The new Coen Brothers film “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which opens Friday, takes moviegoers to the folk music scene of the early 1960s. Although the title character is something of a composite of various musicians of the era, it’s no secret that the Coens’ primary real-world inspiration was singer, guitarist and songwriter Dave Van Ronk.
Something of a Pied Piper of folk music, Van Ronk attracted acolytes from Bob Dylan and Joan Baez on down the ladder, introducing them to obscure traditional songs he’d learned and cluing them in to guitar techniques he’d picked up along the way. (He taught Dylan how to play his version of “House of the Rising Sun.”)
Pop & Hiss is streaming a previously unreleased live performance Van Ronk gave in 1974 that is excerpted in the new box set “Live at Caffe Lena: Music from America’s Legendary Coffee House 1967-2013” on the Tompkins Square label.
That set includes Van Ronk’s performance of “Gaslight Rag,” but the full concert that's streaming includes eight songs and runs about 40 minutes. Among the other songs Van Ronk served up that night: Blind Willie McTell's “Statesboro Blues,” Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” and Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty.”
Caffe Lena, which is still up and running in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., “served as an important venue for all the Greenwich Village folk artists,” said a spokesman for the “Caffe Lena” recordings. “Many played there on their way from New York City to Boston. Dylan's first performance upon coming East outside of NYC was at Caffe Lena.”
Dylan’s set in 1962 wasn’t recorded, but many others were, including Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger, Kate McGarrigle, Jean Ritchie, Sleepy John Estes, Utah Phillips, Arlo Guthrie, Jerry Jeff Walker, David Bromberg and a 2013 performance by acclaimed Louisiana singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier.
More recordings by Van Ronk, who died in 2002, is featured on “Dave Van Ronk: Down in Washington Square,” a 54-song three-CD set released recently by Smithsonian Folkways.