In the spring of 1962, Prestige Records produced sessions with Dave Van Ronk, singing and accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. It was prestigious enough, for a scruffy denizen of the cafés of Greenwich Village’s MacDougal Street, to be recorded by the label that released the work of Miles, Monk, Coltrane and many others. But the results of these historic sessions–released in 1963 on two albums, Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger, and Inside Dave Van Ronk–cemented his reputation as the top proponent of what was then called the ‘neo-folk’ movement.
The Prestige sessions display a depth and breadth of material, from classic folk blues, to tunes from the great American songbook, from traditional Irish and Appalachian ballads, to a reading of Bob Dylan’s version of an old blues, recorded just as the yet unknown Dylan’s first album was being released. Van Ronk himself had been recording for the infamous Folkways label as early as 1959. Those tracks are today preserved by the Smithsonian. But the Prestige releases gave him the chance to rise to the next level as a recording artist, right before the impact of the 1960s folk revival had played out.
Among several raw re-interpretations of old gospel and work songs that he was known for, the tune Fixin’ to Die stands out for a number of reasons. It is a complete re-working of Bukka White’s version of the iconic blues holler. Van Ronk re-casts the delta slide piece in a piedmont fingerpicking style, singing with just enough gut-bucket, without parodying the material. The ‘neo-folk’ style was all about casting the mood, and Van Ronk was the master at creating mesmerizing guitar parts to set the mood and the dynamic context for the story being told.
Van Ronk’s Fixin’ to Die builds on a simple cadence. The pulse of the guitar grounds the piece, and here Van Ronk’s signature sound is in effect. One of the strange vagaries of musical history had Van Ronk absorb the traditional alternating bass picking pattern–in reverse. On many of his pieces–such as his famous version of Cocaine Blues–rather than playing the standard root to third alternating bass pattern with his thumb, he plays the third of the chord on the down beat and the root, or the fifth on the alternate beats. I heard him tell the tale of being corrected in this practice by non-other than Mississippi John Hurt, who then decided he liked it and told Van Ronk he should continue doing it.
This backwards thumb pattern gives many of his pieces a dark, throbbing feel, with the grounding of the chord coming on the off beats, or in some casing obscured by the fifth in the bass. This makes up much of the drive of this version of Fixin to Die. The pulse of the bass is off-set by a simple, chiming treble motif. That is all that is needed–in Van Ronk’s school of folk guitar accompaniment–to create spell-binding folk music. Departing from the Bukka White original, he adds harmonic movement in the form of a turn around more reminiscent of the style of Reverend Gary Davis–who’s playing Van Ronk knew well–or of Van Ronk’s own days as a traditional jazz banjoist.
The final result, is a great performance of a timeless song, which at the time was remarkable, or even controversial, since white singers didn’t do this kind of material, or if they did, they de-fanged it, or at least smoothed out the rougher edges. Instead, Van Ronk pulls the song into a wider vernacular, paving the way for many more musicians to access this kind of tune, and showing that white singers didn’t have to be treacly. At a time when unctuous crooner were the norm, and when appreciation for blues and black music was outside the mainstream, Van Ronk’s authentic, jazzy verve, and the core of truth in his voice, allowed more people to hear less slickly-produced stuff, and stoked the run on acoustic guitars across the land. By the time Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger hit the streets in early 1963, the ‘Great Folk Scare’ as Dave called it was in full swing–and he was there in the middle of it. Dylan put it this way: “In Greenwich Village, Van Ronk was king of the street.” Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Vol.1