“Have Guitar, Must Travel” was originally published in the NYTimes, February 17, 2002


Have Guitar, Must Travel


There was a time when Bob Dylan aspired to be “as big as Dave Van Ronk,” the folk singer who died last Sunday at 65. Anyone with even a passing interest in Dylan knows of Van Ronk, the well-loved “Mayor of Macdougal Street,” who started performing in Greenwich Village in the late 50’s and whose apartment became a gathering place for musicians like Tom Paxton, Janis Ian and Christine Lavin.

Van Ronk’s boisterous, salty character and anecdotes illustrate the many Dylan biographies. It’s well documented how Dylan first came to the Village a scruffy waif in 1961, and flopped at Van Ronk’s place. But Dylan quickly grew to mythic stature and outgrew the scene that had once nurtured him, although in later years he would still sometimes drop by for one of Van Ronk’s home-cooked dinners.

What remains of that scene today? Do new songwriters still gather in Greenwich Village, sitting on the benches in Father Demo Square (the patron saint of demos, perhaps?) and drink, and discuss poetry and politics? They do. Some things have changed, of course. Rents being what they are, none of the newcomers live in Greenwich Village. They couldn’t afford it.

The only Village folkie left that I know of is Jack Hardy, who finally won his well-publicized battle with the landlord to keep the rent-controlled apartment on West Houston Street he has had since 1975. (The landlord wants to contest, by the way.) So most of the songwriters come in from Brooklyn, New Jersey or Washington Heights, or even farther. Then they go home.

The problem is: where do they play? Where do they go to perform, get feedback from other writers, socialize, drink, fight and learn how to put on a show? Some of this happens at the Ear Inn on Spring Street, within walking distance of the Village.

But nothing quite takes the place of Folk City, which folded in the mid-80’s just as a new wave of acoustic singer-songwriters hit the charts. Folk City was the club where Dylan got his start. Everybody knew this; it was a focal point for songwriters inspired by Dylan, who wanted to write literate songs not bound by top-40 rules. It was also part of the pilgrimage to the Village for those who had heard the music, read the books, seen the movie and wanted to be there live.

Still people come, teenagers, men and women, of all abilities, with their guitars, and try to find a way to survive here. You can share a bill with five other people at a number of clubs, though you may or may not be paid. Or after years of trying, you might get an industry showcase at the Bitter End. But a piece of history is in danger of being lost. The folk scene is still healthy, if homeless for a while. We can’t flop at Van Ronk’s anymore. We need a new home.

Suzanne Vega released her sixth album, “Songs in Red and Gray,” on A&M/Interscope, in September. She lives on the Upper West Side.

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