Beyond Llewyn Davis

by Roger Catlin

Like the down-on-his-luck lead character, the Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis was ignored and abused as well, at least when it came to Academy Awards nominations. But the well-observed tale of a specific time in folk music – the folk boom just before of Greenwich Village just before Bob Dylan landed – has a shot of being one of the standout Coen Brothers films that, like Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou? and The Big Lebowski, has a shot of being a touchstone for decades to come.

But how accurate is its musicology? Historians, including folk singer Dave Van Ronk himself, whose Mayor of MacDougal Street provided the film's basis, will say that the era around Washington Square park was a time for all manner of music, from bebop to traditional jazz to blues.

It is acoustic folk, some of it borrowed from Van Ronk himself, that provides the rich (and recommended) soundtrack to the film. The set was produced by T Bone Burnett, who previously gave bluegrass a boost with his O Brother soundtrack.
Where does one go to further appreciate the songs of the East Village era?

A first stop may be that roots treasure of Harry Smith, Anthology of American Folk Music, reissued on CD by Smithsonian Folkways in 1997, with scratchy old tracks from A.P. Carter and the Carter Family, Uncle Dave Macon and bluesmen like Furry Lewis and Charley Patton that were studied so closely in Greenwich Village.

Dave Van Ronk (1936-2002) heard only as the credits roll on Llewyn Davis, is a great artist to discover too, as the actor Oscar Isaac found out. With nimble fingerpicking and a ragged bullfrog's voice (as opposed to the actor's smooth approach), Van Ronk's love for ragtime and traditional jazz were also part of his approach. It's well collected recently in the timely three disc Down on Washington Square: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection that covers his nearly half-century career with recordings spanning 1958 to just a year before his death in 2002 at 68.

Fans of the movie may want, for novelty's sake, the album whose cover was so carefully restaged for the movie and whose name lent the film its title, Inside Dave Van Ronk from 1962. His other album from that year, Folksinger, is included in the CD.

Bob Dylan was one of the young folksingers taken under Van Ronk's wing when he came to the village in 1961. What he absorbed from the scene, and the blues and folk songs he learned, are evident in his debut album, particularly in the arrangement of "House of the Rising Sun," which, according to legend, he copped from Van Ronk (and would be lifted again in the hit by The Animals. As well known as he would be for songwriting, the debut Bob Dylan album contained only two original songs, one of which, "Song to Woody" paid homage to his idol Woody Guthrie.

Tim Hardin (1941-1980) was also mostly playing blues when he was playing in the Village in 1961. The Oregon native wasn't signed to a label until four years later. Enduring songs like "Reason to Believe" and "If I were a Carpenter" were among his earliest compositions.

The 22-year-old Judy Collins was a favorite at Gerdes Folk City when she released her first album in 1961, A Maid of Constant Sorrow, in which she covered traditional songs including the title song, where she flipped the gender of the 100-year-old old-timey standard "Man of Constant Sorrow."

Simon & Garfunkel sang of the area in their song "Bleecker Street" from their debut album Wednesday Morning, 3 AM. Besides its harmonic beauty, the song is striking for its real estate report "$30 will pay your rent on Bleecker Street" (it's about $2,300 now). The song made no immediate impact on the scene, Van Ronk said in his book. In fact, the duo had given up and split ways until someone put a drum track on another of its songs and "The Sound of Silence" relaunched their career.

Phil Ochs (1940-1976) came to the Village from Ohio in 1962 and quickly established himself as one of the most pointed political songwriters. With similar influences as Bob Dylan, from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to early rock 'n' roll, Ochs stuck with topical themes long after Bob Dylan had moved beyond them. Amazingly prolific, he also had a clear and rich vibrato tenor that set him apart.

One of the last surviving members of the early '60s Greenwich Village folk scene, Eric Andersen, who recorded such songs as "Thirsty Boots" and "Violets of Dawn," didn't come to the Village until 1964, at the behest of Tom Paxton, after seeing him play in San Francisco. After 45 albums, Andersen is still touring at age 72.

Tim Buckley (1947-1975), known some generations later as father to Jeff Buckley, had an ethereal voice and deeply cutting songwriting style. He didn't come to Greenwich Village until 1966, when he was 19, playing an extended gig at the Night Owl before he recorded his first demo that led to his Elektra contract, producing albums like Goodbye and Hello and Starsailor, and songs such as "Morning Glory."

Like Llwen Davis, Fred Neil (1936-2001) was once part of a duo; his was with Vince Martin. A beloved figure on the street, whose first solo album in 1965 was titled Bleecker & MacDougal, Neil was a songwriter whose work was occasionally recorded by other artists from Buddy Holly ("Come Back Baby") to Roy Orbison ("Candyman"). He wouldn't be wider known to the public until a Harry Nilsson recording of his "Everybody's Talkin'" was featured in the 1969 Dustin Hoffman movie Midnight Cowboy.

Before he moved to San Francisco to write "Get Together" and be part of Quicksilver Messenger Service, Dino Valenti (1937-1994) performed in the East Village under his original name, Chet Powers, contributing the song "Something on Your Mind" to his friend Karen Dalton. Born to circus folk on the road, he also wrote under the name Jesse Otis Farrow.

Ramblin' Jack Elliott, like Adam Driver's character Al Cody in Llewyn Davis, was a Jewish kid who put on a cowboy hat and renamed himself. He kicked around with Woody Guthrie, returned to the East Village and became an influence on Dylan as well. The subject of a 2000 documentary by his daughter titled The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, he released his most recent album I Stand Alone in 2009 at the age of 75.

A blind guitarist, bluesman and gospel singer The Rev. Gary Davis (1896-1972) was a highly influential performer and teacher in the early '60s, contributing such songs as "Samson and Delilah," sometimes known as "If I Had My Way." His finger-picking style was also picked up by many and he also played a mean harmonica.

Another bluesman who hung around New York, was "rediscovered" at the Newport Folk Festival and influenced many with his intricate fingerpicking style was Mississippi John Hurt (1892-1966).

After doing some recordings for Okeh records in the 1920s, two of his early songs, "Frankie" and "Spike Driver Blues" (a variation on "John Henry") were included on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. By that time Hurt had returned to being a sharecropper, performing only occasionally at parties. When a couple of ambitious musicologists set out to find him down South, they encouraged him to come north to play Washington DC in 1963. After he played the Newport Folk Festival that year, he was in demand to perform until his death in 1966.

February 19, 2014
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