Dave Van Ronk
No Dirty Names
Rating: 4.5 stars
If you asked your average music fan about the legacy of Dave Van Ronk, chances are they might know him best for his historical importance as a sort of beloved uncle on the New York folk scene in the ’60s, where he mentored Bob Dylan among many others. That view might be accurate but it also mitigates the uniformly fine material he released as a recording artist in his own right.
A recent reissue series is a fine way for new fans to get into the Van Ronk oeuvre, and 1966’s No Dirty Names is as good a place as any to start. It’s emblematic of the albums he would release throughout his career: A bunch of well thought-out interpretations of a vast cross-section of songwriters. There are no blatant stabs at commercial relevance; Van Ronk was a folkie to the core, far more concerned about carrying on that tradition than grabbing for the pop charts.
What stands out on No Dirty Names is the versatility that Van Ronk possessed. His voice could be a hearty growl, as on “Blues Chante,” yet it could also be a tender, almost delicate trill, as on “Song Of The Wandering Aengus.” As a result, what could have been a flat collection of similar-sounding material keeps the listener surprised throughout.
Notable among the songs included here is “The Old Man,” written by Dylan but not released by him until a rare version was unearthed on The Bootleg Series as “Man In The Street.” Van Ronk does his buddy proud with his tempered delivery of the song, letting the plainspoken tale do all the work.
It is a lot of fun to see Van Ronk ricochet from genre to genre. I don’t think you’ll find too many collections that include tracks by Dylan, Dizzy Gillespie, William Butler Yeats, and in a killer version of “Alabama Song” that I have to think Jim Morrison must have heard, Brecht/Weill. Yet all of these disparate styles are brought together seamlessly in Van Ronk’s skilled hands.
While some may take more to Van Ronk’s rollicking side, as shown on album opener “One Meatball,” what makes the album stand out are his quieter moments. His takes on “Midnight Hour Blues” and “Mean World Blues” spotlight his intricate acoustic guitar work and world-weary vocals that seem like they’re coming from someone much older than 30 years of age, which is how old Dave was when he laid this disc down.
A full-scale Dave Van Ronk revival might be in the offing, considering that the Coen Brothers newest movie, called Inside Llewyn Davis, is said to be loosely based on his life. Heaven knows what the makers of The Big Lebowski will do with his life story, but if it brings more listeners to work the caliber of No Dirty Names, more power to it. Or you can grab this album before then and hear for yourself why Van Ronk was just as authoritative on the mike as he was avuncular on the scene.