Music review: ‘Down in Washington Square’

December 28, 2013 

Dave Von Ronk’s “Down in Washington Square.”

  • Folk

    Dave Van Ronk

    Down in Washington Square

3-disc set showcases

Van Ronk’s influence

The inspiration for the title character of the Coen Brothers’ latest film, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Dave Van Ronk (1936-2002) was a larger-than-life figure in the folk revival of the 1950s and ’60s.

A native of Brooklyn, Van Ronk moved to Greenwich Village in the early ’50s and played jazz in clubs and coffee houses hosting jazz and Beat poetry. He was playing folk music before the revival that spawned the careers of many folk icons, including Peter, Paul and Mary; Tom Paxton; and Bob Dylan, to whom he was mentor and muse.

The Smithsonian Folkways collection, “Down in Washington Square,” is a three-disc, 54-song set of Van Ronk’s recordings from 1958 to 2001. They showcase Van Ronk’s influence as guitarist, arranger and performer of traditional songs to which he applied jazz techniques of his early training.

Van Ronk absorbed the tunes and techniques of Mississippi John Hurt, Rev. Gary Davis and other “authentic” folk artists, many of whom they first heard on Harry Smith’s 1952 Folkways compilation, “Anthology of American Folk Music.”

“Down in Washington Square” features Van Ronk’s interpretations of Hurt’s “Spike Driver Blues,” Davis’ “Hesitation Blues,” Jelly Roll Morton’s “Winin’ Boy,” Willie Dixon’s “Hootchie Kootchie Man” along with gospel, sea chanteys and original compositions. It includes “House of the Rising Sun,” a No. 1 hit for The Animals, who learned it from Dylan, who learned it from Van Ronk.

This wide-ranging set, along with Van Ronk’s absorbing memoir, “The Mayor of McDougal Street” (Da Capo Press, 2005), provide context for “Inside Llewyn Davis” and insight into the artists, urban and rural, whose influence can be heard in Bruce Springsteen, Mumford and Sons, and others topping the charts today.

Correspondent Jack Bernhardt

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