For a change of pace from our usual entries, here’s a commentary just posted on Counterpunch by Brian Tokar. The original title was “Dave Van Ronk’s story is much better than Llewyn Davis’ – and a lot more fun,” and Counterpunch shortened it to “The Real Van Ronk.” Tokar compares the acclaimed Coen Brothers’ film, Inside Llewyn Davis with Van Ronk’s memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, and concludes that the latter is far superior. Here’s a short excerpt:
First and foremost, what Van Ronk’s book thoroughly exudes and the film completely misses is the cooperative, community-centered spirit of the time. I’m sure the early folk scene had its share of schleps and even borderline sociopaths, but for the most part, Van Ronk shows us how the rediscovery of folk music was a joyful, collective endeavor. People gathered in Washington Square Park by the score, and eventually by the hundreds, to share songs from blues to hymns to bluegrass. In the late fifties, when commercial venues still had zero interest in folk music, other than the show-biz variety represented by Burl Ives and Theo Bikel, Van Ronk and his friends created the Folksingers Guild to develop venues of their own.
In the early years, people fleeing the suburbs and outer boroughs shared astonishingly cheap Village walk-ups. When droves of itinerant musicians started arriving in New York in the sixties, they did often sleep on couches like Llewyn Davis, and Van Ronk – married and a little older than many of his peers – hosted them all. Terri Thal, Van Ronk’s first wife, summed up what’s most lacking about the Llewyn Davis story in an article for the Village Voice and L.A. Weekly. First, she condemned the film’s casual – even cavalier – attitude toward abortion, something no one was the least bit casual about in the pre-Rowe v. Wade era. Then she took on the film as a whole, stating, “There’s no suggestion that these people love the music they play, none that they play music for fun or have jam sessions, not a smidgen of the collegiality that marked that period.” Once you’ve read Van Ronk, that’s one central flaw of the film that you just can’t overlook.