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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Man Who Inspired ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

Armed with guitar, mike and enthusiasm, folk singer Dave Van Ronk performs at the Gaslight coffee house in New York's Greenwich Village on Nov. 8, 1963. (AP)

Armed with guitar, mike and enthusiasm, folk singer Dave Van Ronk performs at the Gaslight coffee house in New York’s Greenwich Village on Nov. 8, 1963. (AP)

The new Coen brothers’ movie “Inside Llewyn Davis” has brought new attention to the folk scene in New York’s Greenwich Village prior to the emergence of Bob Dylan.

The brothers took inspiration from the real-life folk singer Dave Van Ronk, who released the album “Inside Dave Van Ronk” in 1963 and died in 2002.

Van Ronk’s posthumous memoir “The Mayor of MacDougal Street,” which he wrote with his student, Elijah Wald, provided some source material for the Coen brothers.

But as Wald tells Here & Now’s Robin Young, the movie character himself is not at all based on Von Ronk, though he thinks Van Ronk would have been pleased by how the movie evokes that particular time and place.

Interview Highlights: Elijah Wald

On what Dave Van Ronk would think of the movie

“I think he would be really pleased because it isn’t a movie about him – it’s a movie about the time and place. And when we were writing this book, he died very early in it, and so it ended up being a book about much more about him than he planned. He wanted it, really, to be an evocative book about that moment in Greenwich Village.”

On the range of Van Ronk’s music

“He had no particular affection for folk music. He loved the old jazz – it was the old New Orleans jazz. And really, when he moved on into Blues and then folk, he never left that behind. I mean, Jelly Roll Morton, who did the original version of ‘Winin Boy.’ Dave always felt like his guitar arrangements for folk and Blues stuff later on, were based more on the way Jelly Roll Morton would arrange piano parts than they were based on any old folk or Blues guitar stocks.”

On Van Ronk’s later music (1976 ‘Sunday Street’)

“What happened was, when the big money came in, Dave grabbed for the brass ring like everybody else. He made some albums, one with a rock band and a couple with larger orchestrations. By the early, mid ’70s, it was pretty clear that he hadn’t caught the brass ring and that he was back to the folk clubs. And for a moment, that was obviously not the best news on earth. But then he thought, ‘Okay. If I’m going to be doing this for the rest of my life, I need to make this better.’ ‘Sunday Street’ is kind of his masterpiece of just saying, ‘Okay. If I’m going to be by myself with a guitar doing Blues, let’s do a different kind of Blues.’”

On the movie coming out

“It’s very exciting. All of his material is back – it has been reissued, if only for download. This is the first time in history. I think with this coming out now, people are saying, ‘Oh, so there is this moment in the Village before Dylan and what was it like?’ Well – the king of it was Dave Van Ronk.”


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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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