Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Bobby and Dave

Parallel folkies grapple with the times in a mythic Greenwich Village wonderland

Averse to nostalgia in general, folkies in particular, the Americana tendency in middlebrow rock criticism, and the Bob Dylan industry, I skipped Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home to write, escaping periodically to go watch TV. Every time, though, some grizzled adept of acoustic authenticity sent me back to my labors. Arresting though it was to see Dylan speak in an apparently straightforward manner, and fond though I am of some individual informants, old farts patting themselves on the hem of Dylan's garment made a lousy circus act. Admittedly, the average rock-doc is much worse--old farts exuding vanity, yeucch. At least Scorsese's guys are honorable bohemians. But like most bohemians, they put too much stock in their long-gone moment.

Only then I belatedly inhaled Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One, which made me wonder. The book has inspired endless hosannas, many dumb and some far from it (as well as a few dismissals, all dumb), so quality-wise I'll just say great-not-good, oughta stand as a literary landmark and, due to its drop-dead mastery of the semiliterate tone, probably won't. Content-wise, however, it boasts two virtues overlooked in the kvelling over Dylan's eloquence and the head-scratching over his elusiveness e'en now. One is his recollection of the early-'60s folk scene as a wonderland on the order of 52nd Street, Swinging London, the Loft, or CBGB--"a paradise that I had to leave." The other is music criticism that nails Ricky Nelson, Roy Orbison, Harry Belafonte, Mike Seeger, Bobby Vee, Hank Williams, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Dave Van Ronk, and Brecht-Weill's "Pirate Jenny," among others. Maybe not "Pirate Jenny," actually--Dylan, elusive devil, is more confused by Jenny's murderous misanthropy than the man who wrote "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" should be. But he compensates by explaining how his misprision spurred him to become the songwriter he became--along with a test pressing of Robert Johnson's King of the Delta Blues Singers, which inspires the very best writing I know about Johnson. Dave Van Ronk, Dylan reports, found Johnson derivative on first hearing.

I mention this because Van Ronk has his own memoir--Da Capo's posthumous The Mayor of MacDougal Street, begun in Van Ronk's well-worked prose and completed from fragments, interviews, and such by Elijah Wald. Five years older than Dylan, Van Ronk was one of the few native New Yorkers among Village folkiedom's big names. After departing "Our Lady of Perpetual Bingo" in the staidest corner of Queens, Van Ronk turned anarcho-Marxist out of orneriness and common sense. Initially a Dixieland banjoist who doubled on foghorn vocals, he was an interpreter who mastered blues and kept going. His repertoire encompassed not just his mentor Gary Davis and the Harry Smith canon but old pop, jazz, and vaudeville material, a few self-penned gems, and, soon enough, the cream of the singer-songwriters he insists were folk only by loose-thinking association. He was an ace guitarist who made up in practice what he lacked in dexterity and a brainy arranger whose book was raided on his protégé Dylan's Columbia debut.

Chronicles means to repay debts to old allies used up and cast aside. So not counting the apropos Johnson story, Dylan is very kind to Van Ronk, who "came from the land of giants" and "towered over the street like a mountain but would never break into the big time. It just wasn't where he pictured himself." Van Ronk is, shall we say, more measured. He has no use for the "purists" who attacked Dylan for going electric ("forty years later Bobby is still out there making music, and they're all dentists"), and despite the "contrived primitivism" of Dylan's songs anoints them "far and away the best on our scene," let there be no mistake about that. But he wants us to know that Tom Paxton invented "the new song movement," and that Phil Ochs knew more about chords. He complains that "All Along the Watchtower" doesn't parse because you can't travel "along" a watchtower. In the end, he prefers Joni Mitchell.

Well to the rear of Dylan and Peter Stampfel, Van Ronk is my third favorite MacDougal Streeter. I appreciate his politics. I share his preference for literal songwriting even if "you should never say anything in poetry that you would not say in prose" takes it way too far. I always enjoyed him live and found his albums, as he liked to say, consistently inconsistent. Even the Wald-compiled "rarities 1957-1969" CD (The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Lyrichord/Rootstock) is far less frustrating than most such hodgepodges, because eclecticism was his way. The cross-label comp Rhino surely has in the works should include one of the 1957 living-room recordings, the Trotskyite "Way Down in Lubyanka Prison," and the W.C. Fields routine about serpents and maraschino cherries. It should also include the disco-era rewrite of his Davis-derived signature song, "Cocaine." But I note with interest Wald's report that one of the tracks he passed up for this collection was a live 1961 version of Robert Johnson's "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day."

Is Dylan, elusive devil, fibbing? Or did Van Ronk change his mind? I'd guess the latter, and even so, as a convinced fingerpicker he never did get into Delta or Chicago blues. He had his standards, did Van Ronk. But they were idiosyncratic, equal-opportunity standards--loved Bing Crosby, yet opposed the well-groomed cabaret folkies of the Josh White and Theodore Bikel generation, many of whom he liked personally. Where Van Ronk was catholic, however, Dylan was totally absorptive--Dave Guard of the Kingston Trio gets a few sentences, nightclub-folk king Belafonte several paragraphs. And then Dylan obsessed on a Brecht-Weill song and completed the puzzle with Robert Johnson: "It's not that you could sort out every moment carefully, because you can't. There are too many missing terms and too much dual existence." So much for poetry and prose. Soon he would obliterate cabaret folkiedom on the back of its Peter, Paul & Mary apotheosis. Unbelievably in retrospect, folk Svengali Albert Grossman offered Van Ronk the chance to be Paul, which he wisely turned down. Then Grossman signed Dylan, solo. He was just getting set to leave a paradise where he'd found a key to the past that would explode pop music's future. Talk about the big time--time doesn't get much bigger than that.

Village Voice, Nov. 15, 2005