Dave Van Ronk

Sings Ballads, Blues and a Spiritual

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As heard on this, his debut album for Folkways Records, Dave Van Ronk's approach to performing traditional folk songs and blues tunes is sufficiently unusual to require a sleeve note from the singer to justify it. Unlike other white, Northern, urban folksingers, who perform such material but do so in their own natural voices, Van Ronk takes much of his style from the black, Southern, rural singers who have performed it before him. Pete Seeger, Folkways' flagship artist, also sings "John Henry," for instance, but he sounds like the well-educated, polished performer he is, and renders the song rather than investing himself in it emotionally. Van Ronk sings the same song as if he were a black blues singer. His justification is that he first encountered such songs as performed by such singers, citing Furry Lewis, King Solomon Hill, and Leadbelly, and noting "when I tried to sing these songs I naturally imitated what I heard." Of course, Seeger, who actually knew Leadbelly, could have taken the same approach had he wanted to. Van Ronk reveals more of his stance by referring to the "white approach" (the quotation marks are his), which he contrasts to his way, the "right way" (again, his quotes). Actually, listening to this album, it's hard to imagine Van Ronk even being able to take the white approach, even though he is himself white, since his voice is such a gravel-filled croak. By aping black singers, he is able to use his limited instrument to expressive effect, practically whispering one moment and roaring the next. So, it may be that the way he "naturally" took to performing is really that; he couldn't sing like Seeger if he wanted to, but he can sing in a way that serves the material and, despite the attempt at imitation, comes off as his own individual sound.