<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="65001"%> Patterson Hail Mayor of MacDougal St

Hail the Mayor of MacDougal Street


The Greenwich Village folk music scene from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s was pivotal in both the history of popular music and the (currently moribund) topical/political song movement. And there’s no better way to visit this time than to read Dave Van Ronk’s vivid and engaging memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street.

The book’s most recent reprinting touts it as the inspiration for the movie Inside Llewyn Davis. Yes, it did take a very different trip that Van Ronk made to Chicago to audition for Albert Grossman – at the time a Windy City folk club booker, later manager of Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary – as the film’s spine. The cat seen in the book’s cover photo led the Coen brothers to write one into their movie. But Van Ronk was a very different personality and performer from the fictional Davis, and his story has almost infinitely broader dimensions.

What Van Ronk accomplishes in his tome is a rich, informative and insightful cultural history from not just his perspective at the center of the folk revival but capturing American bohemian life, popular and traditional music and Leftist politics from the 1940s into the ’90s (he died in 2002, and writer Elijah Wald helped fashion the memoir Van Ronk had written into this wonderful read). But the rise and fall of the influential folk movement in Greenwich Village from the late 1950s to the mid-’60s is at the heart of the book. And Van Ronk makes those times come back alive.

He also worked in and drew from a broad musical palette, starting out playing trad jazz in his late teens, delving into the folk classics as well as blues as a folksinger, but also making jug band and string band recordings and being mindful of rock music. That breadth makes his book an informative guide to all those genres.

But where The Mayor of MacDougal Street really shines is in its telling of how the nascent folk movement grew out what was started by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger into informal folk sing gatherings in Washington Square Park and finally a thriving coffee house musical scene in the Village. And in the process pulls you into a social history of those times in which he was at the very center.

It has very canny observations on the emergence of Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary and Joni Mitchell. And sets the record straight on what some felt was a controversy between Van Ronk and Dylan when the latter recorded the former’s arrangement of “House of the Rising Son,” later heard in the hit version by the blues-based British Invasion band The Animals. Van Ronk’s fairness about it all reveals the issue as a tempest in a teapot.

That fairness is what earned Van Ronk his “Mayor of MacDougal Street” nickname and is part of what makes the book so worthy. He had no axes to grind nor scores to settle (as happens a bit too often with memoirs and autobiographies). The man shoots straight and true with his assessments, but never below the belt, which was one reason why he was so respected in the ‘60s Village scene and became a prime eminence grise of the ‘70s and ‘80s new folk revival there. Or as a friend said when I was enthusing about the book to him: “So what you are saying is he was a mensch.” Indeed.

Though he wasn’t one of the main political/topical songwriters of that theme’s golden years, Van Ronk walked rather than just talked – or sang – his leanings. And the book also serves as a cultural history of bohemian leftism from the 1950s onward by following his own political development – including youthful flirtations with libertarianism and anarchism – within the events and tenor of the times.

And the final reason to read this pungent book is how it transports the reader back to what was indeed a colorful, meaningful and significant era with the resonance of reality. Remembrance sometimes gets misty and sentimental, but Van Ronk avoids those traps. He’s smart, often funny and very real in his account, and in doing so makes all that he writes about come alive. And by dint of how he lived, is a fine example of a good if not great man – even though never quite famed – of integrity and intelligence. There’s no better guide to the folk revival and all that surrounded that then “The Mayor of Greenwich Village.”

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email orca@prismnet.com.

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2015


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