Among the things that make the music of Dave Van Ronk so interesting are his original guitar arrangements, and how he recast songs in ways that brought out the drama and meaning. The title of one of his seminal albums, recorded in the early 60s, was Dave Van Ronk — Folksinger, but Dave Van Ronk was above all an interpreter of songs.
DVR — as fans tend to refer to him — would joke that he was more of a “jazz singer manqué”, but whether he was working with traditional material, or the songs of Bertolt Brecht, he brought his own sensitivity. When confronted with the deep, soulful simplicity of the African-American work song Poor Lazurus, Van Ronk does everything in a solo vocalist/guitarist’s ability to turn the song into a cinematic journey, creating a feature length film’s worth of nuance in the few minutes it takes to recount this epic tale.
Folk-blues artist Mokai performs “Poor Lazurus” from the repertoire of 1960s folk-icon, Dave Van Ronk.
In Poor Lazurus — often sung a-capella in traditional settings, Van Ronk’s guitar somehow embodies the rhythm and grit of a chain-gang singing while lining track. Take a look at the first few minutes of the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou? and you’ll see just that depicted, while on the soundtrack is heard Alan Lomax’s original field recording of Poor Lazurus from the Smithsonian Museum. Whether this was the version DVR heard and based his own on, is unclear. What is clear is how he is using his own palette to capture the potential of the song and deliver it’s impact. He works from the spacious, airy, almost delicate feel of the opening stanza, to the hard drive and passion of the climax, as this tragic story calls for. It’s a masterful example of how simple folk guitar accompaniment really works. There’s really not much to the guitar part, with just a few repeated notes that build rhythmically. But through the progressive addition of more and more complex accents over several verses, the energy is focused, building the intensity, making something powerful out of such simple pieces. Even more powerful because the same principle could be applied as effectively to a quieter song. Van Ronk spoke about the need for a simple guitar part in the case of a song that has a lot going on in the lyric, as well as the usefulness of a more elaborate guitar part to put across a simpler lyric.
Performing in coffee shops and concert halls in NYC in the late 50s, before the onset of the 1960s Greenwich Village folk revival, DVR was a bit of an anomaly as a white man doing this material. The “folk revival” had legitimized urban singers doing songs about rural life, but few had the chops or the gumption to take on the repertoire that Dave Van Ronk could. It was his honesty that sold it, and got him the support of performers like Odetta and Brownie McGhee who were successful professionals when he was starting out. As a former jazz musician, the folk repertoire was not that big of a challenge for DVR, and left him room to apply all kinds of aesthetics to his performance that many other folkies didn’t have the flexibility for. His arrangements of tunes like Woody Guthrie’s Pastures of Plenty and of Billy Holiday’s God Bless the Child are two examples of his prowess. They are unique in so many ways, for such often-covered songs. Given to finely detailed recasting of tunes, he often re-imagined the setting completely, so — while he was intimate with the music of the Reverend Gary Davis, his version of The Rev’s Samson and Delilah is in a completely different guitar style. The depth of his vision makes it fitting that his early recordings are now housed in the Smithsonian along with the Folkways catalog.
My version of Van Ronk’s arrangement — an homage to Dave — is re-interpreted through my own lens, but the basic framework stands: to set a mood, and to use dynamics to build on that mood, creating a sense of the passing of time, and of the evolution and resolution of the story. I play in standard tuning; on his recording DVR appears to be in an open tuning, perhaps DADGAD, since there’s no hint of the third interval in any of the chords. Playing in open tuning allows for the strums that he mixes in while keeping the grounding effect of the repeated, rising octaves. I use percussive hits in the place of some of the strums to create an even drier guitar accompaniment, and mute strings that would ring open with my fretting hand. I also don’t attempt to imitate DVR’s patented growl, in keeping with my own style and the sound I produce organically. Staying authentic to one’s own personality is one of the most important factors. Attempting to be something you’re not, or inhabit a persona that is not in line with the audience’s image of you, creates a disconnect. This gets in the way of the song or can turn it into a parody.
In the end, each artist makes choices of how to present the material they’re interested in. Listening to Dave Van Ronk is like taking a master course in how to create interesting guitar arrangements and in the art of interpreting songs. He was also not a fan of getting too artsy. In his autobiography The Mayor of Macdougal Street, he says: “Take care of the craft, and the art will take care of itself”.