Inside Llewyn Davis: The Legacy of Dave Van Ronk

Apr 8, 2014

Every once in a while, folk music pokes its way out of obscurity and gets noticed by a wider public. Filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen shone a spotlight on music of the American south in their 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou, and they’ve done it again with this year’s Inside Llewyn Davis.  The movie is a fictionalized account of the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the early 1960s, when baby boomers discovered traditional music, and the oxymoronic concept of the “professional folk singer” took root. I haven’t seen it yet, but I am very pleased to hear the soundtrack.

The character of Llewyn Davis is very loosely based on Dave Van Ronk, the so-called “mayor of MacDougal Street.”  Van Ronk never gained the same level of popularity as some of his peers and protégés, but he was highly influential. He’s one of my favorite singers,  despite not having a conventionally “pretty” voice. Especially as he got older, he used the roughness of his voice to great advantage.

Oscar Isaac, who plays the title role in the movie, performs several of Dave Van Ronk’s songs on the soundtrack, and we also hear Van Ronk himself sing “Green Green Rocky Road.”  Old-time stringband revivalist John Cohen also appears on the album, as well as Nancy Blake, the Punch Brothers, and others. For collectors of obscurities, there’s a previously unreleased Bob Dylan track included.

There are two versions of “Dink’s Song” on the soundtrack.  Oscar Isaac harmonizes sweetly with Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons on the first,  and the second is a solo version which is closer to Van Ronk’s rendition, but doesn’t match its gritty intensity:

The film has drawn criticism from people who knew Van Ronk and feel that he’s being showed in an unflattering light. The Coen brothers say that they drew inspiration from his music, but not his personality, and stress that Llewyn Davis is fictional.  All I can say is that if it brings new attention to Dave Van Ronk’s music, it’s a good thing.