Bob Dylan and Dave Van Ronk

By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

This article is part of the Bob Dylan and Friends series.   You can find an index to other articles in this series here.

Tony: Bob and Van Ronk knew each other from back in the Greenwich Village days. Such was Van Ronk’s influence on the musical scene at the time that he was given the nickname “The Major Of MacDougal Street”.

His repertoire focused mainly on old traditional blues, folk and jazz tunes and he gave considerable encouragement to the up and coming artists of the day: Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan.   Plus (and the reports at this point generally say, “especially” Joni Mitchell.  I’ll return to this at the end.

Aaron: He didn’t write many of his own songs (we might cover the one album he did write himself in a later piece), so this will concentrate purely on covers he performed throughout his career.

We’ve all heard the story of Bob stealing his arrangement for House Of The Rising Sun for his debut album. So here is Van Ronk’s own version:

Aaron: He recorded a handful of Dylan tracks throughout the years. Two important ones appeared in the early 60s. He was the first to record and release “If I Had To Do It All Over Again, I’d Do It All Over You” from 1963s “In The Tradition” album.

Tony: We’ve got a regional problem on the video here, so if the video below doesn’t work, I think the best approach is going to be either to do a Google search hoping it turns up in your country, or to turn to Spotify.   That’s certainly working in the UK.

Tony: I love this, it is just such a silly song, and so lively and bouncy.  That doesn’t mean I’d play it over and over, and now as I move into my later years it is too fast to dance to any more (although I could at one time) but it’s nice to remember.  Curiously Spotify then chose to play me “Who knows where the time goes” by Fairport Convention.  Totally different and knocking me into another world.

But enough, let’s move on.

The Old Man (AKA Man On The Street) from 1966 “No Dirty Names” album

Tony: This is an Almanac Singers song originally, I think, which Bob Dylan shifted around.  The original version had the line about the only clue to how the old man died being the bayonet sticking from his side, but that anti-war element was changed over time to turn the piece into a commentary on the plight of the urban poor.

I’ve found songs about the urban poor affect me more and more as I have got older – this one is so simple but it still eats me up.   “There but for the grace…” except I’m an atheist.

Aaron: I’ll finish off with 3 of my favorites and let Tony provide his thoughts on all of this!

From 1959s debut album – “Dave Van Ronk Sings Ballads, Blues and a Spiritual” – Duncan And Brady

Tony: It is all a reminder of just how important Dave Van Ronk was (he passed away on 10 February 2002).     There’s a note about him on the Wiki site that says, “Van Ronk refused for many years to fly and never learned to drive (he took trains or buses or, when possible, recruited a girlfriend or young musician as his driver), and he declined to ever move from Greenwich Village for any extended period of time (having stayed in California for a short time in the 1960s)”.

I am not sure why I find that fascinating but somehow I do.

Mack The Knife from 1964 “Dave Van Ronk and the Ragtime Jug Stompers”

I wonder if when Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht wrote Mack the Knife nearly 100 years ago they had any idea how it would survive.  To me it seems to occupy a unique and isolated place in musical traditions, aside from the rest of the music, just sitting there, on its own – although I am sure that feeling primarily comes from a lack of knowledge of the era in music on my part.

I also wonder if all those people who endlessly go on and on about Dylan supposedly stealing other people’s work rage on in the same way about Bertolt Brecht.  Do they notice that the Threepenny Opera included, “Les Contredits de Franc Gontier”, “La Ballade de la Grosse Margot”, and “L’Epitaphe Villon” all written by François Villon, with translations by K. L. Ammer? 

OK Villon passed on hundreds of years before, so there’s an excuse (although I think citing origins is always a good thing to do even when from the Middle Ages) but Klammer should have been credited but wasn’t.  Brecht replied to the allegations that that he had “a fundamental laxity in questions of literary property.”  Maybe Bob should have tried that line.

Of course the funny thing in all this is that although text, melodies and musical arrangements are all subject to the Copyright Act in the UK, and something very similar in most of the rest of the world, ideas are never subject to copyright and evil journalists can go around just nicking ideas and passing them off as their own.  But I digress…

Clouds (AKA Both Sides Now)

Tony: According to reports (as they say) Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell – the latter of whom of course wrote the song – performed it together in Austin Texas in 1976, but I simply can’t find a recording of the performance.  If you know of a recording, please please please write in with the URL.

Certainly the picture seems to prove that yes the two played together (not that it needs proving) but music can I find none.  The video below therefore is obviously not the one of the show, but still, I can never hear the song enough.  It is one of those that has been with me through such much of my life – indeed I think it was this song that made me feel I could never be a professional songwriter, since I couldn’t even imagine how to begin creating something this beautiful.

But I’m here to write about Dick van Ronk so having diverted Aaron’s work (a privilege gained from being the second party in this writing arrangement) back to the original

And this is a beautiful arrangement.  I’d not heard it before (part of  the joy of writing these pieces with Aaron, with us each on our own continent).

Something’s lost and something’s gained in living every day, indeed.   The extra pauses after some of the lines is a shock simply because I know the song so utterly and perfectly.  And despite that this arrangement gives me new insights – which is all one can ask for.

There is a song I wrote (“She walks through midnight”) which people who have heard it say is the best piece of music I’ve ever done, and maybe they are right.  But it is not even in the same universe as “Both Sides Now” which pretty much puts me in my place.

But it’s not a bad place (most of the time).


We have an Untold Dylan Facebook group (just go to Facebook and type in Untold Dylan) and we also welcome contributions to this site (just email Tony@schools.co.uk)

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6 Responses to Bob Dylan and Dave Van Ronk

  1. Canute says:

    Pity you don’t mention another double CD album by Dave. Two Sides of Dave Van Rink with 34 folk and blues and lots of chat. Check it out. It’s good.

  2. Canute says:

    Typo….Ronk. Predictive text at work.

  3. TonyAttwood says:

    Canute All of these articles in this series are intended just to give a quick, idiosyncratic taste of the music, with myself writing my comments as I listen to the music Aaron selected. If you would like to send in an article giving a full overview of the artists’ work I’d be happy to consider it for publication.

  4. twm910 says:

    DYLAN and JONI MITCHELL:

    According to a local Austin newspaper, Dylan joined Mitchell for her second encore .

    She first sang “Both Sides Now” but Dylan “only tapped his foot and played guitar”.

    They then started “Girl From The North Country”. Initially, Dylan did the same but, then, “more than half-way through, he opened his mouth”. His voice was apparently hoarse and “he could do little more than croak his way through the verse”.

  5. Hmmm, I’m pretty sure it was the “Mayor” of Macdougal Street, not “Major.”

  6. Hodah says:

    I saw DVR once, and he introduced ‘He Was a Friend of Mine’ as “A song I stole from Bob Dylan who stole it from me”

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