A conversation with Dave Van Ronk
By David Walsh, 7 May 1998
Few folk or blues enthusiasts of my
generation need to be introduced to
Dave Van Ronk, the extraordinary
singer and guitarist. His name is
inextricably linked, first and foremost,
to the folk music scene in New York City's
Greenwich Village in the
1960s. He played with and knew
virtually everyone of musical
significance in that decade.
      Van Ronk, born in Brooklyn on June 30, 1936, has been performing for more 
      than four decades. He made his first record for Moses Asch's Folkways 
      label in 1959 and gained widespread recognition for his recordings with 
      Prestige in the 1960s. He performed at countless festivals, such as the 
      annual Newport event, and toured the US and internationally. A compilation 
      of those early recordings, The Folkways Years, 1959-1961, is available 
      from Smithsonian/Folkways. His most recent recording, From ... Another 
      Time and Place (1995) was released on Alcazar Records.
      Van Ronk continues to perform, as well as teach guitar. I saw him at a 
      club in Ann Arbor in late 1997. He plays the sort of music he likes, with 
      small regard for the boundaries that normally separate jazz and blues and 
      country and folk. He proves in practice that those distinctions don't mean 
      very much. His performances now are stripped down to the essentials: 
      emotional and musical honesty. He is a unique individual and musical 
      Van Ronk, a lifelong sympathizer of the socialist movement, was a member 
      of the Workers League, the forerunner of the Socialist Equality Party, in 
      the late 1960s. I spoke to him recently in Greenwich Village, where he 
      still lives.
      (Dave Van Ronk's discography is available at 
      DW: What were the social circumstances under which you grew up?
      DVR: If you asked anybody in my family, they would have very stridently 
      proclaimed themselves middle class. My mother and father were separated, 
      so he doesn't count. My mother was a stenographer, a stenographer-typist. 
      My uncle and my grandfather both worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He was 
      an electrician and subsequently became something of an aristocrat of 
      labor. My great grandfather admired Eugene V. Debs. My great grandmother 
      hated Debs because she said he was leading my great grandfather off the 
      straight and narrow, and getting him drunk. She was probably right. In any 
      event, the family, mostly Irish, was working class. I was born in 
      Bushwick, but I grew up in Richmond Hill, in Queens. I went to Catholic 
      DW: What was that like?
      DVR: Horrible. The nuns were ignorant, if not mean. There was Sister 
      Attila Maria, for example. These were vicious Irish nuns. Oh, I got along 
      with some of them.
      DW: What did you read as a kid?
      DVR: It depends what age. I remember reading Grant's memoirs, the 
      autobiography of Buffalo Bill. Lots of Mark Twain. A massive book called 
      Land and Sea, some sort of anthropological study. I read Hemingway at 13, 
      The Sun Also Rises, which bored me. My brain was like the attic of the 
      Smithsonian. They left me pretty much on my own. I began hanging out in 
      pool halls.
      When I was 15 or so, a truant officer picked me up in a pool hall. 
      Actually, he was there for the guy I was playing with. I was hauled before 
      the principal. You never saw the principal, this was like being brought 
      before Stalin. He called me "a filthy ineducable little beast." That's a 
      direct quote. You don't forget something like that. They basically said 
      that if I didn't show up for school they'd mark me present, they wouldn't 
      send the truant officer after me. At 16 I enrolled in something called 
      continuing education. Once a month I'd go out to Jamaica, but I didn't 
      take it seriously.
      By this time I was listening to music, to jazz. Bebop, modern jazz mostly. 
      But I leaned to the traditional jazz. That had its pluses and minuses. I 
      cut myself off from the mainstream of jazz. It stood me in good stead 
      later on, as a musician.
      I started sitting in, playing the guitar, at clubs, like the Stuyvesant 
      Casino, Childs' Paramount. Coleman Hawkins would come in, Johnny Hodges. 
      There is an apprenticeship system in jazz. You teach the young ones. So 
      even if the musicians weren't personally that likable, they felt an 
      obligation to help the younger musicians. I played on the bandstand. I 
      wasn't a member of the AF of M [musicians' union], of course. There would 
      be somebody, like Jimmy Rushing, who would start singing if the union 
      delegate came in, and you'd take off. Of course, your instrument was still 
      up there. The delegate knew, but he wouldn't do anything about it.
      DW: How did your recording career begin?
      DVR: I was playing at a club. Odetta was performing there and she heard 
      me. She said I was good. "Do you do this full-time?" "No, I'm a seaman." 
      And I liked shipping out. "Well, you should," she said. "Why don't you 
      make a demo tape? I'll send it to Albert Grossman." He owned a club in 
      Chicago, and later managed Bob Dylan. Well, it wasn't so easy to make a 
      demo tape in those days. But somehow I managed it. And I sent it to her. I 
      hunkered down to wait. And I waited. Nothing happened. Finally, I 
      hitchhiked to Chicago, in 24 hours, staying awake with Benzedrine. I was 
      in bad shape when I got there. I got to Grossman's club, and, as luck 
      would have it, he was there. He had never received any tape. But since I 
      was there, he said, "Why don't you do an audition?" So I did. And when I 
      was finished, I said, "Well?" He said, "I book Big Bill Broonzy in here, 
      and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. Why should I hire you?" And I blew up, 
      I shouted, "You SOB, Grossman, you're Crowjimming me [practicing reverse 
      racism]." And I went back to New York. But on the way, I got pickpocketed. 
      I was sleeping, and one of my rides picked my pocket and stole my seaman's 
      papers. That's why I'm a folk singer.
      DW: Tell me a little bit more about the "golden era," as you described it. 
      How did you experience the boom in the early sixties?
      DVR: It was pretty weird. All of a sudden there was money all over the 
      place. If there was ever any truth to the trickle-down theory, the only 
      evidence of it I've ever seen was in that period of 1960 to 1965. All of 
      sudden they were handing out major label recording contracts like they 
      were coming in Cracker Jack boxes. People who had been sleeping on floors 
      and eating in cafeterias a year or two before, all of a sudden had enough 
      money to buy a suit, if they wanted to. And musically it was very 
      interesting. It attracted a large number of talented people, who probably 
      wouldn't have been interested in folk music had it not been so popular. 
      Someone like Jose Feliciano. He played the guitar, he sang, ergo, he was a 
      folk singer. Folk City, Gaslight, the Newport Folk Festival. There was a 
      tremendous attraction for that brief period. Bob Dylan was another.
      DW: When did you first meet him?
      DVR: The winter of 1961-62, when he first came to New York.
      DW: What was he like at that time?
      DVR: Nervous. Nervous energy, he couldn't sit still. And very, very 
      evasive. You never could pin him down on anything; he had a lot of stories 
      about who he was and where he came from. He never seemed to be able to get 
      them straight. What impressed me the most about him was his genuine love 
      for Woody Guthrie. In retrospect, even he says now that he came to New 
      York to "make it." That's BS. When he came to New York there was no folk 
      music, no career possible, it was out of the question, it simply wasn't 
      going to happen. What he said at the time is the story I believe. He came 
      because he had to meet Woody Guthrie. And he used to go out to the 
      hospital where Woody, who had Huntington's Chorea, stayed. He was slowly 
      but surely sinking. And Bobby used to go out there two or three times a 
      week and sit there, and play songs for him. In that regard he was as 
      stand-up a cat as anyone I've ever met. That's also what got him into 
      writing songs. He wrote songs for Woody, to amuse him, to entertain him. 
      He also wanted Woody's approval.
      DW: Could he communicate that approval?
      DVR: His communication by the time Bobby showed up was at a minimum. But 
      he could make himself understood if you were very patient. I believe Bobby 
      did establish enough of a rapport to be able to do that.
      DW: Did you like his music?
      DVR: Yes, very much. It had what I call a gung-ho, unrelenting quality, a 
      take-no-prisoners approach that was really very effective. He acquired 
      very, very devoted fans among the other musicians before he had written 
      his first song.
      DW: Who were some of the other people who impressed you at the time?
      DVR: There were a lot of them. Janis Ian. She was such a good musician. 
      For one thing, the level of musicianship in the folk community was pretty 
      low. So you could be Johann Sebastian Bach and it wouldn't be noticed. 
      Curiously enough, it had its up side too. Nobody got zapped for being too 
      sophisticated. Janis had a sophisticated melodic, chord sense. I knew her 
      when she made Society's Child, before it became a hit. It just so happened 
      that we were recording for the same label. She was 17 at the time.
      Ian and Sylvia, who, when you got right down to it, were essentially 
      country and western singers. I just recorded his Four Strong Winds. It's a 
      wonderful song. It was the first thing he ever wrote. If my first song had 
      been like that, I probably would have been afraid to write a second one. I 
      used to be a pin setter when I was a kid, in a bowling alley, before they 
      had the machines. On slow nights I used to bowl. I was terrible, the 
      worst. But one night, I don't know what got into me, I bowled a turkey, 
      three consecutive strikes. I have not picked up a bowling ball since.
      DW: You mentioned in passing the civil rights movement. Did you ever go to 
      the South?
      DVR: No, I didn't. I worked with Jim Farmer and CORE here. I did this, 
      that and the other thing. Mostly I did benefits, which is essentially what 
      I do best. But when they needed a warm body, I presented them with mine 
      for whatever it was worth.
      DW: When you speak about the money, or the recording contracts, that 
      became available, did you ever feel there was a moment when you had to 
      make certain choices?
      DVR: If you generate $100,000, is there anything wrong with asking for 
      DW: I shouldn't have put it that way. Did you ever feel that you could put 
      yourself in a situation where you would change?
      DVR: No. The thought never entered my head. And for good reason. I've been 
      very, very prosperous and I've been very, very poor, all in the last 20 or 
      30 years, and I don't see that my weltanschaung has been very much 
      influenced. I'm a very, very stubborn man. You can't be afraid of failure 
      and you can't be afraid of success, because either one gets in the way of 
      your work. I formed a rock and roll band in 1965. Frankly, I was making a 
      grab for the brass ring. I couldn't see any reason why not. Subsequently, 
      I saw reasons why not. I found it musically boring and I quit, even though 
      it was my band. Maybe we didn't give it enough of a chance, or something 
      along that line. Maybe we needed better representation, or this, that and 
      the other thing. But that isn't why I left. I left because I got tired of 
      doing the same goddamn songs every night.
      DW: What were some of the best experiences, the most satisfying 
      experiences performing?
      DVR: Some of them were in very small places. The first time I ever worked 
      the Club 47 in Cambridge, Mass. No, I didn't actually work there the 
      particular time I'm thinking of. I was up there just visiting Jim Kweskin, 
      of the jug band. The next thing I know I'm bombed out of my mind on the 
      stage at the Club 47 where I could never get arrested before. And I'm up 
      there, I don't know what I'm doing, I'm just watching my fingers. Wow, 
      they move and everything. I get off the stage and the manager comes over, 
      "I didn't know how good you were, you want a job?" I found the missing 
      ingredient to get hired at the Club 47 apparently. It's the incongruous 
      things that stick in your head, not the great, wonderful ... the standing 
      ovation you got in Nova Scotia in 1972, the great review you got in the 
      Times. It's the quirky things that I remember, like down in Philadelphia I 
      had to do some kind of early morning TV show. For some reason it was 
      called Aqua something or other.
      DW: It wasn't done under water.
      DVR: It would have been better. So they sent a car for me to take me to 
      the show, it's an aquarium. And it's one of these teenage dance shows. 
      They have these huge fish tanks all around. They didn't have the 
      facilities to do live broadcasting. So you had to lip synch. I had never 
      done that before. Furthermore, even if I had done it before, it wouldn't 
      have helped. I don't phrase my songs the same way twice; I try not to 
      anyway. All I remember really is kids dancing, and as they go by the 
      camera flipping the camera the finger. I remember saying, "Actually, I 
      only came here to see the piranha, but you'll do." Those are the things.
      DW: Did they dance to your music?
      DVR: Yeah. They would have danced to an amplified cricket. They were there 
      to boogie.
      DW: This is in the 60s.
      DVR: Yeah, it was one of those Dick Clark-type shows. At the time, I was 
      outraged. I tried not to let it show. The first time I told the story and 
      everybody started to laugh, I realized it was a wonderful thing. Only in 
      DW: What about the Newport Folk Festival, what was that like?
      DVR: I never liked those things. I never liked the musical aspect of it. 
      There was no focus, for one thing, too many things were going on at once. 
      It was a three-ring circus. During the afternoon there'd be three or four 
      concerts going on, and the sound overlapping. You couldn't even really 
      hear what you came to hear. Put yourself in my position, or any singer's 
      position, how would you like to sing for 15,000 people with frisbees? No 
      focus. It was better at night, on the main stage at night, because there 
      is a bit more focus, there was only one thing going on. The audience does 
      tend to concentrate on what's happening on stage. So that was a little bit 
      better. There were performers who thrived on that kind of thing. I never 
      did. Pete Seeger, with every thousand people they added, he'd get better.
      DW: What do you think of him and his music?
      DVR: Oh, he's a wonderful musician. He's another guy who has been 
      shortchanged as a musician. He's a very good musician and a very good 
      singer. He phrases well. What am I supposed to say about the guy who 
      invented my profession? And he did. He and Burl Ives, I suppose. I don't 
      do the kind of music Pete does, but if you listen to that first solo 
      album, that's a musical milestone. That stands to this day.
      DW: What did you think of Joni Mitchell?
      DVR: I thought she was about the best songwriter of the 60s. A remarkable 
      sensibility, a good lyricist. Sometimes she lets the tricks get out of 
      hand. She plays too obviously with things like alliteration and internal 
      rhyming. It's that kind of playfulness, even in her serious songs, that 
      give her material its je ne sais quoi. She is a very playful lyricist. I 
      like that. John Donne was a very playful lyricist.
      DW: After 1965 or so, did things decline?
      DVR: Well, you know they kept on going in the form of folk-rock, but as 
      far as the folk revival was concerned, it was pretty much over. I played 
      in the same places. The business kept prospering right until 1969 or 1970. 
      Until the whole hippie thing became manifestly the nightmare that it had 
      always been. And then business got very bad. In the early 1970s. 1971, 
      '72. The rooms were closing down, record labels weren't signing acoustic 
      acts any more. Although they had been pretty much been getting out of that 
      for some time before that. The shock of Richard Nixon. That guy was pretty 
      demoralizing. The whole raison d'Ítre of the New Left had been exposed as 
      a lot of hot air, that was demoralizing. I mean, these kids thought they 
      were going to change the world, they really did. They were profoundly 
      deluded. I used to talk to them, to the hippies, yippies. I understood 
      their mentality as well as anyone could. But things like Altamont, things 
      like Kent State, the election of Richard Nixon, the fact that the war just 
      kept going on and on and on, and nothing they did could stop it. Phil Ochs 
      wrote the song, I declare the war is over, that was despair, sheer 
      despair. By the mid-70s, I wanted to get out of the business. I was tired 
      DW: Had you continued recording?
      DVR: Oh, yeah. I don't think I went a year or so without a record between 
      1959 and 1979, sometimes two. I got in under the wire, so I could keep on 
      trundling along, although on a much lower level in terms of income. But by 
      1976 I hung it up for a while. To hell with this. I hung out my shingle. I 
      taught guitar for a year or so. Performing is addictive. After a year or 
      so, I was so antsy, in spite of the fact that I hadn't changed my mind 
      about the pluses or minuses of doing it.
      DW: What is it you enjoy most about performing?
      DVR: Well, you know, it's very hard to put it into words. If I could put 
      it into words, I'd be a writer. If I do a piece in my living room, if I 
      practice it--and I have the tapes to prove this--it's not going to be as 
      good as doing the same piece in front of an audience. When you're working 
      in front of an audience, you have incentive to excel. When you're working 
      for yourself, you don't have that incentive. Part of it is fear, which 
      supplies a good deal of adrenaline. Part of it is sheer hamminess. I'm an 
      exhibitionist, I was an exhibitionist as a kid.
      One of my earliest memories ... I knew three full verses of the Star 
      Spangled Banner when I was seven or eight years old. And one of the nuns 
      discovered this phenomenon and I was actually sent around from classroom 
      to classroom to do the whole thing. Let me tell you, I was not the most 
      popular kid in school after that happened. Like the kid who memorized the 
      most scripture in Tom Sawyer. I was a ham. Now, you know, I'm not so much. 
      You get it out of your system. Whatever it is you have to prove, you prove.
      I was talking to a friend of mine, a psychoanalyst. For some reason, we 
      were talking about Jack the Ripper. His theory was that the reason why 
      Jack the Ripper disappeared, was never caught, was because he cured 
      himself. He'd gone through it, and after a few murders, he was no longer 
      crazy. The performer is much like Jack the Ripper. After a while you get 
      it out of your system and you're not nearly the exhibitionist that you 
      were when you started out. By that time you've acquired the skills. I 
      still enjoy it.
      DW: Do you think that art or music is a way of knowing the world, of 
      experiencing the world?
      DVR: I don't think you're dealing with the same thing in the arts that 
      you're dealing with in life. Except insofar as it is a way of organizing 
      things. It is no more like life than chess is like life. And yet some of 
      the skills that you acquire, a way of thinking, a way of addressing 
      problems, will carry over into the way you organize your life, the way you 
      look at the world. Most of it's done on a subconscious level. If you look 
      at music, you see theme, variation, you see symmetry, asymmetry, you see 
      structure, and these are related to skills in the real world. I think I 
      have more in common with a carpenter than you might think. We're putting 
      things together. That aspect of it does relate to the real world in a 
      parallel way. In the sense that two parallel lines never meet, but they 
      are nonetheless parallel. Which is why some of the greatest musicians are 
      the greatest screw-ups.
      DW: What sort of music still interests you the most?
      DVR: Jazz. Most of what I listen to now is mainstream jazz from 1935 right 
      up to and including early bebop and cool jazz. I get off at hard bop. 
      Didn't like it at the time, still don't like it. Modern jazz per se is 
      fine. I'm not put off by the weird changes, they're not weird, not to me. 
      Modern Jazz Quartet, Gillespie, Parker, a lot of Teddy Wilson. A lot of 
      the vocalists, Billie Holliday and some others who got lost in the shuffle.
      DW: Do you think that it is inevitable that there is such a wall between 
      so-called popular music and so-called classical music?
      DVR: That's a very, very complicated question. What you're asking is a 
      historical question, a question of the sociology of music. In this country 
      that is an incredibly complex thing. We are a nation of immigrants. People 
      came here with a body of music that was not viable. They were in the 
      market, so to speak, for music that was viable. Very early on, consumer 
      capitalism came to their rescue, with the very thing. That started to 
      happen right after the Civil War and became the mainstream of American 
      music before the turn of the century. So that classical, serious 
      orchestral music, whatever you want to call it, never really had a shot.
      Also, you have to bear in mind that classical music has been music of the 
      ruling class since its inception. Monteverdi wasn't writing for the 
      people. If he had, he would have starved to death. It's an elite musical 
      form, which casts no inherent aspersions on it. This is a 
      socio-musicological fact. Its history militates against it here. This is a 
      very egalitarian country, and the very idea of there being such a thing as 
      an elite with its own music is anathema to most Americans. How would one 
      go about bridging that? Certain feckless attempts were made in the 1930s 
      and 40s by CBS, NBC and so on. I remember listening to opera live on the 
      radio from the Met [Metropolitan Opera]. I think it was on Saturday 
      afternoons, with Milton Cross. I liked it, but I was a weird kid and I 
      liked weird stuff. But early on I heard Oscar Levant's definition of 
      opera, which you may or may not have heard: It's a play where everybody 
      gets stabbed, but instead of bleeding, they sing. I think most Americans, 
      if you wrote that out, they'd sign it. Would it be possible, if somehow or 
      other, consumer capitalism...?
      DW: Let's say, in a better society.
      DVR: It's really hard to say. One of the problems would be the problem of 
      continuity. A revolutionary period is not a good period for the arts. Now 
      what we've got going right now is hardly a good period for the arts. You 
      tack a revolutionary period on to what we've got now, and you're going to 
      see a cultural breakdown of the very first order, I suspect, and whatever 
      emerges is going to have to emerge ... you're going to have to quite 
      literally bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old. What grows 
      from there, it's very hard to say, with that continuity shattered 
      something new might arise, totally different from anything you could 
      imagine. When you look at the mathematical possibilities of music, you 
      realize that the way the West has taken it is far from the only way to go. 
      I've always like Trotsky's writings as an art critic, possibly the only 
      Trotskyist who really did understand the essentials of the field.
      DW: The attempt is to initiate a discussion on social and artistic 
      perspectives... you can't, you don't want to, tell people what to do. You 
      can, I think, direct people's attention toward what you think is more 
      interesting material. In any case, how does consciousness affect an 
      artist? Does it help to have a correct political perspective? It does in 
      general, but it doesn't necessarily make you a better painter. I would 
      like to think that ultimately it would influence your work in some way or 
      DVR: I'm not sure it does. In my field the only way that politics can 
      influence you is if you start singing political songs.
      DW: Even directing people toward honesty or authenticity.
      DVR: What you need is a whole, well-rounded historical approach to art.
      DW: I agree.
      DVR: You have to start with the Babylonians, the Egyptians, and right on 
      through to the Romantics and the modernists. It's as much a life's work as 
      DW: Absolutely.
      DVR: The problem arises of priorities. With the system going haywire, 
      running amok like it's doing now, can a political organization spare the 
      personnel, the time, the energy? It's not a decision for me to make, thank 
      DW: We think so. We view the cultural questions as profoundly bound up 
      with the social questions. The Russian Revolution wasn't simply the 
      product of a political program, but of a culture that was built up over 
      three-quarters of a century. Stalinism severely damaged that culture and 
      we live, frankly, still in the shadow of the damage that was done. These 
      sorts of issues are going to be absolutely indispensable in the rebuilding 
      of a socialist culture, in the broadest sense.
      DVR: I think the function of a critic, any critic, is partially that, of a 
      preservator. That is to say, whatever emerges, it would be nice if the 
      cultural heritage that we have managed to accumulate be handed on more or 
      less intact. I think most modernists and even some of the post-modernists 
      agree that the continuity in the arts is a very critical question. That's 
      not just for a revolutionary party, but any honest critic. When you see 
      something new, to be able to relate it to what's gone before. As well as 
      to be able to see it within the context of the social forces at work.
      If more artists were aware of the pressures that were on them, or 
      influencing them, some of them would probably change what they were doing, 
      and some of them would do what they are doing, but better. It's not enough 
      that the dialectic recognizes the artist, even if the artist doesn't 
      recognize the dialectic. It's true, but it's not enough.
      DW: A great deal of what has passed for Marxism in the field of art in the 
      last half-century has been a perversion. We have to reestablish the 
      importance of aesthetic value. Art is not a means, it is an end, an 
      essential ingredient of humanity. The Trotskyists were working under 
      extremely difficult circumstances, there was the enormous isolation of the 
      Marxist tendency in the 1940s, 1950s.... Whether they could have done 
      better, it's not for me to judge. I think they paid a price. I think the 
      Healy organization paid a price for its refusal, or inability to deal with 
      all sorts of cultural and intellectual problems. I would like to think we 
      are now emerging into a situation where we can put some of those questions 
      back into the center of attention. That's what we are going to attempt to 
      DVR: I propose to watch your efforts.
      DW: To get back to the chronology, how did you experience the 1980s?
      DVR: Since the late 1970s I've been fighting a successful holding action. 
      Two steps forward, two steps back. The thing you have to remember is that 
      no one in their right mind ever got into this business because they 
      thought they were going to get rich. My initial plan was to make a living. 
      And, as far as I'm concerned, I've done it. "So far, so good," as the 
      Irishman who fell off the Empire State Building, passing the thirtieth 
      floor, was heard to say. What I measure my progress by isn't my standard 
      of living. I've made a great deal of money when my output was really 
      stagnant, and I have been really hard pressed when I'm going through a 
      good period. Over all, I've grown a great deal, as a musician, as a 
      singer. I'm so much more in command of my faculties at this stage of the 
      game than I ever was before. That to me is an important thing.
      DW: That was my feeling when I saw the performance in Ann Arbor. You reach 
      a point where the secondary issues fall away and you speak very directly 
      and very personally, and very honestly to people.
      DVR: It's possible. That can be done. You don't have to create a phony 
      persona. You need a persona, you cannot be exactly the same person on 
      stage as you are off. But you have to construct your persona honestly. 
      It's got to be made out of stuff that's really there. And sorting that 
      business out takes a long, long time. It requires a certain amount of 
      introspection. It requires a great deal of trial and error, and it 
      requires, again, persistence.
      What excites me is doing things musically that I would never have dreamt I 
      could do even 10 years ago. Writing, working on new arrangements, this, 
      that and the other thing. That's what keeps me going. Working on something 
      that interests me, it's that puzzle aspect, making those damn things fit, 
      putting it together so it's some kind of a coherent whole. That's a lot of 
      fun. I'm very lucky, I happened to fall into a field where I can actually 
      make a living doing what I like. There aren't too many people who do that. 
      It's sheer luck. Absolutely. If I could have fallen by the wayside, I 
      would have, any number of times. What if I had gotten rich in 1964? I 
      don't know, probably, knowing myself I would have figured some way to get 
      myself unrich quick. But what if I had? What if I were surrounded by a 
      bunch of yes-men, who only told me what I wanted to hear, whether I asked 
      them to do that or not, that's how it works. Or if the bottom had dropped 
      out completely? What would have happened then?
      DW: Is there any contemporary popular music that you like?
      DVR: No, no field, there are individual performers. Singer/songwriters 
      that I admire very much. But I wouldn't say that I like singer/songwriter 
      music by and large. As somebody once said, 95 percent of everything is 
      DW: As you know, Jean Brust died recently. How do you remember her, and 
      DVR: We met in the party. Bill and Jean used to come into New York, for 
      conferences, this, that and the other thing. We found ourselves very 
      simpatico. I used to see them a lot. There was something about them, not 
      just politically, but personally, that, you know, clicked. I miss both of 
      them a lot.
      DW: Do you have any disappointments?
      DVR: I really wish my ability to focus had been better. I don't think I've 
      accomplished a tenth of what I could have. That irritates me. I get very 
      annoyed with myself about that. When I see the kind of work I'm capable of 
      doing under pressure. For example, I had to do two songs that I had never 
      tried before on four days' notice, a couple of weeks ago. One of them was 
      by Kurt Weill, the other I chose myself. It was Earl Robinson's I Dreamed 
      I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.
      Inside of three days I'd done it. I didn't have to chart the Weill song. 
      It was Johnny's Song from Johnny Johnson. I thought they'd give me Lost in 
      the Stars, September Song, the Bilbao Song, but, no, they gave me that 
      dumb thing. It was hard, I was working from Weill's orchestral score. The 
      Joe Hill song I'd never sung before. I had no idea what to do on the 
      guitar. I did it as an encore the other night, in Oxford, New York. Thirty 
      miles north of Binghamton. A full house of cows. Not a dry udder in the 
      I can do that kind of thing. And in theory I could have been doing that 
      kind of thing for the last 30 years. I just don't have that 
      single-mindedness, that focus. I could have done a lot more. But aside 
      from that, no. I'm sorry I didn't do more and better of same.

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