In the early 1960s, Dave Van Ronk (1936–2002) acquired the nickname “Mayor of MacDougal Street” because of his importance and ubiquity in the Greenwich Village folk scene. Like so many singer-guitarists of the late ’50s and early ’60s, Van Ronk fell in love with folk music and rural blues and devoted himself to learning the myriad picking and singing styles he heard on the scratchy old ’78s that were being re-released on LPs by Folkways and other labels, and still being played at that time by the likes of Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Reverend Gary Davis, and so many others who had been rediscovered and re-born during the “folk revival.”

So, yes, this is a Brooklyn kid diving into country blues from the black, rural south—and writing his own songs in that style in some cases, like this one from his 1976 Sunday Street album—but his music definitely has a gritty authenticity of its own, too, perhaps a byproduct of his own hardscrabble life as a never-quite-making-it performer. Van Ronk influenced many of the other folkies in the Village during that era, including Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, and the young Bob Dylan, and he was known as one of the better guitarists in that strum-oriented milieu. He was a true eclectic, too, dipping into gospel, New Orleans, and jazz, too.

Check out this performance from the late ’70s. Also I strongly recommend his extremely entertaining autobiography, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, which is the most vivid memoir of the Greenwich Village folk world that I’ve read.  —Blair Jackson

 

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