Dave Van Ronk's death in 2002 took away one of the key architects of the Great Folk Revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and while Van Ronk never made the kind of broad cultural impact that younger musicians like Bob Dylan or Joan Baez made at the time, his steady mentoring is everywhere apparent in the urban folk movement of the day. Known as a gruff-voiced singer of blues and folk songs, and as a skilled acoustic guitar player, Van Ronk was actually a jazz player at heart, and his fondness of the genre -- particularly ragtime -- informs his music in surprising and subtle ways. This retrospective of previously unreleased material ("Salty Dog" appeared on an LP credited to Van Ronk's one-off jug band, the Orange Blossom Jug Five, in the 1950s, but has been out of print ever since) is arranged chronologically, beginning with some casual apartment recordings made in 1957, and ending with a live track by Van Ronk's wacky psychedelic rock band, the Hudson Dusters, from 1969, and is intended to be an aural complement to Van Ronk's memoir of the period, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, which was released by Da Capo Press in 2005. Van Ronk had a wider musical palette than many people realized, and the selections here include unaccompanied English ballads ("The Cruel Ship's Captain"), jazz-blues hybrids ("Willie the Weeper"), unhinged folk rock ("Romping Through the Swamp"), Bahaman lullabies ("All My Trials"), jug band material ("Salty Dog"), Brecht-Weill compositions ("As You Make Your Bed"), and even a short impression of W.C. Fields holding forth on the benefits of always carrying a snake. Van Ronk was never a part of the tradition-at-all-costs wing of the folk movement, and he readily embraced the young songwriters of the day, frequently covering their songs, as evidenced by the hushed, nuanced version of Leonard Cohen's "Bird on the Wire" that is included here. A skilled raconteur, Van Ronk had the timing of a jazz hornman, and that timing and his wide-ranging musical interests are everywhere apparent on this lovingly assembled look behind the curtains.
AllMusic Review by Steve Leggett