable. The Band proper — Danko, Helm … Manuel, Robertson, Hudson — fit as a unified litter of pups, suckling from the same bitch. Some guests assimilated right in: Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John … At the end of the number with Emmylou Harris it looked as tough a couple of guys would have been happy to go over, pat her shoulder, maybe pat her ass; but no: they stayed back, away: prophylaxis.

Check it out, see what you see. Comment, discuss.

The other week Jan clipped me an article on Dylan releasing a new album of ballads. Interesting. And Dylan talked about days that I remember and about days from before II remembered … and he talked of himself as having come out of “rock”, when I thought of him as coming out of folk. Well, now I see: if what you mean by “rock” is the band, then yes, I see it. If what you mean is white guys deliberately mimicking the cultural mixes of American history, then I also see it, but differently.

What upset and offended me in this movie was the damn universal presence of lab refined opiates: cocaine, heroin … Jazz came out of gin. I know that. I come out of gin too. Jazz came out of syphilis, can’t be helped. Too late now.
I love to see Muddy relive the blues, even a little pudgy and unable to jump (he used to jump up on a platform and spray the room with beer foam as he proclaimed, “I’m a man …” An erupting man! But I do not love to see Ron Wood or Eric Clapton riffing from decades of depressants.

A VanRonk song just came into my head, then another:

Cigarettes will spoil you life,

Ruin your health,

And kill your baby,

Poor little innocent child.

Cigarettes will spoil you life,

Ruin your health,

And kill your baby,
Poor little innocent child.

But they’re mild!

So mild!

All cigarettes are milder
than all other cigarettes.

And I sat there, on Macdougal Street, or Bleeker Street, and in Saratoga NY, at my table, like an idiot, smiling, and smoking. I will however say: that was 1960, ’61. By the following year I’d quit.
Or I’m wrong: by 1961 I’d already quit. No cigarettes ever again, from 1961 to 2016 03 07. [and still: 2017 10 18]

And in memory of the US first peace-time draft:

Franklyn Roosevelt

told the people how he felt

We damn near believed what he said,

He said I hate war

And so does Eleanor,

But we won’t be safe

till everybody’s dead.

Carter Family
2016 07 05 I’m absorbed in a documentary on the Carter family. AP was walking around Virginia selling fruit trees. AP came upon his future wife for the first time as she was playing and singing. Climactic line:

“And the very last words that Georgie said were,

Nearer My God to Thee”.

I’ve known that line, or a variant of since the late 1950s. And the Van Ronk song filled the long missing gap in my experience:

Along come the IRT a cannonballin’ through

From 242nd Street to Flatbush Avenue

At five-fifteen on Friday Eve

It pulled into Times Square

The people people filled the station,

And Georgie he was there.The people filled the station

A million head of more.

George used his elbows and his knees

Until he reached the door.

But when he reached those portals

he could not take the gaffe

The conductor shut the door on him

And cut poor George in half.

The train pulled out of Times Square

The swistest on the line.

It carried poor George’s head along,

But let his body behind …

Georgie died a hero’s death,

His martyrdom’s plain to see:

And the very last words that Georgie said,

were “Screw the IRT”.

2016 08 15 I’m gonna tell more Bleeker Street Cinema stories.

2017 10 18 Metty Grove came into my head at breakfast:

Oh holiday, high holy day / The best day of the year / Little Matty Groves to church did go / Some holy words to hear.
I found John Jacob Nies’ version: and alternate versions. Then the whole thing was flooding back into my head.
Comment: Lord Arling’s wife invites Matty Groves home for a screw. The page warned Lord Arling, Lord Arling wakes them up: challenges Matty Groves to a duel … Wait a minute: you don’t duel with the thief; you exterminate the thief: it’s peers you duel with. Lord Arling explains to Matty Groves that he doesn’t want it said that he killed a naked man: the man is nakes, in bed, with yor wife? of course you kill him, you’re not an aristocrat if you don’t. Matty Complains that Lord Arming has two good swords while he, Matty, hasn’t even a pen knife … Never mind, the chicken thief, the fox, just feels, there should be no confustion about manners. …
Today, the 20th, I find lots of variants. Adulterers flees the light at dawn is a rich tradition.

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About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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