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On Grammy Night, an Elegy for A Folk Hero

By Christine Lavin
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page N01

In one of the obscure categories that won't be televised live at tonight's 47th Annual Grammy Awards -- traditional folk -- is a nominee who can count among his fans actors Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, novelists Lawrence Block, Carl Hiaasen and Stephen King, folk singers Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Suzanne Vega, Richie Havens, Odetta . . . and even the Oregon Psychiatric Association, which in 1997 made him an honorary member simply because they liked his music that much.

His name is Dave Van Ronk. During his lifetime he performed concerts around the world, taught countless young guitarists how to play, recorded more than 35 albums, received an ASCAP Lifetime Achievement Award . . . yet never won a Grammy. He was nominated only once before, in 1996, but watched his friend Ramblin' Jack Elliott win it that year. Tonight in Los Angeles is his last chance. Dave died Feb. 10, 2002, at age 65; I was one of the young guitarists who studied with him, having moved to New York in 1976 for that sole purpose. We ended up pals for 26 years.

"Van Ronk didn't need a band," says musician Dave Massengill. "He was able to make a perfectly self-contained musical statement with a single guitar." (Maria Camillo)

The nominated album, titled "And the Tin Pan Bended and the Story Ended," was recorded at Dave's final concert, performed Oct. 22, 2001, at the Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church in Adelphi. Three days before the concert he was diagnosed with colon cancer and scheduled to enter the hospital on Halloween. "Not an auspicious sign," he joked.

There's a lot riding on this for Dave. The Grammy Award is an official stamp of approval that could make all the more valuable the 60-plus hours of never-released archival tapes belonging to his widow, Andrea Vuocolo. In the first chapter of Bob Dylan's "Chronicles," recently nominated for a National Book Award, he acknowledges the great influence Van Ronk had on him, so when Dave's own book, "The Mayor of MacDougal Street," is published in May, a Grammy win would shine the spotlight more brightly on that, too. And there is Martin Scorsese's documentary for PBS, set to air this year (working title: "Bob Dylan's American Journey"), in which Dave is prominently featured.

Dave Van Ronk was 6 feet 3 with a booming, gravelly voice and large but delicate hands with long, slender fingers. He was born in Brooklyn, raised in Queens, taught himself to play guitar, dropped out of high school, joined the merchant marine for a brief spell, then found his way back to New York, settling -- and staying forever -- in Greenwich Village.

Unable to read music, Dave invented his own system of writing out guitar charts, a complicated system of letters, numbers, dashes and curved lines that suited his unique style of playing. He deconstructed extremely complicated compositions (Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" and "The Entertainer," to name just two), then translated them into his own odd-looking system. Once, when I was in a hotel and needed a chart faxed to me, I called the front desk and asked if it had arrived yet. The front desk clerk told me, "Well, you did get a fax, but I don't think it's music. It looks like a math problem."

Dave's music drew from folk, blues, jazz, ragtime, American standards -- an eclectic mix that he put into his own style. Over the years guitarists came and went to learn from him; many could play his songs note for note, but to this day nobody sounds exactly like him.

David Massengill, another musician who studied with Dave, says that the first time he heard a Van Ronk record he wondered how many guitars were being played, not realizing it was just one. "Van Ronk didn't need a band," Massengill says. "He was able to make a perfectly self-contained musical statement with a single guitar."

Dave was a bit of a curmudgeon, a contrarian. He called himself an "anarcho-syndicalist," though no one knew exactly what that meant. He was a voracious reader, a superb chef, a truly self-educated man who enjoyed teaching what he knew to the young foolish musicians who found their way to his door. There's no telling how many guitarists sat at Dave's feet, dreaming that they'd be discovered as "the new Bob Dylan."

Looking back, Andrea Vuocolo now realizes that Dave knew the 2001 show in Adelphi was going to be his last. She had been on the road with him for 20 years, taking care of him and the business side of his work, but that night he did something he had never done before: He asked the sound engineer to make a tape directly off the sound board, then gave it to Andrea and told her to do whatever she thought best when the time came. When they got home she put the tape on a shelf, then forgot about it as she went about the business of canceling his shows for the next two months, and then accompanying him to the hospital.

Dave had asthma all of his adult life. He lived in Greenwich Village, not far from Ground Zero, and immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, his breathing became more labored. He rarely left his apartment, and when he did could walk for only a block or so before he'd have to stop to catch his breath. At the hospital, doctors discovered his lungs badly congested, and put him on ever-increasing doses of medication. They finally operated Nov. 5, then again Nov. 12, but the medicine that let him breathe left him open to infection.

Word had spread quickly throughout the folk music community that Dave was in trouble: no health insurance, no savings. The first check came from Arlo Guthrie. Then one from Janis Ian. At the North East Regional Folk Alliance conference in the Poconos in mid-November, Sonny Ochs, sister of the late songwriter Phil Ochs, passed the hat (well, actually a water pitcher) at each meal, collecting over $2,000 for Dave. Then Allan Pepper organized a benefit concert at his Greenwich Village club, the Bottom Line. Peter, Paul & Mary, Arlo Guthrie and Tom Paxton performed two sold-out shows, which included raffling off autographed acoustic guitars. The event raised $34,000 in a single day.

Andrea left his bedside twice that day to read a statement from Dave onstage: "Thank you all so much for coming. I knew I could finally fill the Bottom Line; I just didn't know I'd have to go to such dramatic lengths to do it."

Andrea spent every day at the hospital with him, from early morning to late at night. Friends were asked to stay away -- he was simply too sick to see them.

But the new year came and went, and very slowly Dave's health started to improve. At the very end of January 2002 his doctors discussed the possibility of letting him go home.

There was one more benefit planned, on Feb. 3. There's a rule that you never schedule a concert on Super Bowl Sunday (for obvious reasons), but Pete Seeger, Oscar Brand, Danny Kalb and lots of other musicians crowded into the Towne Crier in upstate Pawling, N.Y. The room was SRO. People stuffed tens and twenties into the overflowing tip jar as they went out the door.

The previous day Dave had been released from the hospital. He was overjoyed, sitting in his usual spot on the living-room couch -- not ready for company yet, but dialing up old friends, scheduling editing sessions for his book. Everything was looking up, plus he now had a modest nest egg that would cover rent, living expenses and some medical costs for the next few months.

On Feb. 5 everything changed. Suddenly running a high fever, Dave was rushed back to the hospital. Five days later, he died. It wasn't the colon cancer; it was an infection. Doctors had expected he would live at least another year.

Andrea went into seclusion. It wasn't until more than a year later, May 18, 2003, that she felt strong enough to hold a public event to honor Dave. It was back at the Bottom Line, and again lots of musicians participated. That weekend more than 80 radio programs around the world also played Dave's music in tribute.

Before this show Allan Pepper met a number of times with Andrea to discuss what to do with the money it would raise, and I went along to help take notes. Her first plan was to establish a guitar scholarship in Dave's name, but it soon became clear that would require more administrative work than she could handle. Sitting in the large dressing room backstage, Allan asked her gently, "Is there anything else you can think of where this money could be used to honor Dave?"

"I have the tape of his very last concert," she replied. "Maybe that could be an album?"

She still hadn't listened to it -- had found it unbearable to hear Dave's voice. Nobody had heard it. But that afternoon she decided that if the tape was good she would find the best label for it and try to get it nominated for a Grammy. Dave had confided years before that he always wanted to win one.

Until she told Pepper that day, nobody knew Dave had harbored this secret wish. The thought of making this happen for Dave started to lift Andrea's spirits like nothing else since he died.

The concert tape clocked in just over 100 minutes, so it wouldn't fit on one CD. But the consensus among his friends was that the performance was brilliant: He sang knockout versions of all the songs, especially "One Meat Ball," "Green Green Rocky Road" and "St. James Infirmary," ending the concert on a wistful note with Joni Mitchell's "Urge for Going." Between songs he discussed his early life hanging around with jazz and blues musicians in Harlem; his mother, Grace Van Ronk, whom he called "the backbone of the Rosary Society"; and much else.

Andrea took on the job of record producer, something she had never done before (she is a stained-glass artist and a graphic designer by trade). She hired sound engineer Phil Klum, known as a painstaking perfectionist, to see if there was a way to edit the tape to fit on a single CD without cutting any songs or stories.

It took many sessions -- at first shortening applause, guitar tunings, pauses (since Dave was ill, he took more time than usual between songs). CDs can hold 80 minutes of music, but the best engineers won't let a disc go over 79, because the likelihood of technical defects increases greatly if they do.

Klum brought it in at 78:59 without losing a single song or story. It took close to a thousand edits, but even through headphones it sounds seamless. His perfectionist reputation is intact.

What to call the album was debated at length -- Andrea's pragmatic friends, including me, thought calling it "Dave Van Ronk's Final Concert" would ensure the attention of Grammy voters, who are often moved to respond by an artist's death. But Andrea didn't like it. And she was the producer.

Instead she chose "and the tin pan bended and the story ended," a phrase Dave's Irish maternal grandmother used to end stories she told him as a boy. Dave himself recorded that phrase, but only once, on the album "Going Back to Brooklyn."

Andrea shopped the album around -- there was interest from independent labels, but she heard suggestions of further editing, cutting some of the stories, changing the title. She wanted a label that would trust her choices. Smithsonian Folkways did, so without hesitation she made her decision.

Tom Paxton wrote the liner notes, Andrea worked with the Smithsonian designers, assembled photos for the CD booklet and chose the most memorable Van Ronk bon mots to use throughout ("Take care of your vices and your virtues will take care of themselves," "Never make the mistake of thinking someone you don't like likes you," "I wanted to play jazz in the worst way -- and I did"). Smithsonian Folkways released the album June 30, 2004, which would have been Dave's 68th birthday, the same day New York renamed the street in front of his apartment after him. Six months later, the album was nominated for a Grammy, and tonight we will find out if it wins.

The other albums competing in the traditional folk category include "My Last Go Round" by Rosalie Sorrels & Friends. She dedicated her album to Dave, so if she loses to him, Rosalie will be okay. The other three are Norman & Nancy Blake's "The Morning Glory Ramblers"; John Prine, Alison Krauss, Beth Nielsen Chapman and others on "Beautiful Dreamer -- The Songs of Stephen Foster"; and "Gitane Cajun" by the band BeauSoleil. I imagine they'll all be happy for Dave, too, if he wins.

As Tom Paxton wrote in the liner notes, "There isn't any counting the number of artists [Dave Van Ronk] affected positively; they'll be coming forth for decades to come to tell us about it. You are hearing Dave's final concert, and to say that is almost unbearably painful to me. Goodbye, Davey. You were the last Bohemian and the last 'Mayor of MacDougal Street.' You were a grace note in the lives of all those who were lucky enough to know you. We'll miss you for the rest of our lives."

If you watch the Grammys tonight on TV, fight that impulse to run to the fridge during breaks. In the "bumpers" in and out of the commercials will be announcements about who won in the categories that don't involve any of the big stars. I know there are folk musicians all over the world -- and one person in particular who lives on Dave Van Ronk Street in Greenwich Village -- hoping this will be the day that Dave's secret wish finally comes true.

Christine Lavin is a singer and songwriter. Her most recent CD is "Sometimes Mother Really Does Know Best" (Appleseed Records).

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