Dave Van Ronk and a Bitter Chill
With the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis opening in Austin on Friday, now seemed like a good time to take a look back at Chronicle Editor Louis Black’s Page Two column about going to see Dave Van Ronk, the folk musician who partly inspired the film.
Page Two: Boston '69 revisited
BY LOUIS BLACK, FRI., NOV. 19, 2004
It was typical, bitter, Northeastern a-couple-of-days-after-a-snowstorm cold. We were sitting in the basement of a church; it was a theatre space. I remember we still had our coats on. It might have been off Mt. Auburn Street – it was somewhere near Harvard Square. It was maybe 1969 or 1970. The performer was late. We waited. Finally, Dave Van Ronk walked in the room.
Now, there were a lot of Dave Van Ronk records floating around: Almost every multiroommate household had a couple in the various collections. They were good. But we knew about Van Ronk less because of his music and more because of his relationship with Bob Dylan. This may sound too slavishly devoted, but that view misses the sense of excitement of the time. Sure, we were going to track down every musical influence Dylan acknowledged, but we were also using Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music as a guide. We listened to everything and anything on the Folkways, Chess, Vanguard, and ESP labels, among many others; we read Broadside and studied album covers and record credits to find talents we didn't know. When we visited new friends, poring through the record collection was the first activity. In the same way, any casual reference to a writer by Henry Miller, Allan Ginsberg, or any of several dozen important authors was readily pursued.
We were on a voyage of discovery.
In this world, in his way, Van Ronk was a legend. Not just because he influenced and inspired and mentored Dylan, but because he didn't seem to care about it.
He walked toward the stage, late and grumbling. He took a couple of swigs from a pint bottle. He settled himself onstage, took another swig, began to play, and then started singing Joni Mitchell's "Urge for Going." I didn't really know the song at the time, although I think it was on a Tom Rush album to which we regularly listened. At first, his voice was a rasp, not even a whisper, an ugly hint of human sound. He literally croaked:
“I awoke today and found the frost perched on the town/It hovered in a frozen sky, then it gobbled summer down/When the sun turns traitor cold/and shivering trees are standing in a naked row/I get the urge for going but I never seem to go”
I slipped into the song. Something serious was going on, even if I wasn't sure what it was. The bear of a man, the car accident of a voice, the brilliant lyricism and potent imagery of the song combined. In Boston, the sun had turned "traitor cold" months earlier, and in every part of my body I felt cold. But now I also felt chills that were not from the cold.
Slowly, the voice began to come into focus, only to slip again to barely inspired breathing and then return to just-beyond-guttural. Probably this was as much a warm-up vocal exercise disguised as a first song than a passionately felt moment to Van Ronk. To me there was no other way to sing the song being sung. The singer, who had sung it many times before, discovering it as he came to his voice. His playing was expert and powerful. Then the voice swooped in, really came into its own and stayed there: Majestic, rich tones ripped the song to a place far beyond a man and a guitar.
“The warriors of winter they gave a cold triumphant shout/And all that stays is dying and all that lives is getting out”
After taking over, the voice kicked the pre-language, Cro-Magnon sidekick out of range. Gabby Hayes and Fuzzy St. John stepped back. Roy Rogers rode in on Trigger, his gun drawn; John Wayne waited by a road for the stagecoach. The moment of true American possibility opened.
The hero, one of us, just like you and me – no god, no aristocrat, lacking any noble birth – whipped out the pistol with more than perfect skill and accuracy. In the midst of plodding couples, Fred Astaire stopped: That smile hit his face, his eyes literally lit up, and then he started to dance. Poetry beyond poetry. Not of the church, not sanctified by stained glass, not belonging to any canon or boasting Academy approval.
Fred Astaire danced; Roy Rogers rode Trigger; John Wayne stuck out his leg and kicked a guy across the room. The kick was a declaration of independence of a totally different sort. An individual's declaration – as was the walk, as was the dance, as was this song.
“Summertime is falling down and winter is closing in”
Life was possibility – not simply filled with such, but possibility itself. There was romance; there was love; one could be redeemed, and redemption was human, not godly; mundane, not otherworldly.
Dave Van Ronk finished the song.
I was not quite 20. After the song, I was still the same. I was a mediocre student, lacking any obvious talent, confused, angry, and overwhelmingly inadequate in every way. Emotionally mercurial, hard to like (much less love), I didn't bathe enough, dressed terribly, and had few manners. I still hadn't read much or listened to enough records. I still hadn't lived enough or seen nearly the number of movies I needed to see or loved very much at all. I was drowning in my own utter humanness; my depression was at one with the cockroach. I was depressed at me – at how I lived, who I was, and the distance between my dreams, even the simplest ones, and my reality.
Nothing changed after that song or after the show. I left the church and trudged into the bitterly cold Cambridge night toward the MTA, to head to my just-as-cold home and empty bed.
The war in Vietnam continued, the battle for civil rights raged, and the cause of economic and social justice imperceptibly advanced.
Inside, the tiny flame that kept me going through so much darkness, all too much inadequacy, and sometimes overwhelming despair probably burned a little brighter – but I sure didn't know it at the time. There was no light at the end of the tunnel; there was no tunnel, only darkness. I thought it had no shape and no end. Reading Dylan's Chronicles Volume One, I thought of that moment – as I often think of it, always for different reasons, usually ones I don't even think about or care to understand.
Maybe this time it is because the dark is all around us again, and I'm trying to remember exactly how to feel for the walls.