Tag Archives: Dave Van Ronk

43 – Comparing versions

This follows on from thinking about Dave Van Ronk. There were two time when he might have had commercial success. The first was when he was asked to become one of the members of what later became Peter, Paul and Mary (Peter, Dave and Mary doesn’t have the same ring and who knows if it would have been as successful – he didn’t really have the look); the second was when he recorded Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’. He had recorded it early and it was gradually creeping up the charts until it got swamped by Judy Collins’ version, which came out only a little later.

A while ago I watched a TV programme about rock stars growing old, which mentioned that although they still performed, they didn’t write good songs any more. Robert Wyatt (who still writes good songs) said something interesting about this: that sometimes a singer could grow into what they had previously written, understand it more and interpret it better. In other words, evolve. The example he gave was Joni Mitchell’s reworking of Both Sides Now, which is lower, slower and a little world weary. Much more like Van Ronk and less like Judy Collins or her original.

My fleeting pleasure today is the appreciation of the huge library that a is YouTube and the chance it offers to compare these versions (though I haven’t posted the Judy Collins as I have never liked it very much)

41 – Dave Van Ronk

I haven’t yet seen ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’. It has all the ingredients that should have had me rushing to the cinema as soon as it was released – but I have hung back. Why? It is a Coen Brothers movie, and they are sometimes magnificent but never less than interesting. It is about the Village folk scene of the early 60s and I love that. It is based on the life of Dave Van Ronk, a figure of some stature in my imagination. So why have I hesitated?

Perhaps I fear disappointment, or more to the point worry that what makes a Coen Brothers movie doesn’t necessarily mesh with the subject. They tend to deal with isolated disappointed people, whereas the folk scene was more about a communal effort to find a new (old) authentic way of making music. Dave Van Ronk was not a loser and I don’t want him to be confused with one. I don’t want him to be downgraded. But such hesitation is soft headed. The time might still feel alive for me, because it happened in my lifetime, but in all other respects it is distant and this is a historical piece. I cannot worry if this detail or that is not quite right – it is a work of fiction. And it is a valid artistic project to take some incidents from someones life but invent a different character. There is no reason to be precious and I know I will see it.

But being reminded of the era has sent me back to listen to the music and my moment of pleasure. Attach is a YouTube clip of Dave Van Ronk singing ‘Cocaine Blues’. When I was young the first live music I saw (i.e. the first live music I chose to go to, as opposed to going with the family) was at Les Cousins, in Soho. I remember seeing people like Bert Jansch, Roy Harper, and John Martyn. At the time this song was in John Martyn’s repertoire. Hearing it again brings on a warm feeling of nostalgia.