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Meet the Folk Singer Who Inspired 'Inside Llewyn Davis'

Dave Van Ronk's memoir 'Mayor of MacDougal Street' inspired the Coen Brothers' latest film

Dave Van Ronk performs in New York City.
Kai Shuman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
December 2, 2013 1:20 PM ET

People who were close to Dave Van Ronk, the Greenwich Village folk-blues-jazz institution, had a feeling someone might be making a movie inspired by his life. A few years ago, Elijah Wald, who co-wrote Van Ronk's posthumous memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, heard that an unnamed filmmaker had optioned the rights to the book — but wasn't told who. Van Ronk's widow, Andrea Vuocolo Van Ronk, heard of the interest too, and finally had it confirmed when she came home from work one day: "There was a message on my machine from Joel Coen saying, 'We're going to start shooting and want to talk to you.'"

The Coen Brothers' Classic Folk Tale: Behind 'Inside Llewyn Davis'

The movie was Inside Llewyn Davis, Joel and his brother Ethan's film about a turbulent period in the life of its title character, a fictional Village folkie, during 1961. (After months of industry buzz, the movie opens this week.) Technically speaking, Davis isn't Van Ronk, a New York institution who died of colon cancer in 2002. Start with the way he looks. "I remember I got the audition and came in to the casting director," says compact-sized Oscar Isaac, who plays Davis, "and I knew it was loosely based on Dave Van Ronk, who was a 6'5" 250-pound Swede." Davis is also a much different singer than Van Ronk, who had a gruff, commanding style that was 180 degrees removed from Isaac's sonorous balladeering.

Yet the film has more than its share of nods to Van Ronk. In it and on the accompanying soundtrack album, Isaac sings three Van Ronk-associated songs, which he learned from one of the late singer's Village folk buddies. The faux-cover of Davis' "album" is a direct nod to Van Ronk's 1963 LP Inside Dave Van Ronk. "Hopefully people will see this movie and make that connection," says Jeff Place, head archivist at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Smithsonian/Folkways just released the three-disc retrospective Down in Washington Square, which includes Van Ronk recordings from the Fifties through some of his last sessions, cut shortly before his death. (One highlight of the latter is a bluesy cover of Bob Dylan's "Buckets of Rain.")

Born in Brooklyn in 1936, Van Ronk moved to the Village as a teenager and never left. Over five decades, he recorded scores of albums that blended blues, jazz, jug-band stomping, and sea chanteys. He was an early champion of Dylan and other up-and-coming songwriters like Joni Mitchell. When Joan Baez was beginning her own career in the Boston and Cambridge areas, she would hear reports of Van Ronk, who was a few years older than her. "He was already a myth," Baez says. "He had terrible teeth, but he had the most astonishing pitch, sweet little notes amidst the growly ones. I knew thousands of people who sang the blues, but there weren't many who did it well. He was the closest living offshoot of Leadbelly that I could get to see."

Although Van Ronk never sold anywhere near the amount of records his protégés did, he accumulated many boldface-name fans. In Chronicles Volume One, Dylan wrote that he'd first heard Van Ronk's records while growing up in the Midwest. "He was passionate and stinging," wrote Dylan, "sang like a solder of fortune and sounded like he paid the price. . . I loved his style." Tom Waits (whose voice recalls Van Ronk's) has long been an admirer, and Stephen King dropped Van Ronk's name in his novella Riding the Bullet.

Vuocolo Van Ronk, who met Van Ronk in the Seventies but didn't hook up with him until the early Eighties (Van Ronk was married before, to Terri Thal), recalls the time she and Van Ronk had just returned home to their Village apartment after a trip. There was a knock on the door, and expecting it to be Van Ronk, who'd run out for an errand, she opened it — and found Dylan standing there. "Dave around?" he asked. She invited him in and offered him coffee, and the two waited for Van Ronk to show up, after which the two men talked for hours. "I thought, 'Bob Dylan is sitting in my living room,'" says Vuocolo Van Ronk. "He seemed a little nervous, but he wanted to be alone with Dave, and Dave was very happy to see him."

Inside Llewyn Davis slips in more than a few details from Van Ronk's memoir. Like Van Ronk, Davis spends time in the merchant marines, schleps to Chicago to unsuccessfully audition for the famed Gate of Horn club, rejects the idea of joining a Peter, Paul and Mary-style folk group, and complains to the head of his record company that he's so broke he can't afford a winter coat.

'Inside Llewyn Davis' Soundtrack: The RS Review

Those close to Van Ronk insist that the troubled, largely solipsistic Davis, who spends the film dealing with a traumatic personal event, couldn't be further from Van Ronk. "That character is simply not Dave," says Wald. "People slept on his couch — he didn't sleep on theirs. And the reason Dave became who he was in the Village was the way he welcomed anyone who cared about the music. Llewyn is clearly not that guy."

Yet both Wald and Vuocolo Van Ronk think Van Ronk would have approved of the movie, since a part of Van Ronk always wanted to be more popular. (According to Wald, Van Ronk had the idea to record "The Gambler" before Kenny Rogers did but wasn't able to convince a record company to let him cut it.) And even if Inside Llewyn Davis isn't technically about her late, revered husband, Vuocolo Van Ronk says there's a small, tangible part of him in the film. During scenes set in the Upper West Side home of some of Davis' academic friends, she donated some of Van Ronk's collection of primitive art from New Guinea and the Pacific Northwest. "That was my way of sneaking Dave in," she says. "It's funny to see the movie and see pieces of our living room in there."

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