New York native Dave Van Ronk, also known as the Mayor of MacDougal Street, is considered by many to be “music’s music’s raconteur, troubadour and provocateur.” Arriving on the music scene somewhere in the mid 1950’s, he spent much of his time living hand-to-mouth whilst teaching himself to play guitar. Releasing his first album in 1958 with his life-long friend and musicologist Samuel B. Charters, Van Ronk started out as a member of The Orange Blossom Jug Five; eventually settling in Greenwich Village.
By this time his playing style had been firmly established and was orientated heavily around folk and blues, for which he performed regularly on just his acoustic guitar. Occasionally writing his own songs but generally arranging the work of earlier artists and his folk revival peers, Van Ronk has also been described as “an irreverent and incomparable guitar artist and interpreter of black blues and folk, with an uncannily precise ability at impersonation;” Joni Mitchell repeatedly said that his rendition of her Both Sides Now song (which he named Clouds) was the finest ever!!
Playing a major role in bringing blues style to Greenwich Village in the 1960’s, Dave Van Ronk was also recognised for introducing the folk world to the complex harmonies of Kirt Weill in his many Brecht-Weill interpretations (Kirt Weill being a 1920’s German Jewish composer well-known for his fruitful collaborations with the German theatre practitioner, playwright, and poet Bertolt Brecht). During this crucial period, he performed with Bob Dylan, who later recorded Van Ronk’s arrangement of the traditional song House of the Rising Sun on his first album. This cover served as pinnacle moment in the folk-rock movement, bringing this new sound more into the mainstream.
For all his work and all that he did to further the progressing folk-rock movement of the time Van Ronk received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in December 1997.
Tell Old Bill features on his third studio album, Dave Van Ronk Sings which was released in 1961 on Folkway’s Records. I’m starting to discover that it’s one of those ‘Marmite’ songs, some I’ve played it to love it, whilst others can’t stand it! I love it, I love the way it fits like a comfy old cardigan, hugging, warm and familiar that it is! Check it out above.