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Album Review

Dave Van Ronk did as much as anyone to midwife and instill quality control in the urban folk boom of the early '60s, and his death in 2002 signaled for many the passing of an era. Now Smithsonian Folkways has issued his last concert, held in October 2001 in Takoma Park, and from the opening song, a delicately sung version of Scrapper Blackwell's "Down South Blues," it is obvious that listeners are in the midst of an autumnal performance. Van Ronk's deliberate jazz phrasing is still there, as are the signature guitar skills, but the gruff power in his voice is all but gone, replaced by a soft, hoarse whisper, and there are many times when you can hear his difficulty drawing breath in the spaces between singing. All of this brings a tremendous intimacy and poignancy to several of the songs here, and the hushed delivery gives songs like Len Chandler and Bob Kaufman's "Green, Green Rocky Road" an uncommon power to connect. The between-song comments by Van Ronk (who had just learned of his cancer diagnosis prior to the show) reveal an intelligent, humorous man with a tremendous passion for music, particularly jazz, and a hornman's sense of timing. Every song here carries a graceful sense of urgency, but Van Ronk's versions of Jimmie Cox's "Nobody Knows You (When You're Down and Out)" and Tom Paxton's "Did You Hear John Hurt?" are particularly powerful, and on the former song, Van Ronk sounds remarkably like Louis Armstrong or a casually relaxed and resigned Tom Waits. Newcomers to Van Ronk's music should probably sample his earlier albums first, since they give a clearer version of this performer in his prime, but longtime friends and fans will find the dignity, grace, and intimacy of this last show to be a very special farewell.


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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And the Tin Pan Bended and the Story Ended..., Dave Van Ronk
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