I got excited when I first learned that the Coen Brothers, good Minnesota natives, were going to make a movie about folk-music world in Greenwich Village in 1961.
It would center on the life and times of a young folk singer trying to make it in the highly competitive corner of New York City.
Naturally, I thought it would be a film examining another famous Minnesotan, Bob Dylan, who arrived in New York City from the Midwest on a snowy afternoon in late January 1961 and promptly set the world on fire with his unique brand of folk music.
I don’t suspect I was the only one who associated Dylan closely with that scene. In fact, Dylan spends much of his time in his 2004 memoir “Chronicles, Volume 1,” reminiscing about the glorious time he had as a newcomer to Greenwich Village. It meant the world to him, quite obviously.
But the Coens have gone in a different direction. They’re apparently using Dave Van Ronk as their linchpin, He was the mentor to not only Dylan but other wannabe folk stars.
Van Ronk, as Dylan himself plainly points out in his book, was the king of the hill in early 1961. He was the most admired folkie on Bleecker Street and Dylan and the others watched him in fascination to pick up any tips in performing or singing.
The early reports from Cannes for the new Coen Brothers film have been quite favorable, in advance of its release later this year. I wonder how many journalists will bring Dylan into the conversation about this movie. Will that affect anyone’s perception of it?
Dylan and Van Ronk, who was five years older than Dylan, had an affectionate, big brother-little brother relationship. Dylan was effusive in his praise of Van Ronk in “Chronicles.” And when director Martin Scorsese filmed an interview with Van Ronk for his Dylan documentary, “No Direction Home,” Van Ronk had nice things to say about his protege, in his gruff/cheerful way of speaking.
The best part was when Van Ronk, who died at the age of 65 in 2002, remembered how Dylan had asked him if it was OK for him to record “House of the Rising Sun,” a folkie standard that Van Ronk played quite often but wasn’t much a signature part of Dylan’s repertoire at that point.
Van Ronk recalled telling Dylan that he wished he wouldn’t as Van Ronk himself intended to record it.
Dylan then informed Van Ronk he had already recorded it. When Dylan’s first album, containing the song, came out and became the talk of the Village, Van Ronk suddenly became accused of lifting Dylan’s material, which naturally irritated him. Van Ronk happily relayed Dylan got his comeuppance after The Animals made the song a radio favorite and everyone thought Dylan had taken it from Eric Burdon.
That anecdote tells a lot about Van Ronk’s lost place in the annals of popular music. No, he never made it big, like s many of his peers. In a way, his legacy has been overshadowed by that of Dylan. it’s too bad.
It looks like Dave Van Ronk will finally get his due, thanks to Joel and Ethan Coen.
— Jon Friedman is the author of “Forget About Today: Bob Dylan’s Genius for (Re)Invention, Shunning the Naysayers, and Creating a Personal Revolution,” which Penguin published in August 2012. For more information or to order a copy, click: http:jonfriedman.net