His sound is as American as a Shaker chair ... or a Bible with a bullet hole in it: Dave Van Ronk. Lone man with a guitar. And the inspiration for the latest Coen Brothers movie, “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
But unless you're a folk completist or a Coen Brothers fan, you've probably never heard of Dave Van Ronk. He was one of the original Greenwich Village troubadours — a lynchpin in the American folk music revival of the late '50s and early '60s.
In the big-hearted interview he gave to Martin Scorsese for his Bob Dylan documentary "No Direction Home," Van Ronk remembered his early days and how, in the early 1960s, Van Ronk taught the then-unknown Bob Dylan how to flat-pick and let him sleep on his couch. He mentored Dylan and Tom Paxton and, later on, Joni Mitchell and Suzanne Vega.
For a brief moment, Dylan and Van Ronk were peers and equals, playing on the same bill at Greenwich Village "basket houses" like the Gas Light, having a ball. A good chunk of Van Ronk's output was reissued this year on a three-disc CD anthology from Smithsonian/Folkways.
At its best, it's music that sounds simultaneouslly fresh and as old as the hills. In a better world, and in a different country, Van Ronk might have become a national institution. But Van Ronk was an American, one who died almost penniless after recording 25 albums in 40 years, while scrambling to find money for his medical bills.
By the remorseless American logic that rates movie art by ticket sales and musical ability by licensing deals, Van Ronk was a failure, a beautiful loser, as the Coen Brothers show in scene after scene of their bleak and fictionalized "Inside Llewyn Davis," crafted from the raw material of Dave Van Ronk's life.
Money haunts the Coens' imaginary musical journeyman Llewyn Davis. It haunted Van Ronk, too. The closest Van Ronk came to a hit was when his pal Bobby Dylan swiped a unique Van Ronk arrangement of "House of the Rising Sun" for his influential first album.
Van Ronk laughs heartily after he tells the story, laughter that sounds especially brave when you reflect on his circumstances at the time of this interview. He is close to impoverished and has been for much of the past 40 years. He is participating in an authorized biographical epic about his wildly successful one-time protégé. He is recounting how a surefire hit was taken from him so completely he had to abandon performing it himself.
And yet his laughter is warm, and even wise. Perhaps it's because Dave Van Ronk understood an important idea at the core of folk music, which is that it's most alive when you pass it on. To pass the torch became Dave Van Ronk's purpose in life. It's what makes him a man who succeeded, without ever becoming a success.
Off-Ramp contributor R.H. Greene is producer of "War of the Welles," a behind-the-scenes look at Orson Welles' "The War of the Worlds" 1938 broadcast