Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Dave Van Ronk

  • Van Ronk [Polydor, 1971] B+
  • Going Back to Brooklyn [Gazell, 1991] *
  • To All My Friends in Far-Flung Places [Gazell, 1994] Neither
  • Down in Washington Square [Smithsonian/Folkways, 2013] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Van Ronk [Polydor, 1971]
Although I've always thought Van Ronk was hard to listen to--after all, his range is about half an octave--what he does with songs by fellow "nonsingers" like Peter Stampfel, Leonard Cohen, and Randy Newman makes me think some more. He shoots his shot at big-label production here, and now and then the orchestration (not to mention the material) turns surprisingly schmaltzy, but for the most part this shouted melee of song collection is a riot. B+

Going Back to Brooklyn [Gazell, 1991]
the most steadfast of the folkies--and the funniest ("Another Time and Place," "Garden State Stomp") *

To All My Friends in Far-Flung Places [Gazell, 1994] Neither

Down in Washington Square [Smithsonian/Folkways, 2013]
Born in 1936, Van Ronk was the paterfamilias of the Macdougal Street folk scene from approximately 1958, shortly before its inception and well after his career began, until 2002, long after its demise and too damn early for his. He was an agitator and a port in a storm, a wag and a songbag, a virtuoso without portfolio who played Scott Joplin on guitar and banjo in a Dixieland band--almost everything but much of a singer. So while this three-CD set is the nearest we'll get to a comprehensive overview, it may be too gruffly hewn to convert you, and there's a sense in which I'm equally taken with the outtakes and rarities CD The Mayor of MacDougal Street, which Elijah Wald compiled while editing Van Ronk's text, leavings, and interviews into the terrific autobiography of the same name. Nevertheless, it established Van Ronk as a hero whose conception of American song was almost as all-embracing as Willie Nelson's. And one more thing. The label in parentheses up there? Smithsonian Folkways? That label is owned by a federal government a loud minority has delivered into the budget-slashing hands of yahoos bent on extirpating any trace of the demon leftism from Our Nation's Capital. It may not be long for this world, and it deserves both our support and our preemptive collectoritis. So check out, oh, "Haul on the Bowline," "House of the Rising Sun," and "Garden State Stomp" and discover a gravel-voiced post-Trotskyite who never stooped to protest music because he was just too damn smart. A-

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