Dave Van Ronk (right) and the Hudson Dusters
I come to you today to bend your ear (eyes?) about one of my personal favorites, the mighty Dave Van Ronk.
If you know Van Ronk, it is probably by his presence in the New York folk scene of the 50s and 60s, where he was a master of acoustic blues and just about anything else he set his mind to.
Van Ronk (pause here to read his great autobiography ‘The Mayor of MacDougal Street’) was a musical polymath, starting out (and occasionally finding his way back to) trad jazz, acoustic blues, Brecht and Weill, and – as you’ll hear today – genuinely interesting 60s rock.
I first encountered Van Ronk back in 1976 or 77 when I saw him perform in a televised memorial concert for Phil Ochs. I remember my father having some passing knowledge and appreciation for Van Ronk, and over the ensuing decades I dug as deeply into his oeuvre as the depth of my pockets and the availability if his records allowed.
It wasn’t until the early 90s, when a career-encompassing anthology called ‘A Chrestomathy’ was released that I had any idea that he had ever departed from the folk blues for which he was best known.
I can recall vividly the way by brow arched when in the middle of the first CD the music moved from a traditional ballad to a truly demented/inspired cover of the Hollywood Argyles’ ‘Alley Oop’.
‘What is this?’I wondered as I grabbed for the liner notes.
There wasn’t much there except a mention of a few of the tracks having been recorded by a group called ‘Dave Van Ronk and the Hudson Dusters’.
There was no information out there on the group, and I figured I’d have to be happy with what I had on he comp, until I happened upon a copy of the group’s 1967 Verve LP at a record show.
I was thrilled until I saw the price tag (I seem to remember that it was well over $50.00, a lot more than I could afford), so I passed on it, and – as these things often play out – didn’t see another copy for almost 20 years.
Fortunately, when I finally did get the album it was around ten bucks (with the growth of the internet and Ebay shaking all kinds of obscurities out into the light).
Extra-double-fortunately when I got to listen to/digimatize the whole record I was very happy to discover that it was not only as good as the tracks I’d heard, but better.
‘Dave Van Ronk and the Hudson Dusters’ is that rare beast, in which an artists steps outside of their familiar sound and instead of stepping in a steaming pile, actually does something interesting.
Though the sounds on the album are generally reminiscent of a certain New York freak scene early days vibe, i.e. electric Dylan, Fugs, Blues Project etc, it’s all mixed in with Van Ronk’s mighty voice and an unusual and unique sensibility.
The Hudson Dusters actually sound like a “band” (as opposed to a one-off dalliance). They were authentically weird, actually rock, and the songwriting (and the selection of cover material) is top notch.
The three tracks I bring you today are representative of the album as a whole, including one of the two pre-fame Joni Mitchell covers, my favorite original ‘Head Inspector’ and the aforementioned ‘Alley Oop’.
Van Ronk was an acquaintance of Mitchell’s in her early days, and his treatment of her songs ‘Clouds (From Both Sides Now)’ and ‘Chelsea Morning’ (two of the earliest recordings of those songs) manage to do them justice while giving them an interesting, Van Ronk-esque interpretations. ‘Clouds’ is especially poignant when you contrast Van Ronk’s delivery with the crystalline renditions by Mitchell and Judy Collins.
‘Head Inspector’ is a fantastic slice of New York freak folk rock, with ringing guitars and a solid rhythm section.
There are even times where it wanders (deliberately, perhaps?) into garagey territory. It is the best of the record’s (mostly excellent) original material.
The Hudson Dusters take on ‘Alley Oop’ still makes my ears perk up every time I play it. Here Van Ronk and band take on the 1960 Hollywood Argyles (actually a Kim Fowley/Gary Paxton studio concoction) is demented in every possible positive interpretation of that word. It opens with a slightly dissonant guitar riff, before the combo organ, bass and drums come in. The backing vocals arefairly conventional, but end up sounding weird when Van Ronk drops in with his delivery, sounding like a streetcorner preacher on a bender.
The Hudson Dusters manage to take the novelty tune and turn into into something inspired. It’s one of my favorite records of the era.
Unfortunately, the Hudson Dusters record has not been reissued. The band’s 45s and the LP aren’t terribly expensive these days, so if you dig what you hear (here) grab yourself the whole platter.
I hope you dig the sounds, and I’ll see you all on Monday.