Dave van Ronk in Concert
Perhaps Dave Van Ronk's greatest "claim to fame" lies in his indirectly changing the face of popular music via his role in cultivating the career and music of Bob Dylan, becoming a mentor and (for a time) and idol of Dylan's, helping him learn to play fingerstyle blues guitar, and helping enable him to function and thrive in the sometimes difficult folk scene of early 1960's Greenwich Village.
But Van Ronk's impact on the way in which people play guitar, and how the notion of 'interpretation' -- particularly within the folk and blues idiom -- is viewed, has arguably had a deeper and more lasting impact, one which will resound long, long after he is gone.
Born in 1936 in Brooklyn, Dave wound up in the Merchant Marines during the 1950's, and, after an attempt or two to play traditional jazz during the revival of that particular genre (recalling dryly the lack of discernment sometimes employed in the musical chops of one of his groups, Dave today notes, "We wanted to play traditional jazz in the worst way...and we did!"), took legendary folksinger Odetta's advice and tried his hand at playing folk music professionally.
If Dave's earliest recordings as a "folk" musician are not earth-shatteringly distinguishable (yet) for many innovations in guitar work -- though Dave was clearly an advanced player even then -- they marked a fairly new and innovative approach to interpretation and performance of African-American prewar blues styles. Dave had stumbled across recordings by the likes of Furry Lewis and Mississippi John Hurt (years before it was popular, during the 1960's blues revival, to do so), liked what he heard. And, in short, he played and sang what he heard, which may, in its understated way, account for much of Dave's cultural contribution. He was not, by far, the first white musician to perform and interpret African-American blues, but he may have been the first to do so within the musical context in which the music was created.
Up to that point, 'country' blues (and arguably just about all "blues") were approached by white musicians as something inherently and inescapably foreign, something that required a process of filtration into more 'acceptable,' distinctly "white" (to put it bluntly) modes of presentation. The idea of approaching vocal and even, to a great extent, instrumental methodologies in African American music on that music's own terms was an oddity, a rather new and unparalleled concept.
Certainly, there had always been some sort of cross-polarizations of the music: prewar artists like Dock Boggs and Riley Puckett are remembered for their sometimes startling incorporations of African American blues structure into what was considered "white" music, but Van Ronk's approach was a much more whole embrace of the form. His vocal style was especially unusual in its day.