61 of 63 people found the following review helpful
Some of you who have made Bob Dylan's CHRONICLES VOLUME ONE a bestseller might pick up on this book; Van Ronk covers some of the same territory as Dylan, only he got there first and he's more capacious, Whitman to Dylan's Hart Crane. Props to Elijah Wald who hand-crafted this material from a bunch of Van Ronk's monologues. It reads like a book and you'll hardly know it wasn't. The detective writer and creator of Matt Scudder, Lawrence Block, adds a preface that does the job efficiently and well.
What a life he had! (The singer died in 2002.) In the chapters devoted to his youth, Van Ronk paints us picture after picture, of the memorable individuals he met in the age of the first folk revival. In San Francisco he encounters the nutty Jesse Fuller, who had once been the folk-singing protege of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. In New York he shares a stage with Odetta, whose powerful voice could fill all of Manhattan when she let it loose. The truth is that being a folk singer in the late 1950s wasn't very much fun, and Van Ronk believed in getting paid for his singing and playing, so he was denied a space by the coffeehouse owners who could put on all the entertainment they wanted for free, and so he started organizing the musicians properly. All of this is fascinating to read about. Those of you who enjoyed Christopher Guest's folk revival send up A MIGHTY WIND will howl with recognition as Van Ronk lays into the "crewcuts in drip-dry seersucker suits" of the period such as the Kingston Trio. "There was an obvious subtext," he writes, "to what these Babbitt balladeers were doing, and it was, `Of course, we're really superior to all this hayseed crap-but isn't it cute?' This attitude threw me into an absolute ecstasy of rage. These were no true disciples or even honest money-changers. They were a bunch of slick hustlers selling Mickey Mouse dolls in the temple. Join their ranks? I would sooner have been boiled in skunk piss." Yowzer!
He's funny also about the truth that, although he was a tried and true Bohemian anarchist, he sure wasn't getting laid very much. In the pre-Pill age, he says, nobody was. "And the fact that we were a pretty scuzzy bunch might have had something to do with it."
23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on February 21, 2006
For the sake of good order let me explain that Van Ronk has always been one of my favorites. His deep rusty voice and superior song arrangements kept me listening for years. Now on to the book.
It is a wonderful insight to the NYC folk scene before, during, and after their golden ago. It tells stories from distant point-of-view that was there when it all occurred but has the separation in time and place to take the sharp emotions away. Sure Bobby Dylan took his arrangement of "House of the Rising Sum" (that was then copied by the Animals), sure with other management he might have been more famous, sure with a little more luck (and a better record company) he might have had a top ten song. But the book is from a later page in his life.
Once I started the book I could not put it down - each page was a new adventure. To read the words on the pages is the same as to have heard him talk between songs at one of his shows - minus the inflections.
Why four stars rather than five? For so much that was not there. Van Ronk died near the start of the project and his co-author did a wonderful job of keeping Van Ronk's voice and putting the pieces together. The fifth star is reserved for what might have been.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on July 18, 2005
I have just finished "The Mayor of MacDougal Street" and I couldn't put it down (just like Pete Seeger said in the cover blurb). Elijah Wald did a marvelous job of pulling this book together. It all reads exactly as if Van Ronk had written or dictated the whole thing. It has Van Ronk's flair and wit, his musical acumen, and his glee in sticking in the needle now and again.
One thing you might expect from Van Ronk, whose crucial musical development predated the '60s folk boom, is a sort of world-weariness. But he has none of that. Beneath his crusty exterior lies an open mind and an almost childlike awe of good music and good art. What a refreshing book, and what a unique artist he was. His takes on Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Tom Paxton are right on.
I knew that Van Ronk died before the book was finished, and I kept waiting for the tone and quality to flag, or the voice to change, but it never did. A great job by Elijah Wald. I've got to buy his other books now.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on August 30, 2005
Van Ronk's autobiography is both informative and entertaining. He pulls no punches in giving us an honest and very humerous recounting of the Greenwich Village Folk Scene of the late '50's and early 60's.
In this surprisingly insightful narrative, all the major players are given the Van Ronk assessment. (And we have almost as much fun reading it.)
One quickly realizes what we have lost.
Anyone who loves the music, will love this book.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on August 6, 2013
I don't know what I actually expected when I bought the book entitled, “The Mayor of MacDougal
Street”, but whatever it was that I’d anticipated, this book was far beyond my expectations.
As a bit of an FYI:
It was 1964 when I first hit Greenwich Village, me a freshman in HS with a compatriot, a
senior called ‘Rebel’. He was from WV, with dyed-blonde pompadour haircut, tough as nails (when drunk he’d
suddenly send an uppercut with no warning or reason) and most guys would not hang with him, but I just
learned to duck. We’d walk across on W.3rd St. to MacDougal. His phony ID allowed him to drink at the San
Remo Café, where Kerouac and Ginsburg once had hung out, but as I was just a kid I’d wait outside whilst he
celebrated at the bar.
Next we crossed the street to a liquor shop and Reb bought a pint of Vodka and a six of Colt 45 ‘tallboys’,
then it was off to Washington Square Park.We drank the beer sitting on a park bench, after which we headed
to the Café ‘Wha?’ where we’d order ‘Zombies’ (a lemon flavored non-alcoholic beverage) and spice ‘em
up with our pint.
Well, we thought we were about the ‘coolest cats' on the block back then, but according to Dave Van Ronk
, the ‘Mayor’, of title, we were known as “clydes”, the tourists that clogged their streets on the
week-ends and kicked in the quarters and dollars for the entertainment they provided, enabling them
to pay the pittance of rent that the Village commanded at that time. What Dave and his chronicler
do for us here is something I’ve seldom seen in memoirs or auto-biographies, which are usually fraught
with sexual exploits and/or ‘reasons’ for the subject’s sad indiscretions. Well this one has none of those,
it talks frankly and up-front about who was there in GV from ‘56 to ‘66, what they wanted to accomplish,
what they did get done, and how it all played out.
If that interests you as much as it does me, this is your book. Also, if you want to know what Bob
Dylan was like when he came to NYC and what he said and did on his arrival, this is indeed your
source, more than any other except perhaps Suze Rotolo's book (she was the girl on Dylan's 'Freewheelin' cover).
Dave had a perspective that few have ever had, and displays an honesty that I
can respect. If you’ve ever wondered about Greenwich Village, Dave Van Ronk, early Dylan, or
the so-called “Folk Revival” (He calls it the ‘Folk-Scare’) buy this book and shut the hell up!
Crusader in NJ
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 27, 2006
What a treat this book is! On top of his anecdotes about characters he met in the folk boom (Paul Clayton, Bob Dylan, Rev. Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt are among my favorites) there are also some hilarious instances self-and-everyone-else deprecation that would do Mark Twain proud.
I also loved the beautifully articulated moments of philosophy, of his musings on progress in the arts, politics (He identified himself as a Marxist and materialist), poetry, "purity", and other instances in which he takes an honest (as one can be) perspective on the benefits and pitfalls of each subject.
Overreaching the whole narrative are Dave's affluent qualities that also made him a fine musician, namely a great flair for varying movement and intensity, and an empathetic voice that attempts to understand the material on every level it can be appreciated. In taking this perspective, Dave accomplishes what autobiographies usually falter at: to stand back and let the stories, let the art stand on its own vivacious merits.
(Special kudos to Elijah Wald for editing together the work. It's one hell of a task to make the countless stories flow so smoothly.)
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on March 8, 2007
The Mayor of MacDougal Street is right there with Bob Dylan's Chronicles if you are looking to research the music world. It is a veritable encyclopedia of musicians and songs. Dave's book one ups Dylan's book on references because there are more peripheral nods to the musician's scene; political personalities, club owners, agents, bar tenders, authors, and drug dealers to mention a few. It seems like no one was left out. Blossom Dearie, Pink Anderson, Jimmy Noone, Francois Villon, and Joan Baez's sister-- the names are endless. Throughout his passionate memoir Van Ronk recounts stories and anecdotes with skill, wit, and laugh-out-loud humor.
He did his part for socialism and saw the inception of a union for folk singers. It is a major achievement that he was never arrested on the tail end of McCarthyism; it was the late fifties and other than a brief stint as a merchant seaman he was a musician with a beard!
There is insightful commentary on charts and chords only a musician would understand and raconteurs about Lenin and Trotsky only a political science student would grasp but it's all laid out chronologically as Van Ronk matures into the Folk flood of the early sixties that happened in New York, Boston, and San Francisco.
In some places the analysis of his past are postpositive and you get the feeling he missed or fell short of his place in the sun spots of musical time. He tells about a lot of musicians being bitter or jealous of Dylan's initial success who harbored the attitude "why him" but offers the explanation that none of these musicians who complained ever wrote "A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall."
If Van Ronk was frustrated or unfulfilled because of circumstances or a defect of character he comes clean in the final chapters.
The Mayor of MacDougal Street is an honest narrative and after reading it I got up off the floor, sat down in a chair, and started reading it again.
It propelled me to check out his recordings. Here is a guy who works with an acoustic guitar and his voice-- only. It's refreshing to hear artists as themselves without all the engineering tricks and corporate advertising smoke and mirrors that musical acts have to use today in order to stay in the business.
Where else can you find a version of "Swing'n On A Star" with an acoustic guitar doing 5ths around the horn?
I bought two copies of this book and put them on the shelf next to `On the Road' and `Really the Blues.'
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on September 29, 2005
A very good book. Humorous, perceptive and sometimes profound; it follows Dave Van Ronk's musical and personal growth from early youth through the 1960s, with good detail.
After the early 1970s the narrative is sparse and incomplete due, no doubt, to his untimely death before the manuscript could be finished. But, what is there is very much worth the read.
Went to the Gaslight Cafe many times from the early to the late 1960s and enjoyed seeing live performances by most of the principal musicians discussed in the book. In fact, Dave Van Ronk, Jack Elliot, Bob Dylan, Patric Sky, and Barry Kornfeld influenced my own acoustic guitar and vocal style considerably both then and forever after. I count myself particularly fortunate to have sat down a played informally with several of them.
It was a dynamic and exciting time. This book breathes life into the fond memories I have of some of those great performances.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on August 31, 2006
Remember his story about learning how to play Candyman in a dream? Well, this book is like having one long smoke break with Dave between sets. He just cracks me up. My husband keeps asking me what I'm snickering about as I read it. Plus, they're friggin great stories of course, told with all the 50 cent words he knows and loves. Funny, I caught an American Roots lately, and the subject coincided perfectly with Dave's stories in this book - Washington Square, 1950s. Really fascinating, really funny, like he's talking to you. I wouldn't have missed this for the world!
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
What a pleasure this book was to read. Coauthor Elijah Wald has preserved Van Ronk's gravely rascally outter borough voice perfectly. To read this book is to know him. How many other biographies (auto or otherwise) can truly make that claim?
Together, Van Ronk and Wald evoke the essence of the time, place, and scene; of the West Village in the 50's and early 60's, of beatnicks, earnest folksingers, fiery socialists, and old black guitar pickers. Dave Van Ronk was part of it all and true to his folk singer roots, he knows how to tell a darn good tale.
As a middle class young kid growing up a stone's throw from the Village, Van Ronk, Phil Ochs, Tom Rush, Tom Paxton were my heros, my David Cassidys. I learned the songs at summer camp from counselors who were part of the folk scene and mentioned in this book. As Carol Kane said to Woody Allen in "Annie Hall": "I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype" and Van Ronk does just that. I was that long haired, middle class girl from New York singing songs written by Mississippi sharecroppers.
Many people will find this book after seeing the movie "Inside Llewyn Davis." It is a great movie and I highly recommend it but it is important to know that Llewyn Davis is not Dave Van Ronk. Llewyn Davis is an archetype and Dave Van Ronk was a living, breathing, singing folk hero.