Remembering The Singing 'Mayor Of MacDougal Street' While the latest Coen brothers movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, isn't a biopic, it is inspired by the life of a real person: the late Dave Van Ronk. He was a folk and blues singer and a central figure in the folk revival of the early 1960s. NPR's Joel Rose has the story of the musician, who was known for his avuncular presence on the Greenwich Village scene.
NPR logo

Remembering The Singing 'Mayor Of MacDougal Street'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Remembering The Singing 'Mayor Of MacDougal Street'

Remembering The Singing 'Mayor Of MacDougal Street'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The filmmaking duo the Coen brothers took us bowling with "The Big Lebowski" to a grisly crime scene in "Fargo," and now to New York City's Greenwich Village. Their new movie is fiction. It's called "Inside Llewyn Davis." It was inspired by the 1960s folk music scene in the Village and a real life musician named Dave Van Ronk.

Let's learn more about his life from NPR's Joel Rose.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: In a scene from the Coen brothers' movie, the fictional Llewyn Davis sits on stage and sings a tune that the real Dave Van Ronk performed and recorded.


OSCAR ISAAC: (as Llewyn Davis) (Singing) Hang me. Oh, hang me. I'll be dead and gone...

ROSE: Like Van Ronk, the fictional Davis has dark hair and a beard, and spent some time in the Merchant Marine. And the album cover for the fictional LP, that gives the movie its title, looks just like the real 1963 LP, "Inside Dave Van Ronk." But that's where the similarities end.

ELIJAH WALD: Nothing about the character is like Dave Van Ronk.

ROSE: Elijah Wald is a writer and musician who took guitar lessons from Van Ronk.

WALD: You know, he was just this huge presence. I mean he was six foot three, 200-something pounds.

ROSE: Wald also helped write Van Ronk's posthumous memoir, titled "The Mayor of MacDougal Street,"' after the Greenwich Village street that was home to the Gaslight Cafe and other folk clubs in the early 1960s.

WALD: Dave was the king of that world. He really knew New York, he really knew history, he really knew music.

ROSE: Van Ronk also knew how to tell a story, a talent he displayed on stage between songs.

DAVE VAN RONK: I have often thought back and wondered: Just what would my reaction have been at age 17, if someone had told me I would go through most of my life being called a folk singer.


RONK: I probably would've slashed my wrists.


ROSE: Van Ronk never thought of himself as a folk singer.

RONK: What I really wanted - I wanted to play jazz in the worst way. And I did.


ROSE: Van Ronk grew up in Brooklyn and Queens. He moved to Greenwich Village as a teenager in the early 1950s and tried to make it playing in old-time jazz bands. But he found more success singing blues and folk songs in the clubs that were springing up in the village.


RONK: (Singing) If I had wings like Noah's dove...

ROSE: Van Ronk recorded a handful of well-received albums in the early 1960s. And Elijah Wald says he became a mentor to younger musicians including Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and Bob Dylan.

WALD: You have this wonderful quote that you find in the first biography of Bob Dylan, where he seemed to be taking off. And somebody said: You know, so how big do you think you can get? And he said: Well, I hope I could get to be as big as Dave Van Ronk.

ROSE: In fact, Dylan borrowed one of Van Ronk's arrangements for his first album.

RONK: He asked me if I would mind if he recorded my version of "House of the Rising Sun."


RONK: (Singing) There is a house in New Orleans they call the Rising Sun...

And I had some plans to record it. So I said, well. Gee, Bob, I'd rather you didn't because I'm going to record it myself soon. And Bobby said, uh-oh.

ROSE: Van Ronk was able to laugh about the incident years later in the Dylan documentary, "No Direction Home." Van Ronk says he had to stop playing the song because people thought he'd stolen it from Dylan.

RONK: Later on, when Eric Burdon and the Animals picked the song up from Bobby and recorded it, Bobby told me that he had to drop the song, because everybody was accusing him of ripping it off from Eric Burdon.


ROSE: Eventually Bob Dylan and most other fixtures of the folk music scene moved out of Greenwich Village. But Van Ronk stayed put, taking on students between gigs to pay the bills.

ANDREA VUOCOLO: We're sitting in my apartment, Dave's apartment in Greenwich Village.

ROSE: Andrea Vuocolo married Dave Van Ronk in 1988. She still lives in the small apartment they shared.

VUOCOLO: You also have to picture this apartment with about a thousand - seriously about 1,000 more books in it than there are now.

ROSE: The apartment is packed with her late husband's books, guitars, and his collections of African and Native American art. Vuocolo says her Van Ronk read voraciously. And he was also a keen observer of the neighborhood.

VUOCOLO: He did used to tell stories about the Village in the '50s and '60s. And there were a lot of people hanging around the clubs who were not musicians. You know, locals, a lot of petty thieves and odd characters. And he wanted to write more about, you know, the whole neighborhood.

ROSE: But Van Ronk died before he could write more than a few chapters of his memoir. Elijah Wald was able to finish the book, using a combination of interviews and stories Van Ronk had told from the stage. That's the book that inspired "Inside Llewyn Davis." The last time the Coen brothers built a movie around music, the soundtrack of "O Brother Where Art Thou" sold millions of copies and spurred an old-time music revival. Van Ronk's widow Andrea Vuocolo hopes this movie will do the same for her husband's legacy.

VUOCOLO: And it's very nice to just see people finally paying attention to his work more. And I think that would have been great for him - just to be noticed more, and have more people listen and understand what he was about.

ROSE: Dave Van Ronk did finish one biographical document before he died.


RONK: (Singing) When I go back to Baltimore, need no carpet on my floor. You come along, follow me. We'll go down to Galilee...

ROSE: His last concert was recorded in October of 2001, just months before he died of colon cancer. But you would never guess that from listening to his performance. Between songs, Van Ronk joked that there were lines around the block to see the Beat generation poets in Greenwich Village coffee houses.


RONK: This presented a logistical problem for the owners of the coffee houses: How to get people out of there...


RONK: ...and get new people in. So they hired folk singers.


RONK: They'd get up and sing three songs. If at the end of three songs, anybody was still seated, we could get fired. We turned the house over just like that.


ROSE: The tourists might have left. But when Dave Van Ronk started singing, the musicians stayed to listen.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.


RONK: (Singing) See that crow up in the sky? He don't walk. He just fly. He don't walk...

GREENE: That music is going to be in my head all day. And it's not a bad thing.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.


RONK: (Singing) I'm in green, green rocky road. You promenade in green. Tell me who you love. Tell me who love. Little Miss Jane, you run to the wall. Don't you stumble. Don't you fall and don't you sing...

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.