The first time I met Dave Van Ronk was in 1955 or 1956, on what may have been my very first outing to a Sunday folk sing in Washington Square. Emerging from the Sixth Avenue subway station, I was blinded by the sunlight and the thrill of anticipation, and walked one block to the east, guitar in hand, ready and eager to join in the singing and playing.
As I approached the fountain, the main gathering place for pickers, strummers, singers and listeners, I heard a sound unlike any I had ever encountered. High-pitched, strident, guttural and raucous, it came from a distant point on the other side of the park. I had to investigate. A tall, lanky young guy sat alone on a park bench hunched over his guitar, a long hank of brown hair cascading over one eye. He was playing and singing “St. James Infirmary” in an uncannily loud voice that echoed off the surrounding buildings. I had heard the song by Josh White, among others, but it had never sounded like this. There was a passion and dedication in this lonely performance that set him apart from the more group-oriented jammers who filled the park. I couldn’t help but be intrigued and slightly dumfounded by what I was seeing and hearing.
I got to know Dave in the weeks and months that followed, and for many years we saw one another around the Village at gigs and at parties. One Sunday early on we walked together across Canal Street to a loft he was sharing with a friend in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, where he cooked me an ersatz lunch and regaled me with political theory, musical trivia and un-asked-for advice. Terri Thal, Dave’s girlfriend at the time (later to be his first wife and manager), remembers putting their undecorated Christmas tree (they couldn’t afford the trimmings) out on the loft’s fire escape, and there it stayed. When she took the subway from Queens to Manhattan to meet Dave, 20-year-old Terri could see the tree as the train approached Manhattan and felt the warmth of her impending tryst with her musician lover.