Thursday, April 2, 1998
There''s a pile of newspaper articles about Dave Van Ronk sitting on my desk. The writers all coo and bill about Van Ronk''s history, they all manage to use the word "legend" (usually superfluously), and they all point to his wide-ranging musical interests. In other words, with minor variations, they all sound the same.
In the interest of avoiding the "and then he, and then he, and then he" style of journalism, I''m gonna pare down Van Ronk''s history to the bare bones, then cut to the stuff he says has been on his mind lately.
Dave Van Ronk is coming to town on Saturday. Dave Van Ronk is a folksinger legend (I had to say it, some writerly conventions cannot be ignored). His father was a jazz pianist and Van Ronk''s early music interest was jazz. He was a major force in New York folk circles in the late ''50s and early ''60s, when the music was making a major comeback. Back then, he hung out with all the usual suspects in all the usual places and he, along with others, influenced Bob Dylan, along with others. He is greatly admired for his fingerpicking style and his grasp of America''s musical history. And that''s the gist of all those other articles.
On the day I spoke with him, he said he''d been thinking a lot about today''s "folk" musicians, the singer/songwriter crowd.
"There are some remarkably good representatives of the genre out there: first rate, original writers like Christine Lavin, Greg Brown and dozens more," says Van Ronk during a phone interview.
"Still, most of them are terribly boring. The problem really is, partially, that many of them are very poor musicians. Another part of it is they lack individuality, they''re all the same."
Of course, musicianship and individuality are twin hallmarks of Van Ronk''s 40-year career. And insipid folksingers are not unique to the ''90s. While the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary were mutilating otherwise soulful songs, turning them into three-chord pop tunes, Van Ronk was developing a music style that drew as much from Appalachia as it did from the Mississippi delta. Didn''t matter then and doesn''t matter now, whether it''s a song he personally wrote, or something penned by someone else--when Van Ronk sings a song, it''s all his. Take a listen to his 1995 Grammy-nominated from...another time & place.
On the album are songs written by Van Ronk, mixing easily with others by Willie Dixon, Gary Davis and Bob Dylan, and other songs whose original creators were long ago rendered into the melting pot. All the songs, regardless of where they came from, are alive with the force of Van Ronk''s personality and musicianship. Not that mainstream audiences have ever really given a damn; despite the fact that he''s cranked out 20 albums during his career, he''s never had a "hit" record. And, legend or not, Van Ronk was staying in low-cost accomodations at the Santa Monica Travelodge when I spoke to him.
He describes the majority of today''s singer/songwriters as "pretty bland voices, singing pretty bland songs." Then he puzzles, "One wonders why everyone on the scene was so down on John Denver. What was he doing that everyone else isn''t doing? Only better."
Van Ronk says part of the problem with today''s singer/songwriters is their unwillingness to explore traditional music and part of the problem is with audiences. There is very little crossover, or the resulting creative insemination, between different styles.
"Whatever [today''s musicians] were taught from traditional music they didn''t learn," says Van Ronk. "So you can''t be very surprised when bland, middle-class audiences are being entertained by bland, middle-class entertainers. You get tired of this kind of vanilla quality to what''s going down."
He also worries that this watered-down version of folk music is poised to be elevated in mainstream popularity.
"I think it''s right on the cusp of becoming a very popular music," says Van Ronk. "For one thing, it''s been going on since the ''60s, it''s always been there. I think it''s become more and more visible. It is a step away from the pre-packaged, factory-made pop music and I imagine a great many people think this is the answer, this is the solution. I tend to think it will be assimilated into the mainstream very easily and will become part of the problem."
Dave Van Ronk, Saturday, 8pm. Carleton Hall at the Monterey Religious Science Church. $13/advance, $15/door. 373-7379.
Eitherproving or disproving Van Ronk''s assessment of today''s singer/songwriters, depending on the listener, is Jules Shear, who''s appearing at Morgan''s on Sunday.
Shear has a new CD on the street, Between Us on Windham Hill''s High Street label, that features a whole wad of singers doing duets with Shear. Amongst others, Rosanne Cash, Susan Cowsill, Patty Griffin, Suzzy Roche and Carole King sing along with Shear on this package of sweet-love-gone-sour songs.
If Shear''s name rings a bell in anyone''s memory, it''s probably because he was the host of MTV''s "Unplugged" series during its first year. He''s also penned songs that became hits for Cyndi Lauper ("All Through the Night") and The Bangles ("If She Knew What She Wants").
Hmmm...elevator-music label...package of love songs...mainstream TV... success with pop songsters...maybe Van Ronk has a point.
Jules Shear, Sunday, 8pm. Morgan''s Coffee and Tea, $10, 655-6868.
In the community-of-caring department, there''s a benefit on Tuesday night at Peter B''s Brewpub for bartender Javier Unda, who''s battling leukemia. Unda''s been unable to work for awhile as he undergoes treatments--which presents a hardship for his wife and two kids. The benefit is presented in coordination with the club''s open mic night, which is presided over by Todd Anthony. There should be a host of musicians in attendance, and a raffle for more than 50 items (including meals at local restaurants, golfing at Pebble Beach, televisions, VCRs and more).
Did I mention that women get half-price drinks? Yeah. That''ll be me in the stilletos, wig and veil to cover my chin whiskers.
Javier Unda Benefit, Tuesday, 7pm-1am. Peter B''s Brewpub, 649-4511.