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.