“The life story that inspired the Coen Brothers movie ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’,” blares the corner of the newest edition of Dave Van Ronk’s memoir “The Mayor of McDougal Street” (Da Capo Press, 246 pages, $15.95).
That’s only partially accurate. In the notes to the film’s soundtrack, John Jeremiah Sullivan identifies Van Ronk as “the merchant marine turned jazzman turned country-blues interpreter whose life and music (though not personality) loosely inspire the film.” (Loosely is a major understatement.)
The movie’s milieu is the folk music revival of the early 1960s. In the immortal wisecrack of comedian Martin Mull, what we’re hearing through the film is the music of “the folk music scare of the early ’60s when it almost caught on.”
Which means that it did catch on – only not with quite enough people to make a tidal difference in the landscape of American music. Joan Baez and the Kingston Trio were its earliest leading popular edge on vinyl. Van Ronk was Greenwich Village’s great figure symbolizing it. Peter Paul and Mary, a bit later, had the biggest pop hits from it.
And in the middle of it all, something truly tide-turning happened: the advent of the great singer-songwriter, of whom Bob Dylan was the first and Joni Mitchell was his female equivalent. The rise of Dylan is handled with a tiny but majestic allusiveness in “Inside Llewyn Davis” (tell the truth, said Emily Dickinson, but tell it slant).
Dylan has declared Van Ronk to be his idol along with Woody Guthrie. Here is Van Ronk on Dylan:
“The more I heard him perform, the more impressed I was with what he was doing. Later, when he became more popular, it was completely different. By 1964, his shows were not even generically similar to what he had been doing at the beginning. Back then, he always seemed to be winging it, free-associating, and he was one of the funniest people I have ever seen onstage – although offstage no one ever thought of him as a great wit. … He was a very kinetic performer; he never stood still. And he had all these nervous mannerisms and gestures. He was obviously quaking in his boots a lot of the time, but he made that part of the show. There would be a one-liner, a mutter, a mumble, another one-liner, a slam at the guitar. Above all, his sense of timing was uncanny; he would get all these pseudo-clumsy bits of business going, fiddling with his harmonica rack and things like that, and he would put an audience in stitches without saying a word.”
And when he sang, says Van Ronk, it was “quite different from what everyone else was doing.”
American popular music was quite different ever afterward.
Here is how Mitchell is described in Van Ronk’s “The Mayor of McDougal Street”: Van Ronk and native American singer songwriter Patrick Sky “happened to be on the same plane out of Buffalo. Patrick had been up for something like seventy-two hours, and so had I, working and drinking and working and drinking, and we had drunk ourselves sober and drunk and sober again. … Over in a corner (on Canadian TV’s show ‘Let’s Sing Out’) sitting by herself on a folding chair was this lovely blond lady. She was playing guitar and just singing to herself, just warming up, and I don’t know how it happened, but after a few minutes everything was completely quiet, and everybody had just formed a semicircle around her. It was Joni Mitchell, and she was singing ‘Urge for Going,’ and it was the first time I ever heard it or her. It was simply magical and, by the middle of the second verse, you could hear a pin drop. She finished and there was just this silence, utter silence.”
Something completely new had entered the world – something the Coens’ Llewyn Davis likely could never have seen coming.
– Jeff Simon