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Not Van Ronk—von Schmidt
Eric von Schmidt in 1965.
An essay by Joe Boyd
While it’s true that Inside Llewyn Davis takes some of its plot from The Mayor of MacDougal Street (Elijah Wald’s book about Dave Van Ronk), the Coen Brothers never intended the character portrayed by young, skinny Oscar Isaac to bear much resemblance to gruff, burly Van Ronk. This hasn’t prevented re-evaluations of Van Ronk’s music appearing in both The New York Times and The Guardian, explaining to younger generations his importance as a folk-blues singer and an influence on the young Bob Dylan.
Before proceeding further, I’d better declare my interest. I knew Van Ronk and heard him play a number of times, but was never a fan. From my youthfully opinionated 1962 perspective, I disliked the path he laid out for younger white folk singers to butcher the blues: scratchy voice, “red-hot-mama” clichés, plunky Josh-White-influenced guitar picking.
In White Bicycles, I wrote about waking on the morning of November 22, 1963, hearing about the killing of President Kennedy and rousing Dave, who was sleeping on my couch in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His reaction was to gloat that “chickens” were “coming home to roost,” and then to turn over and go back to sleep.
Having read a good deal about the assassination since, I have to admit that whether he was referring to Kennedy’s reliance on Sam Giancana’s Cook County machine to deliver Illinois’ electoral votes or his green-lighting of the CIA’s Castro overthrow mission and then scuppering it, Dave may have actually had a point. At the time, however, his response was not endearing.
Van Ronk ended up on my sofa because, following a Boston area gig, he, along with me and my roommate Geoff Muldaur and a few other denizens of Harvard Square, had joined a poker game at the apartment of Eric von Schmidt. It had gone on too late for him to rouse his planned local hosts, so at 5am, Geoff and I offered him our sofa.
Von Schmidt was a singer and songwriter who made a number of records but has never had much of a reappraisal or revival. He resembled Van Ronk in a number of ways: Germanic-prefixed surname, beard, raspy voice, blues-ish repertoire, and father figure to a generation of young singers—including Bob Dylan. The similarity ends there. Eric was not without his dark corners, but he was a generous and open guy, a successful painter and illustrator, and he helped lead the Boston-area folk scene away from the Greenwich Village pitfalls.