Van Ronk represents a crucial piece of the Greenwich Village folk scene while sounding absolutely nothing like any of his contemporaries.
Dave Van Ronk’s place in the rise of folk music in America is a peculiar one, and it’s not where the irascible singer envisioned himself. His work is something of a curiosity among fans of the era, and his profile, while elevated slightly by Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers film loosely based on his life, has never risen beyond cult status. For those around him, Van Ronk was something of an ornery oracle, a student of various forms of music whose skills lay more in archiving and preservation than in performance. Van Ronk’s style and musical mission were somewhat out of time when he started playing gigs in Greenwich Village in the ‘60s. The best collection of his work, Inside Dave Van Ronk, bears this out; it represents a crucial piece of the Greenwich Village folk scene while sounding absolutely nothing like any of his contemporaries.
There’s something important to note about Inside Dave Van Ronk, which exists now as a compilation that brings together the 1964 album of that name with the essential 1962 release Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger: There’s no original material to speak of. Everything here is a re-interpretation of a traditional folk or blues standard. Through simple arrangements of what even then were time-worn tunes, the focus is placed squarely on Van Ronk and the words he sings.
From here, it’s easy to see why Van Ronk found little success as folk music was blowing up. As opposed to the soaring tenors and delicate sopranos that found hits in the early 60’s, Van Ronk’s voice is gruff and understated, weary with experience. He often seems to be attempting to inhabit the unknown composers of these old airs, and this conviction is what elevates Inside Dave Van Ronk to more than a mere history lesson.
Yet, even now as music caught up to what Dave Van Ronk was doing, Inside still sounds strange. Most folk records of the era strove for either lush orchestration or the spare quality of field recordings, and while Van Ronk’s album definitely falls in the latter category, the focus on traditional material makes it feel out of time. Nobody knows what most of these tracks sounded like in their original arrangements, but Van Ronk’s versions feel faithful in spirit even if they aren’t (and can’t be) exact recreations. Van Ronk puts his own stamp on these songs, but his own voice isn’t the focus. Inside is the work of a man who makes history—the history of folk music—come alive for a new generation.
In the end, the studious curation may have been his commercial undoing. All of the folk singers plucked from the Village for stardom either had crooning voices or poetic lyrics, and Van Ronk didn’t have either of those. Sure, traditional folk is something of an acquired taste that even some fans of folk music don’t really have. But the traditions of American music are worth preserving, and Inside is a great early example of both enshrining traditional music and re-framing it in a way that attempts to connect generations of performers and songwriters. Dave Van Ronk’s career may never have panned out the way he wanted it to, but the work he did on albums like Inside Dave Van Ronk is still well worth hearing and passing forward.