One of the pleasures of Dave Van Ronk: Folksinger was that along with the blues performances that made it a classic of the 1960s revival, it had oddities like “Mr Noah” and “Chicken Is Nice.” I learned Dave’s versions of both almost immediately, because the lyrics stuck in my head on a couple of hearings and they were easy to play. It was only some years later that I was singing “Chicken Is Nice” and noticed that one of the towns mentioned was Monrovia, looked at a map of Liberia, and found a Robertsport, which sounded enough like “Robert’s Falls” that I called Dave and asked if the song was Liberian, and indeed it was.
It appeared on an obscure collection, Tribal, Folk and Cafe Music of West Africa, recorded in 1949 by an ethnomusicologist named Arthur Alberts from a blind pianist and composer named Howard Hayes, who also recorded the classic “Bush Cow Milk,” and the whole Hayes set is now wonderfully available on CD. It was reissued by Alberts’s nephew, Guthrie Alperts, who was kind enough to send me a copy, and I heartily recommend it… but, despite the opportunity to learn the original version, I still sing Dave’s.
I must add that Dave Van Ronk was one of the most amazing cooks I’ve ever known, and one of the great pleasures of being his friend over the years was indulging in the dinners he typically spent hours cooking every night. His mole poblano was to die for, and he regularly tried novel experiments that somehow worked — I particularly remember an attempt to cook a fiery Indian meal without using any capsicum peppers, since they did not exist in pre-British India. He used a mountain of black pepper, and it should have been awful, but although I can’t vouch for its historical accuracy, it was delicious.
So anyway, one day I called him up and he said, “Guess what I cooked for dinner last night?”
And I said, “What?”
And he said, “Chicken with palm butter and rice.”
And I said, “How was it?”
And he said: “Nice.”