The inspiration for the new Coen brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, Dave Van Ronk (1936-2002), was the unofficial leader of the Greenwich Village folk music scene in the late fifties and early sixties. Unlike most of the New York-based performers, Van Ronk was a New York native who grew up in Queens and Brooklyn. He developed a love for jazz and blues at a young age, and frequented the Washington Square Park folk singing sessions. Though he had seen very little of the country until he was in his twenties, Van Ronk became deeply enamored of music from the American heartland.
Van Ronk describes both the political and musical underpinnings of the folk revival in the fifties. Like others in the Greenwich Village scene, his political leanings drifted between socialism and anarchism as he experimented with different musical genres. After a brief stint in the Merchant Marines, he gave up regular employment for good, and became a professional folksinger. Ironically, most folk musicians who came to New York had to play gigs in other cities--particularly Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles--to make ends meet. Most Greenwich Village performers played for tourists who were looking for the beatnik culture they had read about in On the Road.
By the sixties, folk music began to be seen as a commercial enterprise. Folk musicians whom Van Ronk had mentored--Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Joni Mitchell and Tom Paxton--became stars. Van Ronk was offered, and declined, a part in the trio that later would become Peter, Paul and Mary. Folksingers were expected to write their own material, and Van Ronk was primarily known as an interpreter of other artists' work. After The Beatles came on the scene, there was a shift toward folk-rock, and traditional folksingers had become passé.
Van Ronk wrote his memoir to describe a seminal era that few now remember. Elijah Wald reconstructed the work after Van Ronk passed away, giving shape to the stories of a first-rate raconteur. Van Ronk has written the definitive chronicle of the Greenwich Village folk revival.