By David King Dunaway
In the late 1950s, Dave Van Ronk was walking through Washington Square Park in New York’s Greenwich Village on a Sunday afternoon. This Trotskyist-leaning jazz enthusiast from Queens thought the crowds huddled around guitars and banjos “irredeemably square.”
“We thought of it as ‘hillbilly shit,’ a bunch of guys who didn’t even know how to play their instruments and just got by with ‘cowboy chords.’ The little I heard while passing through the Square on Sundays confirmed my new-found snobbishness. It was essentially summer camp music, songs those kids learned at progressive camps that I think of generically as Camp Gulag on the Hudson.
“The sight and sound of all those happily howling petit-bourgeois Stalinists offended my assiduously nurtured self-image as a hipster….So for a couple of years I avoided the place like a plague, for fear of contamination. If I had to pass anywhere in the vicinity, I would walk through as quickly as possible, obviating any possibility that I might get sucked in by something like ‘Blue Tail Fly’ and shortly find myself dancing the Hora around the fountain and singing ‘Hey, Lolly, Lolly, Lo.’”
—Dave Van Ronk, The Mayor of MacDougal Street
By the time Inside Llewyn Davis begins in 1961, the film’s putative hero, Dave Van Ronk, was “King of the Street in Greenwich Village. He ruled supreme,” according to Bob Dylan. The film’s protagonist, on the other hand, hopes to break in, one of the many ways the film removes historical reality. Now moving from its Academy-qualifying run to theaters nationwide, the movie illustrates the fascinating question of what happens in historical fiction, when you separate the surroundings from the characters, the stage from the actors.
Inside Llewyn Davis challenges historians. Though musically adept, if not authentic, the film portrays the circumstances of the second folk music revival in the United States, that of the 1960s. Yet its lead character, aside from his hirsute looks, has very little in common with Dave Van Ronk, whose life the film closely follows.
There’s a joke on one of David Bromberg’s albums: the story of how he propositioned the right woman at the right time in the wrong place, after which her husband, the bartender…. With Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers have the right man in the right place, but in entirely in the wrong mood. Robert Cantwell’s analysis of the 60s revival, When We Were Good, is a lot closer.
The film tells the story of a young guitarist who sings folk tunes (drawn almost entirely from Van Ronk’s repertoire) who struggles to play his music, sleeping on couches wherever he can. But the number of living rooms open to him shrinks by the day, because of his boorishness. He continues to sing his soft, intense songs, as his world unravels about him.
Reviewers have been generally indulgent, calling it “a well-crafted look at the American folk music scene of the early 1960’s of sometimes hilarious dry comedy” (United Press). “If you love the Coens or follow folk music or hold fast to this period of history and that patch of New York, then the film can hardly help striking a chord” (The New Yorker). Slate called it “a dark Valentine to both its hero and his milieu.”
As one of those Washington Square kids gawking at the real Dave Van Ronk, one leg lifted to support his oversized guitar (a Gibson J-45, as opposed to the film’s diminutive instrument), I watched Dave hypnotize audiences with his soft, jazzy changes in “Cocaine” or a Reverend Gary Davis song.
Van Ronk was a big man with a big guitar and a big voice. Llewyn Davis is small, with small ambitions, a small guitar, and a small repertoire. Yes, he shipped out with the merchant marine, as Van Ronk did; yes, he sings Van Ronk’s songs in Dave’s precise arrangements. Yes he hangs out at Reggio’s and the Gaslight; and yes, the character and Von Ronk show a temper and a dry wit. Somehow the filmmakers have captured Van Ronk’s bad habits and repertoire, without his trademark growl, stature, or socialist politics.
Otherwise, the work includes actual personalities: Moe Asch at Folkways Records and his assistant, Marian Distler (an apparently accurate cameo, taken—as many as the details of the film are—from Van Ronk’s memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street). Folk groups like Jim and Jean, Albert Grossman, Jean Richie, Gordon Lightfoot, the Chieftains, Peter, Paul and Mary, and even the newly arrived Bob Dylan are either named or ruthlessly parodied. The interior of the Gaslight Café is spot-on. The camera is positioned as if the viewer sits in the coffee house, sipping then-exotic cappuccino. This setting becomes the origin of countless stereotypes of the urban folk singer—bearded, with scruffy, restless hair, a lone figure on an odyssey with a guitar or friendless at the bus-stop. This was where Beat met Hip in the early Sixties.
But actually, it was the Van Ronks, Dave and his wife Terri, who were the hospitable ones, putting up local couch-surfers such as Bob Dylan. And Van Ronk was actually a Left intellectual; he’s is known as co-author of the anti-Communist Bosses Songbook: Songs to Stifle the Flames of Discontent.
At the end, Llewyn Davis comes to the same conclusion Van Ronk does in his memoir: “After a few days of aimlessly banging around the Village, spending money like a drunken sailor (apt metaphor that) I decided I had no place here anymore, that there was a big world waiting for me, and that as soon as my money ran low I would ship out again. After all, what kind of future could I expect from music? I had been hacking away at it for three years and all I had to show for my trouble was a taste for Irish Whisky and a borderline case of malnutrition.”
David King Dunaway is the author and editor of eight volumes of history including Singing Out: An Oral History of America’s Folk Music Revivals and How Can I Keep From Singing: The Ballad of Pete Seeger. His numerous honors include the 2010 Stetson Kennedy Vox Populi award from the Oral History Association. He serves as professor of English at the University of New Mexico and distinguished professor of broadcasting at San Francisco State University.