Before the Flood: Llewyn Davis, Dave Van Ronk, and the Village Folk Scene of 1961

By Elijah Wald

The Greenwich Village of Llewyn Davis is not the thriving scene that produced Peter, Paul and Mary and changed the world when Bob Dylan went electric. It is the folk scene in the dark ages before the hits and money arrived, when a small coterie of true believers traded old songs like a secret language. Most were local kids or voyagers from the suburbs of Long Island and New Jersey, fleeing the dullness and conformity of the Eisenhower 1950s to a Bohemian life in lower Manhattan, where a two-person hole-in-the-wall could still be had for twenty-five dollars a month.

Some details of the movie suggest familiar figures—Llewyn’s Welsh name recalls Dylan, and like Phil Ochs he crashes on the couch of a singing couple named Jim and Jean. But the story takes place in the moment before Dylan and Ochs arrived, when no one imagined the Village becoming the center of a folk boom that would produce international superstars and change the course of popular music. This moment of transition—before the arrival of the 60s as we know them—was captured by one of the central figures on that scene, Dave Van Ronk, in his memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street, which the Coen Brothers mined for local color and for a few key episodes of this week in Llewyn’s life. Llewyn is not Van Ronk, but he sings some of Van Ronk’s songs and shares his background as a working class kid who split his life between playing guitar and shipping out in the Merchant Marine.

Llewyn also shares Van Ronk’s love and respect for authentic folk music, old songs polished by the ebb and flow of oral tradition. For Van Ronk’s generation, the well-worn authenticity of folk provided a profound contrast to the ephemeral confections of the pop music world, and the choice to play folk was almost like joining a religious order—complete with a vow of poverty, since there were virtually no jobs in New York for anyone who sounded like a traditional folk artist. That would change in the early 1960s, and already in early 1961, when Inside Llewyn Davis takes place, there were glimmerings of the world to come—a few small clubs where people could play once in a while for tips, and some little record companies that—though they might not pay much—were at least willing to record the real stuff. Van Ronk recalled that time with a mix of wry humor and deep affection—like Llewyn he was living hand to mouth and sleeping on couches, but he was surrounded by people for whom the music mattered more than anything else.

That dedication made the late 1950s a key period. Young musicians studied old records to capture the grit and rawness of Delta blues and Appalachian ballads, then found ways to make that music express their own feelings and desires. Most of them did not go on to professional careers, or even make a record. They were devoted amateurs, ignored by the outside world but fired by youthful optimism. Van Ronk remembered, “We had no doubt that we were the cutting edge of the folk revival—but bear in mind, we were in our late teens and early twenties, and if you do not feel you are the cutting edge at that age, there is something wrong with you. Of course we were the wave of the future—we were 21!”

The center of this scene was not a club or coffeehouse, but Washington Square Park, where a heterogeneous mix of folk aficionados gathered every Sunday to play for each other and whoever wandered by. Kids from politically progressive summer camps would be singing union songs, young Zionist socialists would be doing Israeli folk dances, and a banjoist named Roger Sprung led the first wave of urban bluegrass musicians. No one even opened a guitar case for donations; although there was already a commercial folk scene—with songs like The Kingston Trio’s rendition of “Tom Dooley” at the top of the pop charts—to the Village players the folk on the radio represented the bland conformity and commercial culture they were trying to escape. As Van Ronk recalled, “We knew about the Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte and their hordes of squeaky-clean imitators, but we felt like that was a different world that had nothing to do with us. Most of those people couldn’t play worth a damn and were indifferent singers, and as far as material was concerned they were scraping the top of the barrel, singing songs that we had all learned and dropped already. It was Sing Along with Mitch and the Fireside Book of Folk Songs, performed by sophomores in paisley shirts, and it was a one hundred percent rip-off: they were ripping off the material, they were ripping off the authors, composers, collectors, and sources, and they were ripping off the public.”

While the pop-folkies ruled in suburbia and on Midwestern college campuses, the amateurs in Washington Square were shaping a new aesthetic of authenticity. Individual singers staked out spots to sing blues or southern mountain ballads, and Van Ronk recalled that they formed a sort of clique within the clique: “We banded together for mutual support, because we didn’t make as much noise as the other groups, and we hated them all—the Zionists, the summer camp kids, and the bluegrassers—every last, dead one of them. Of course, we hated a lot of people in those days.”

The aesthetic of those ballad and blues singers would shape artists like Dylan, Ochs, Joan Baez, and Joni Mitchell, and later influenced the folk-rock innovations of the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Byrds, and even the Rolling Stones. (In Britain, a similar scene produced Ewan MacColl, whose “Shoals of Herring” Llewyn sings to his aging father.) But in the late 1950s most of them would have been horrified to think they might inspire a pop or rock trend. They were a band of purehearted refugees from the American mainstream, proud of their secret knowledge.

Van Ronk wryly dubbed his crowd the “neo-ethnics,” and to some extent they were a folk equivalent of the “early music” movement in the classical world (a movement the movie nods to in Llewyn’s dinner with uptown academic friends, where he meets a fellow guest who plays in a group called Musica Anticha). For the neo-ethnics, the bible was a set of six LPs assembled by a beatnik eccentric named Harry Smith from recordings made by rural southern musicians in the 1920s and issued in 1952 as The Anthology of American Folk Music. Van Ronk recalled, “Those records changed everything, because the previous generation had liked folk songs, but sang them like trained concert singers. For us, what mattered was authenticity, reproducing the traditional ethnic styles all the way down to getting the accent right.”

Like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott before him and Bob Dylan a couple of years later, Van Ronk sang in the rough, raspy styles of his rural heroes. Some of his friends were more willing to compromise with modern, urban tastes—the women on the scene tended to sing in clear sopranos rather than sounding like aged farmwives—but they all studied old records and books of ancient ballads, and mastered archaic instruments like the Appalachian dulcimer.

Paul Clayton, a handsome, bearded man (whose look provides the template for Justin Timberlake’s Jim Berkey), was the most popular neo-ethnic. A prolific recording artist with a degree in folklore, he influenced many other artists, including Dylan, who reworked one of his songs into “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” But the fact that so few people remember him today is a reminder that in this period folk music was still a very minor part of Village nightlife. In October of 1961, when Dylan got his big break at Folk City—the only folk club of that period that had a liquor license, and the model for the bar in Llewyn Davis—there were only two other New York venues advertising named folk performers, and both featured older cabaret-style artists. The important clubs were sticking to jazz: Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Horace Silver, Herbie Mann—and as a reminder of how fast things were changing, Silver and Mann were on a double bill with Aretha Franklin as the opening act.

What gave the folksingers a foothold in this world was that the tough New York cabaret laws included an “incidental music” clause designed for restaurant background music, which said that no license was needed for groups that had less than four people and did not include wind, brass, or percussion instruments. That meant a club could feature poets or folksingers without meeting the arcane licensing strictures and high fees required for jazz groups. Of course, poets and folksingers could not attract the audiences that jazz was drawing, but by the late 1950s a lot of people had heard about the weird beatniks in Greenwich Village and were coming down just to see the freak show. (For a while the Village Voice even ran a weekly ad for a “Rent-a-Beatnik” service that would send a bearded, bereted hipster to liven up suburban parties.)

The Village’s first full-time folk club was a blatant tourist trap called the Café Bizarre, and Van Ronk, who played its opening night in 1957, recalled, “It was selling the squares a Greenwich Village that had never existed. The ambiance was cut-rate Charles Addams haunted house: dark and candle-lit, with fake cobwebs hanging all over everything. The waitresses were got up to look like Morticia, with fishnet stockings, long straight hair, and so much mascara that they looked like raccoons.” The Bizarre was soon followed by the Café Wha?, which advertised itself with a picture of a beatnik in beret, beard, and sunglasses and listed the entertainment as “folk singing, comedy, calypso, poetry, and congas” in “the Village’s swingingest coffeehouse.” Since the musicians were just there as part of the bigger freak show, the owners generally saw no reason to pay them—someone would just pass a basket for tips, and the performers divided the take.

Another advantage of the coffeehouse concept was that bars had to close at one a.m., but a coffeehouse could stay open as long as there were customers. As a result, performers were expected to play five or six sets a night, and Van Ronk remembered them as the most grueling places he ever worked—but also as a terrific training ground: “We had so much opportunity to try out our stuff in public, get clobbered, figure out what was wrong, and go back and try it again. It was brutally hard work, because these crowds of tourists usually started out at the bars and by the time they got around to us they were completely loaded. So we would be playing for audiences of fifty or a hundred drunken suburbanites who really could not have cared less about the music—they were there to see the freaks and raise some hell. In that kind of situation, you either learn how to handle yourself onstage or you go into some other line of work, and the people who stuck it out became thoroughly seasoned pros.”

The tourists thought of folksingers and beat poets as part of the same crazy culture, but when Van Ronk talked about the people his crowd hated, the beatniks were only a few steps behind the suburban squares, and the dislike was mutual: “The beats liked cool jazz, bebop, and hard drugs, and hated folk music, which to them was all these fresh-faced kids sitting around on the floor and singing songs of the oppressed masses. When a folksinger would take the stage between two beat poets, all the finger-poppin’ mamas and daddies would do everything but hold their noses. Then, when the beat poets would get up and begin to rant, all the folk fans would do likewise.” (You can get a taste for this clash in the movie, in the contempt with which John Goodman’s hip jazzman and Garrett Hedlund’s beat poet chauffeur treat Llewyn on their journey to Chicago.).

There was also a generational clash between the young folksingers and the older businessmen they depended on for their livelihood. Moe Asch of Folkways Records, model for the movie’s Mel, was revered by the young musicians for recording Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Lead Belly, but he was a hard-nosed, old-fashioned businessman—as in the movie, he once tried to foist his winter coat on Van Ronk in lieu of royalties.

Albert Grossman, model for the movie’s Bud Grossman, was equally tough. He opened Chicago’s Gate of Horn in 1956 as a folk nightclub featuring established artists like the Clancy Brothers, a quartet of Irish singers in white sweaters who are briefly referenced in the movie. Van Ronk’s crowd hated anything that smacked of show-biz, and dismissed these artists as overly slick: “If you weren’t staring into the sound-hole of your instrument, we thought you should at least have the decency and self-respect to stare at your shoes.” Such self-righteous purism made no sense to Grossman, whose appreciation for folk music did not distract him from the bottom line. Like Llewyn, Van Ronk suffered a humiliating audition in Grossman’s club—and like Llewyn, he received a tantalizing offer to join a trio Grossman was forming, which became Peter, Paul and Mary.

In 1960, no one who knew anything about the music business wanted to take a chance on people who sounded like Van Ronk or Dylan, or on sincere singers like Llewyn who felt the material should speak for itself. Mike Porco, the real-life counterpart of the movie’s charmingly cynical Poppie Corsicatto, was a rare exception, but that was because he didn’t know anything about music. He had been running a bar called Gerde’s on a block of factory loft buildings, and since he didn’t have a lot of evening business he agreed to let Izzy Young, who ran a small store called the Folklore Center on MacDougal Street, host a few concerts there. Young presented older traditional musicians like Reverend Gary Davis and young neo-ethnics like Van Ronk on a non-profit basis, giving all the money to the musicians. Izzy’s evenings at Gerde’s drew enough of a crowd that Porco sensed a business opportunity; he took over the booking, renamed the place Gerde’s Folk City, and for a while it was the only bar in the Village that regularly featured folksingers. Since he sold liquor, Porco could afford to pay the musicians, which made it a more attractive gig than the “basket houses,” and made it a convenient hang-out for Van Ronk and his friends on nights off. As in the film, this could be a mixed blessing. Van Ronk remembered: “The people seated in front knew that they were watching a show but the people at the bar would act like they were in another room. When that place was crowded, it was one of the toughest rooms I have ever seen.”

If one wanted to precisely date Inside Llewyn Davis, the bookends would be the opening of Folk City in January 1960 and Dylan’s arrival a year later. That was the last period of calm before the storm: over the next few years the folk scene exploded, till there were almost three dozen folk clubs within a couple of blocks of MacDougal Street. Even in 1960, musicians were beginning to drift in from all over the country. Tom Paxton, model for the movie’s Troy Nelson, came from Oklahoma and played on weekends while doing his military service at Fort Dix. He was a new kind of folksinger; his interest lay less in learning old songs than in writing new ones—like “The Last Thing on My Mind,” which Stark Sands sings in the film—and he was a key figure in the evolution from neo-ethnics to singer-songwriters.

That evolution has gotten most of the historical attention, thanks to Dylan, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and the other poetic wordsmiths who gravitated to the Village in the next few years, mixing the musical aesthetic of the folk crowd with the literary aesthetic of the beats. It was not an instant shift: when Izzy Young sponsored Dylan’s first concert at Carnegie Recital Hall in 1961, it attracted barely fifty listeners. His nasal voice and whining harmonica were too raw and abrasive for a mainstream audience, and even after Peter, Paul, and Mary made “Blowin’ in the Wind” a national hit in 1963, nobody could imagine Dylan becoming a pop star in his own right. When his career finally took off a couple of years later, he sounded as baffled as everyone else: “I once thought the biggest I could ever hope to get was like Van Ronk, but it’s bigger than that now, ain’t it?”

By that time, the world of Inside Llewyn Davis had all but disappeared. The small band of true believers crashing on each other’s couches and swapping songs till dawn was replaced by a wave of new arrivals with dreams of folk stardom. By 1965, Van Ronk was the only old New Yorker left on the set, and the intimate Greenwich Village where the singers all knew each other, played together, sometimes slept with each other and broke each other’s hearts, seemed as ancient and far away as the Mississippi sharecroppers’ shacks and Appalachia cabins of the 1920s had seemed to him and his young peers in Washington Square.

Elijah Wald is a musician and writer who spent much of his teens sleeping on Dave Van Ronk’s couch near the corner of Fourth Street and Seventh Avenue, and co-authored The Mayor of MacDougal Street.

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