For those who “got” the Coen Brothers’ excellent film Inside Llewyn Davis—which chronicles a week in the life of a struggling folkie in Greenwich Village in 1961—you owe it to yourself to read the source material. The title character in the film is largely based on Dave Van Ronk, who was, himself, a bit larger than life.
Before he died of cancer in 2002, Van Ronk, an irascible and witty raconteur, talked his way through his life and career to fellow musician Elijah Wald. They were ultimately collaborating on a giant, if not definitive, book about what really happened during the “Great Folk Scare” of the early 1960s.
Unfortunately, Van Ronk died and Wald was left with hundreds and hundreds of pages of transcripts, notes and archival material. Somehow, he was able to patch together an engrossing and entertaining memoir, called The Mayor of MacDougal Street, and it is that book that inspired the Coen Brothers to create the character Llewyn Davis and put him through some of the same paces, highs and lows that Van Ronk encountered during the early years of his career.
Van Ronk comes off as more of a hipster than a folkie. An exceptionally well read, self-taught man (he dropped out of high school in Brooklyn at 15), he loved to argue about politics and music and stayed true to his socialist convictions. Every page of this book contains some new twist on that cultural epoch known as the 1960s that forces readers to reexamine their own preconceptions. You can’t ask more from a book than that.
Da Capo has wisely just reissued the memoir in a handsome trade paperback edition, with an explanatory postscript by Wald. Perhaps future editions of this will come with a CD compilation of Van Ronk’s songs, culled from his more than two dozen albums.
Visit Elijah Wald‘s website to learn more about Van Ronk, order the book, and listen to some of the “Mayor’s” music.