Dave Van Ronk, the Real Folk Blues

In my early teens, a friend gave me a Dave Van Ronk album. Seeing that I was into guitar, this young wiseman wanted to assure himself I understood what the combination of Acoustic Guitar and Voice was really capable of. Through Van Ronk I quickly found Blind Lemon Jefferson, Reverend Gary Davis and Leadbelly. My idea of what singing with the guitar meant was permanently pegged to the soulful funkiness etched on those recordings.

Yet, while I was drawn to the raw emotion in the blues, blues-men were fascinating and intimidating. They were from another time–one I could hardly identify with. I never became one of those blues players who tries to adopt a ‘blues’ persona; it just seemed silly, or worse, condescending.

But Van Ronk was another thing. A white blues singer who wasn’t trying to appropriate the blues, a true musician who would take the blues and make his own music out of the songs he found moving. Above all an interpreter, Van Ronk was also an arranger, taking different approaches to songs depending on the material. Having played jazz banjo in his youth, he knew a lot of inversions and could hear the moving voices in the music far beyond the average folkie playing ‘cowboy chords’. His arrangements are masterful. The complexity within his simplicity always fascinated me, his way of selecting notes with his right hand that give his accompaniments such clarity and depth.

As a fingerpicker, he gave me plenty of ideas. How to build a song, how to drive it. He shows over and over on his best recordings how to stay connected to the meaning of the music and to the emotion being conveyed. And while much of that is in his legendary voice, so much is in the moods he creates on fingerstyle guitar.

Watch Folk Blues Guitar Obsession blogger Mokai perform his folk-blues and ragtime covers of Dave Van Ronk.

About Mokai

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One Response to Dave Van Ronk, the Real Folk Blues

  1. Theo April 18, 2009 at 11:03 PM #

    Dave Van Ronk is incredibly underrated, not as a guitar technician, but as a teller of stories, someone who let the story – the material itself – suggest the way it should be played. A lot of other players will bring a single playing style to a repertoire of material, and sometimes it can all end up sounding kind of flat after a while. Not Dave.

    He is the real deal. Not yer nerdy imitator. It has a hard-bitten working class edge to it and a love of poetry that makes it somehow urbane and bohemian at the same time that it digs into what is mostly southern, rural, black roots. And, many will disagree but to my mind he is just about the only white guy who can do traditional blues with emotional conviction. Sure now and then his husky voice relies too much on gut bucket effects, but this is the exception. Beside him, everybody else sounds like a skinny necked college kid putting on airs.

    In comparison all other white guys who play folk blues sound to me like they’re playing out of a book, not out of real life. With Dave, you felt that he had lived something of what he sang about. And that was what I felt to be so compelling in his work.

    Thanks Dave, I raise this dram to you !

    -Theo

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