The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir
By Dave Van Ronk with Elijah Wald
Da Capo, 246 pp., $26
When folksinger Dave Van Ronk was growing up in Queens during the 1940s, his seventh-grade teacher, Sister Altila Marie, eyed him with suspicion. Unlike her prize students, Van Ronk was sloppy and daydreamy, enveloped with a terminal case of nostalgie de la boue (a fascination with misery and despair). One afternoon, for example, the good sister asked her students to deliver a brief talk on ''What I Want to Be When I Grow Up." In proud succession, students confessed aspirations to be doctors and nurses and lawyers and salesmen. When scruffy Van Ronk took center stage he proudly claimed ''migratory worker," saying, ''I want to travel from town to town doing odd jobs to make enough money to move on." Just before he launched into a litany of the virtues of Guthrie-esque hoboing, Sister interrupted him. ''A bum!" she screamed. ''You want to be a bum!"
Van Ronk nodded yes. He would become a tramp troubadour who made his living with a six-string in hand, plucking traditional jazz riffs in coffeehouses from New York to Los Angeles like guitarist Charlie Christian. Shunned that afternoon, in a few years he made good on his promise. Using Greenwich Village as his home base -- and jazz as his original calling card -- by the late 1950s Van Ronk had become a folksinger extraordinaire. His star rose, at least among his peers. As Bob Dylan noted in his memoir ''Chronicles, Vol. 1," published to critical acclaim last year, the storied folk-blues musicians who came of age during the Eisenhower era and led to the so-called Folk Revival of the early 1960s were his heroes. With his gravelly voice, perfect timing, finger-picking virtuosity, and wild-eyed anarchist-bohemian attitude, Van Ronk -- who died of cancer in 2002 at age 65 -- was perhaps the most street savvy and ornery of the new vanguard of Manhattan-based folkies that included Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs. ''In Greenwich Village," Dylan wrote, ''Van Ronk was king of the street, he reigned supreme."
Van Ronk's wonderful memoir, ''The Mayor of MacDougal Street," coauthored with Elijah Wald, is mandatory reading for anybody interested in what Utah Phillips called the ''Great Folk Scare" of the 1960s. Van Ronk is a fine raconteur, writing the compelling story of his slow rise to cult folksinger status and near superstardom without an iota of pretension. His anecdotes of rumrunners, mountebanks, and beatniks are often hilarious. Weaned on the traditional New Orleans styles of Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, Van Ronk, a self-proclaimed Debsian socialist, was, in reality, an oddball traditionalist. Folk music to him was sacred. Perfecting songs like ''Samson and Delilah" and ''The House of the Rising Sun" was a rite of passage. You might call him a folk purist.
Therefore, the more cynical passages in this memoir detail how Dylan and Paul Simon and their ilk bastardized folk music for commercial profit and sequin-suited fame. As Van Ronk makes clear, Dylan stole melodies and lines like a cold-blooded thief; he details, for example, Dylan's purloining lyrics from ''Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" and ''Chimes of Freedom." Some of it is sour grapes (Dylan hit it big, he didn't). But Van Ronk, to his credit, is never self-aggrandizing. The great virtue of this memoir, in fact, is the capsule prose snapshots of about a dozen blues-folk greats including Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, and Leadbelly. His sincere admiration of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen also bursts through in colorful anecdotes. ''Of course we knew about the Kingston Trio and Belafonte and their hordes of squeaky clean imitators, but we felt like that was a different world that had nothing to do with us," he wrote. ''For one thing, most of those people were simply bad musicians and that continued to hold true for a lot of the popular groups right through the 1960's."
What Van Ronk is most proud of is that he was one white folk-blues singer who never ripped off his black predecessors. He learned everything from them but always gave them credit. A case in point is the Rev. Gary Davis, best known for his songs ''Candyman" and ''Cocaine Blues." An ordained minister originally from South Carolina, Davis used to deliver guitar-fueled evangelic sermons from a Harlem street-front church in the 1950s. Like a dutiful student, Van Ronk worshipped at the knees of this polyrhythmic preacher.
There are many lively vignettes in this memoir, such as the historic struggle for folk music dominance between New York (Van Ronk) and Cambridge (Eric von Schmidt) and how Joan Baez earned the coveted cover of Time in 1963. His retelling of how ABC blacklisted Pete Seeger and how he almost became a member of Peter, Paul, and Mary are deeply comical. But the charm of ''The Mayor of MacDougal Street" lies in its unvarnished simplicity -- just like that of its author.
Reading this memoir makes you want to listen to not only Van Ronk's CDs but those of Furry Lewis, Jesse Fuller, Mitchell, and Paxton. A lasting hallmark of Van Ronk was that he was always better at promoting everybody else than himself. Roots music was what he was all about.
Douglas Brinkley is a professor of history and director of the Roosevelt Center at Tulane University.