Dave Van Ronk died ten years ago today (10 February 2012). He's an important figure. This is a large part of the entry I wrote on him in my book The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

David Ritz Van Ronk was born in Brooklyn, New York on June 30, 1936, grew up partly in Queens, attended Richmond Hill High School, sang in a barbershop quartet at 13, dropped out of high school at 15, joined the Merchant Marines, learnt the ukelele, loved jazz, moved to Greenwich Village, and became a professional musician in 1956. He discovered pre-war blues via ‘a chance encounter with a recording of ‘Stackolee’ made by Furry Lewis’, as Van Ronk said himself: ‘Taking it to be a form of Jazz, in which I was primarily interested, I made some further investigations and discovered a whole field of music…. and so, having only such singers as Furry Lewis, King Solomon Hill and Leadbelly for models, when I tried to sing these songs I naturally imitated what I heard and, if I couldn’t understand a word here or there, I just slurred right along with the singer. At that time, nobody listened to me anyway.’

They soon did. He became a Washington Square regular and an established figure in the Village, recording, performing and keeping an open house several years before the young Bob Dylan came to town, slept on Dave’s couch, got Dave’s future wife Terri Thal to be his first manager, learnt some of Dave’s repertoire, stole some of Dave’s repertoire and generally looked up to him as the singer who ‘reigned supreme’. Except of course financially. He was almost always on small, worthy record labels. Hence his famous wry remark: ‘Other entertainers record for money; I record for Prestige.’

This is his friend Elijah Wald’s summary: ‘Dave Van Ronk was a founding father of the 1960s folk and blues revivals, but he was far more than that. For one thing, he was a marvelous raconteur, one of the funniest and most quotable figures on the Village scene…. Dave honed his tales along with his music, while holding court in cafes, bars, and from his apartment on Sheridan Square. As a musician, mentor, and barroom philosopher, his influence was so great that the block he lived on was recently renamed Dave Van Ronk Street. This is an honor that would have made him particularly happy, because much as he loved music, he loved the Village almost as deeply. From the time he moved there in the early 1950s until his death…he never considered living anywhere else.’

(He lived on MacDougal in the late 1950s, moved to 15th for a while after getting together with Terri, then ran back to the Village, specifically to Waverly Place, holding court there through the 1960s; he moved to Sheridan Place when he broke up with Terri, and lived there for the rest of his life. The ‘Dylan’ apartment was the one on Waverly Place.)

Van Ronk more or less invented the milieu of the young white city folk-blues, and though he wrote little material of his own, the entire East Coast singer-songwriter oeuvre would have been different without him. He set very high standards of guitar-playing, not least in demonstrating what richness of instrumentation could be achieved on the lone guitar. His own guitar mentor had been Rev. Gary Davis but Van Ronk made what he learnt his own, bringing a more modern consciousness to finger-picking without any loss of complexity or imaginative dexterity.

When people write, as they often do, of what tender guitar work he puts alongside his ‘rough voice’, they are half right: they’re right about the guitar. But the voice is not merely ‘rough’ - often there’s nothing rough about it at all. To listen to Van Ronk is to hear is one of the most resourceful, subtle, alive voices ever put on record. Hear his early cover of Dylan’s ‘He Was A Friend Of Mine’ - here is a great artist, communicating as directly as Dylan himself, his tone a unique mix of keening and shimmer.

It’s only very rarely indeed that someone cuts through as strongly and exhilaratingly as he can. Danny Kalb wrote that ‘Dave Van Ronk’s sound was unafraid, funky and a joyous challenge…. The challenge was, I think, to go for it all the way, and don’t look back.’ Tom Waits said: ‘In the engine room of the NY Folk Scene shoveling coal into the furnace, one Big Man rules. Dog faced roustabout songster. Bluesman, Dave Van Ronk. Long may he howl.’

Kalb’s ‘unafraid, funky…joyous’ describes the voice far better than Waits’ ‘howl’; but Waits’ affectionate portrait suggests the large man’s energy and impact around town while also putting his finger on one of the reasons why Bob Dylan ‘made it’ in a way that Van Ronk never could. Look at photos of the two of them together in the early ’60s and, a decade on, at the Friends of Chile Benefit Concert. Dylan is the lithe, sexy, charismatic one; Van Ronk is the awkward, fat-faced one with sweaty armpits and a beer gut. But if he didn’t have the right image for national celebrity, nor the songwriting ability, nor the killer instinct, no matter: he had everything else. He was an unforgettable live performer, a stratospherically gifted guitarist, an all-time great singer, a shrewd observer of other people (including of Dylan), a generous host whose place was where everyone came for all-night poker games, abrasive talk and good cheer, and with all this, he was also a figure of gravitas - a great man. In Chronicles Volume One, Dylan’s vivid, detailed portrait of Greenwich Village when it was new to him contains no other portrait half as long, half as warm, half as fulsome or half as respectful as of Dave Van Ronk.

Van Ronk was always shrewd and honest about Dylan. They fell out in a major way just once, and he said so: ‘We had a terrible falling out about “House of the Rising Sun.” He was always a sponge, picking up whatever was around him, and he copped my arrangement of the song. Before going into the studio he asked, “Hey Dave, mind if I record your version of Rising Sun?” I said, “Well, Bobby, I’m going into the studio soon and I’d like to record it.” And later he asked me again and I told him I wanted to record it myself, and he said, “Oops, I already recorded it myself and I can’t do anything about it because Columbia wants it.” For a period of about two months, we didn’t speak to each other. He never apologized, and I give him credit for it.’

Van Ronk was just as transparent about the younger musician’s stories and myth-making (or lies, as some call it), again stepping back and seeing it in the round, and speaking for others as if all were as generous-minded: ‘We accepted him not because of the things he had said he’d done but because we respected him as a performer. The attitude of the community was that it was all right, it was cool. He gets on stage and delivers, and that’s fine. His pose didn’t bother us. Nobody was turned off by it. Whatever he said offstage, onstage he told the truth as best he knew it.’

Van Ronk’s perspective was wide enough, too, that he could see sides of Dylan beyond the folkclubs. This, for instance, is accurate and at the same time very much his own judgment, independently arrived at: ‘Bobby is very much a product of the Beat Generation. Dylan really does belong in a rack with Kerouac. You are not going to see any more like him. Bobby came into Beat poetry just at the very tail end. He towers above all of them, except perhaps Ginsberg. But Bob was a latecomer and will have no successors, just as his namesake had no successors.’ Every bit of that is extremely shrewd, and there are few who have dared venture, in plain terms like that, that Dylan ‘towers above’ all those revered Beats.

...In the filmed interview with Van Ronk given to...Dylan’s office for the archives, and made available for use in Scorsese’s No Direction Home, the big bear-like figure, the Mayor of MacDougal Street, has become the mellow, shy, silver-stubbled, bronchitic, self-deprecating man with a laugh that makes the viewer laugh, a vulnerability that is touching (again, a strong contrast to that most steely interviewee, Dylan himself) and a generosity of spirit, a fondness for Dylan and an appreciation of his contribution to a whole musical community - all of which makes him one of the film’s most fragile yet valuable contributors: still, after all these years, giving out and being real.

‘Even now,’ wrote Danny Kalb, ‘I can almost hear him laughing freely and deeply, unfortunately still smoking those damn cigarettes, even as we, his friends left behind, weep and celebrate him at the same time.’

His many recordings cover a long, long period and vary enormously. If a ‘best’ has to be specified, then it is probably the work of the early 1960s that captures it most powerfully: yet whatever you pick out you’ll find yourself more than amply rewarded.

Dave Van Ronk died of complications arising from his cancer, in hospital in New York City, on February 10, 2002.

[Van Ronk quotes from various unfootnoted sources. ‘Dave Remembered’, Danny Kalb, 2002, online 14 Sep 2005 at http://members.aol.com/silvastr/danny/danny.htm (no longer working a link, 2012). Elijah Wald (to whom thanks for some information) quoted from the website page promoting Van Ronk’s memoir, edited with Wald & completed by him after Van Ronk’s death, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, a Memoir, New York: Da Capo, 2005; quote seen online 14 Sep 2005 at http://elijahwald.com/vanronk.html#whiff.]


  1. Thank you for this well-written and appreciative account

  2. Elmer Gantry15 February, 2012


    Just noticed that two of your favourite books - Charles Dickens' Bleak House and George Eliot's Middlemarch - would also be among my favourite novels.

    Dickens to me is a giant...

    Speaking of Dave Van Ronk don't know if you have heard his electrifying version of 'He was a friend of mine' at the tribute concert for Phil Ochs.

    Recently watched the documentary about Ochs - There but for Fortune - which convinced me both that he is an unfairly neglected songwriter and that Phil Ochs drunk was a better man (if a lesser artist) than Bob Dylan sober.

  3. Elmer Gantry15 February, 2012


    Just to even things up, here is a quote from Phil Ochs' daughter, Meegan, about Bob:

    Q: Did the director, Ken Bowser, try to interview Dylan?

    ' We all tried - we all tried many different ways. I feel like the relationship is very misunderstood, and the only hope of it being better understood is if (Dylan) were to speak himself. I will never have an answer as to why he won't do it, but my heart tells me it's because he feels he has no way to win. He is the bad guy (in people's eyes).

    And I don't think he is, and I don't think my dad thought he was, and I think my dad adored and respected him and revered him. And yet they were young guys with a lot of ambition, and they probably pushed each other's buttons a lot. I became friends with Jesse, his oldest son, 25 years ago, and have remained friends with Jesse and his wife, and I know Dylan still talks about my dad with tremendous affection'

  4. Thank you, Andy.

    Elmer, many thanks for these comments. No, I don't know that version of 'He Was A Friend of Mine' and can't find it on YouTube, I'm sorry to say. Phil Ochs' daughter's remarks are very generous to Dylan.

  5. Van Ronk's performance at the Ochs tribute is featured at the end of the Ochs documentary, which is available on DVD.

    However, it is not included in the edited version of the Ochs documentary that PBS is broadcasting and that is available for viewing at the American Masters website.

  6. Elmer Gantry16 February, 2012


    Have been listening to a lot of Phil Ochs and Paul Clayton recently and it seems to me that the reputation of both artists has been adversely affected by being so much in dylan's shadow.

    it seems to me that the best of Ochs 'topical' songs (like 'Love me, I'm a Liberal', 'Links on the Chain', 'Santo Domingo') are as relevant today as they were when they were first written. Can that really be said of "The Times they are a Changin' or 'Blowing in the wind'?

    While I was prepared for this to be the case, what has struck me recently is how beautiful some of Ochs' later music is - songs like 'Pleasures of the Harbour", 'Rehersals for Retirement', 'Jim Dean of Indiana' etc. seem to me to be among the best written by an American songwriter in the late 60s/70s.

    He may not have been as good as Dylan, but he was damn good...

  7. Message for Elmer: you've sent me a comment which begins by asking me not to tell anyone that...etc. I'm unsure whether you mean that request or it's in jest. (If it is meant as a private message, please as always contact me via e-mail at michael@michaelgray.net.)

  8. Elmer Gantry19 February, 2012


    It was meant as a joke (a weak one, I know)...

    By the way, have had a weak spot for Phil Ochs for a long time, as he mentioned me in the song 'Miranda':

    She's busy in the pantry, far away from Elmer Gantry
    Who is busy baking souls that he may save.
    Everybody's soul but Miranda

  9. Ah. In that case if you'd like to re-send the information, I'll be happy to publish it, with or without the joke intro.

  10. Elmer Gantry19 February, 2012


    Maybe, as Dylan allegedly told Phil Ochs, I should try for a career as a stand-up comedian (but, then again, maybe not)...

    The Dave Van Ronk version of 'He was a friend of mine (and, indeed, the full tribute show) can be downloaded here. Its the Felt Forum show.


    The downloads here also include the Friends of Chile concert and a number of Phil Ochs' live performances, including the infamous Carnegie Hall one.

    Dylan - of course - did not appear at the tribute concert (or even respond to the invitation to appear at it) - a fact which Ochs' sister, sonny, taook a dim view of - and indeed, she has a different take on the Dylan-Ochs relationship than has Meegan Ochs.

  11. Elmer Gantry20 February, 2012

    Interesting interview with Phil Ochs, where he talks about Dylan here:


  12. Elmer Gantry20 February, 2012

    The first part of the Phil Ochs interview I mentioned is here:


  13. Elmer Gantry22 February, 2012

    This must be one of the most beautiful (and saddest) songs that Phil Ochs ever wrote:


  14. Elmer Gantry27 February, 2012


    It seems to me that the disparagement of the work of people like Phil Ochs and Paul Clayton owes a great deal to the school of Dylan biographers (I exclude you from this camp) who I would describe as 'scycophanograghers'.'

    This group simply accepts Dylan's claims, say, about the worth of 'topical' songs' as 'gospel'. But, of course, a well-crafted topical song is still a valid exercise - and Dylan himself wrote several early masterpieces in that vein. What's strikimg to me is how many of Phil Ochs' topical songs still retain a direct relevance to contemporary events (as, for example, does Dickens Hard Times, which could be described as a 'topical' novel).

    Dylan's rubbishing of political commitment is also accepted as valid - whereas to me, it seems part of a wider abdication which helped to lead to the disastrous state of the contemporary left. It may have had artistic benefits, but it has always appeared to me that the Dylan who arrived in Greenwich Village was a much decenter person than the Dylan who left it.

  15. Elmer Gantry29 February, 2012


    Just came across the following explanation of the lyrics of 'Times Have Changed' on a Dylan site:

    ‘Mr. Jinx’ was a cool cat in the Hanna-Barbera cartoon Pixie and Dixie. Today Mr Jinx is available as a tooth mug, a ringtone download, a ceramic jug, It is perhaps just a passing moment from the cartoon, or it is the reflection on the fact that both in the original and the current examples Mr Jinx was not real. Except the distinction between real and unreal doesn’t exist. I don’t want to be so unreal that I fall into the lake. Maybe the wheelbarrow was a better idea,'

    To me, this seems to be indicator of the poverty of cultural references of many people today.

    'Mr Jinks' is a much older character than this, of course - a quick search in 'Google Books' found references to him from the 1850s.

    He was, I think, another name for 'The Devil' and, it is that sense that Son House used the word 'Jinx" in his great 'Jinx Blues'.

  16. Elmer Gantry29 February, 2012


    Jjust found this in an article on Paul Auster:

    'Mr. Jinks' = the devil, a trickster)

  17. Michael

    A great photograph of Bob & Phil Ochs together from the Dylanstubs website:


  18. Elmer, many thanks for this. Yes, a striking photo (with Ochs looking rather more vulnerable and human than Dylan). I've never seen this shot before, and am going to tweet the link. Thank you again - and for your other recent comments re other posts. It's appreciated.

  19. Michael

    Thanks for that.

    When I first saw the photo, I couldn't help but think of the Tom Paxton quote from his website that Phil Ochs "was locked in an impossible competition with Bob Dylan, whom he admired enormously and envied just as greatly."

    It also strikes me that Ochs' vulnerabilities and insecurity made him a perfect target for Bob's cruel side.

    There is a particularly creepy account of this type of cruelty at play (in this case the target being Brian Jones) in Daniel Epstein's recent book on Bob (of course, Jones was no saint but an interest in bullying and semi-sadistic mind-games seems to have been a central part of the Dylan-Neuwirth friendship) :

    "Brian Jones, the gifted, exquisitely sensitive English guitarist who founded the Rolling Stones, idolized Bob Dylan. Jones was tiny,an inch shorter than his hero, blond-haired, blue-eyed, and androgynous looking, sporting frilly Edwardian blouses and bright scarves. He was notoriously volatile, needy, and drug dependent.

    By and by Neuwirth led him toward the table where the maestro
    was holding court.Neuwirth welcomed the celebrated multi-instrumentalist who had taught Mick Jagger how to play harmonica. Dylan bared his teeth.

    First of all he declared the Stones were a joke—they could not be taken seriously. Now everyone could laugh at that, true or not, because the comment cost nothing, drew no blood. But then he explained to Jones that he had no talent and that the band, joke that it was, ought to replace him with someone who could sing. This made Jones unhappy, after all he had been so happy to see Dylan in the bar. The Englishman swept his flowing hair out of his eyes, which were tearing up as Dylan went into detail about Jones’ musical handicaps. Jones began to cry. Now the whole mob could see his weakness; it was a terrible sight, the flowing locks, the lacy sleeves, the weeping—just the wrong image for a group called “The Rolling Stones.”

  20. Michael

    Should add that having recently read Michael Schumacher's book about Ochs and watched the DVD, There but for Fortune, I have come to the conclusion that the Dylan-Ochs relationship was a much more complex one than is often suggested.

    My feeling is that it began as a a genuine friendship based on a healthy artistic rivalry which sparked both to greatly improve the quality of their work...

    However, after Dylan's meteoric rise to stardom, the terms of the friendship changed dramatically and Ochs became locked into what was an enormously personally damaging rivalry with Bob. This reinforced his personal insecurities which long pre-dated his meeting Dylan...

    However, there a few references in the Schumacher book which seem to me to indicate the level of respect Dylan had for Ochs(however well he hid this in other circumstances). In the first (in a footnote on p. 49) Dylan refers to Phil Ochs as an 'artist', a term which Dylan does not throw around lightly. In the second, on p. 257-58 (a fascinating account of a meeting between the two men in the early 70s, seemingly derived from Ochs' diary), Dylan jokingly tells the latter that 'all you Irish poets are dead of drink by the time you're thirty-five.'

    Now for Dylan to call someone a 'poet' and even more tellingly an 'Irish' one suggests a fair degree of respect in my book.

  21. Any idea where I can get Take A Whiff On Me? I'm somewhat obsessed with Van Ronk's 59-61 period and would really like a copy, even a not-so-great recording.

  22. Elmer Gantry19 February, 2013


    Some great footage of DVR here...


  23. Elmer Gantry02 July, 2013


    An earlier picture of Dylan with a rather square-looking Ochs here:


  24. Irony exhibited: Michael Gray writes a nice piece about Van Ronk. In it, he doesn't even allude to Phil Ochs career or the mentoring relationship between the two. Start reading the comments section, and it's 'Ochs, Dylan, Ochs, Ochs, Van Ronk, Ochs, Dylan, Ochs.

    If Van Ronk was somehow able to read this page, he'd likely think to himself, 'it's the story of my life.'

  25. Any idea where I can get Take A Whiff On Me? I'm somewhat obsessed with Van Ronk's 59-61 period and would really like a copy, even a not-so-great recording.

    Still badly hoping someone can help me out with this song...