An Inappropriate Life
R.I.P. Dave von Ronk
[This was written in March of 2002. At that time, I had a regular column in Southside Pride, a neighborhood newspaper in Minneapolis, with a circulation of as many as 100,000 readers.]
A few weeks ago, bluesman / folk singer / storyteller Dave von Ronk died of complications from treatments for cancer, probably brought on by decades of overindulgence in cigarettes and alcohol. If you're of my age (64 today) and musical bent, you might have heard of him Along with such forgotten musicians as Erik von Schmidt and Rolf Cahn, Dave was among the early white performers in the "folk revival" of the late '50s and early '60s. He was as much known for his promotion of other (often non-white) musicians, and his willingness to share his knowledge of the genre, as for his own considerable talents. While the news of his death saddens me, it also moves me to share some observations with you.
When I was still in college, more than 40 years ago, there were these three guys playing at the Ten O'clock Scholar, a coffeehouse in Dinkeytown, a student neighborhood adjacent to the University of Minnesota, about where the Burger King is now (or was, last time I looked). This one guy, who called himself Bob Dylan, got kind of famous. You may have heard of him. Dave Ray, still in high school, and John Koerner, fresh from a bad trip with the U.S. Marines, were also performing, and were joined later by harmonica player Tony Glover. Their "Blues Rags and Hollers" albums were praised by the likes of Mick Jagger and John Lennon. During the early '60s, most of the great folk and blues groups played either the Scholar, or the Padded Cell, a 3.2 tavern on west Lake Street: Peter, Paul and Mary, Judy Collins, John Hammond Jr., Reverend Gary Davis, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Clifton Chenier, Jim Kweskin, and Maria Muldaur to name a few. Meanwhile, the Key Club near seven corners was featuring the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and other Chicago blues greats. For me, the music scene in Minneapolis was more than entertainment; it was part of what made me who I am. In my life, I have had plenty of opportunities to develop addictions to one substance or another. The only "jones" I can't seem to shake is my hunger for live Blues music.
I know now that the Blues existed long before Rock and Roll, but I didn't know it when I was growing up. The Blues was, for me - just another white boy from the Eisenhower era - the payoff on the promise made by early rock and roll; the end of the road that I started walking down in 1955, the first time I went to the old State Theater to see "Blackboard Jungle". The lights dimmed, the curtain parted, the film began to roll, and my world turned inside out as a drum began to beat out the rhythm that would change the lives of so many of my generation. "Rock Around The Clock", by Bill Haley and the Comets. One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock, ROCK! Life was never the same, after that.
Here in Oaxaca, almost 50 years later, there is lots of music. Classical performers and salsa / rock musicians compete with ranchero and trova bands; street musicians wail the sad, poignant songs so beloved by the local folks; mariachis and jazz groups fill in almost all the rest of the spectrum. What is missing is live Blues, all the more so since fugitive Texas bluesman Dan del Santo died here last year. Von Ronk's demise reminds me - again - of how much I miss it.
I cope by listening to recorded Blues music until I can get to somewhere where I can hear it live. When I come back on all-too-rare visits to Minneapolis, I suck it up almost every night. I especially like the "old West Bank geezers": Dave Ray, John Koerner, John Beach, and - I know the other guys will forgive me for saying this - especially, Willie Murphy. People's music: from the folk; interpreted by solid performers with a love and respect for the tunes, who also have tunes of their own to share.
This year, as in several past years, I missed the annual Jug-Off, a night of local musicians playing string band music in pick-up bands (no regularly performing bands allowed), competing for the right to hold onto a beat up old waffle iron for a year. Since it is in February, and since I have developed (I think I started developing it at age 3) a serious aversion to cold weather, a friend was kind enough to send me some pictures. A lot of old friends, performers as well as aficionados were there, and they were all, every one of them, more gray-haired, their faces more lined, paunchier: like me, they are "getting old". Like me, they haven't given up the ghost yet, not by a long ways.
Dave von Ronk is dead. Another of the "roots" that fed today's music is gone. But some of the folks that worked the same crowds at night clubs and festivals - that learned from and expanded upon what he and others were doing - are alive, vital, and playing in Minneapolis. There is still time to see and hear them. Check the schedules in the Pulse, and that other entertainment magazine. Go hear them play, not because they are living legends (although some of them may well be); not because it is the nostalgic thing to do. Go because they're hot; because while there might be some who are better, there's nobody else like them. If you go, tell 'em that Stan sent you; that I miss them; that maybe when the weather warms up I'll drop by myself to say hello.