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Going Back to Brooklyn

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Album Review

"The role of singer/songwriter has never much appealed to me," writes Dave Van Ronk in the liner notes to this album, and it may seem like an odd remark for a performer who had a lot to do with promoting the careers of such singer/songwriters as Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. But what Van Ronk means is that he has never been much interested in taking on the role of singer/songwriter for himself. Although he is usually mentioned in sentences that include the names of Dylan, Mitchell, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, and other Greenwich Village folksingers of the 1960s, Van Ronk is primarily an interpretive singer with a repertoire of traditional folk-blues songs along with covers of the songs of his peers. Still, he has penned the odd song on occasion, and Going Back to Brooklyn is the first album he's made that is devoted entirely to his own compositions. (As it turned out, he would never make another one.) As might be expected, he did not sit down and pen a whole new batch of material; many of these songs are ones he wrote years and even decades previously, and some of them he has recorded before. (For example, "Zen Koans Gonna Rise Again" first appeared on No Dirty Names in 1966, and "Last Call" was on Songs for Aging Children in 1973.) And in several cases, these are not so much full-fledged songs as little novelty ditties (the a cappella "Tantric Mantra" and "The Whores of San Pedro" clock in at little over half a minute each, and the similarly unaccompanied antiwar harangue "Luang Prabang" runs 1:36) or guitar instrumentals ("Antelope Rag," "Left Bank Blues"). These are the kinds of pieces an itinerant musician might come up with while waiting for a gig to start, and Van Ronk indicates that that's just what happened in some cases. Even when he writes a well-developed original, he basically adapts one of his favorite folk-blues fingerpicking patterns to accompany a lyric idea, the most outlandish of which must be "Garden State Stomp," which is nothing more or less than a recitation of unusual town names in New Jersey. To the extent that his original lyrics are personally revealing, they speak of drinking and folksinging, sometimes in a touching way, notably "Gaslight Rag," a tribute to a Greenwich Village bar and its folksinging patrons, and "Last Call." Van Ronk uses his raspy, expressive voice, which contrasts with the sweetness of his guitar playing, to get across harsh, bitter feelings in such songs as the self-lacerating "Losers" and "Luang Prabang," but only at the end, in the heartbreaking "Another Time and Place," to expose love and regret. Going Back to Brooklyn is unique among Dave Van Ronk albums for the portrait it provides of the artist, even if on the surface it sounds like many of this other records.


Born: 30 June 1936 in Brooklyn, NY

Genre: Singer/Songwriter

Years Active: '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s

Guitarist, singer, songwriter, and native New Yorker Dave Van Ronk inspired, aided, and promoted the careers of numerous singer/songwriters who came up in the blues tradition. Most notable of the many musicians he helped over the years was Bob Dylan, whom Van Ronk got to know shortly after Dylan moved to New York in 1961 to pursue a life as a folk/blues singer. Van Ronk's recorded output was healthy, but he was never as prolific a songwriter as some of his friends from that era, like Dylan or Tom...
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Going Back to Brooklyn, Dave Van Ronk
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