Gaslight Rag (Dave Van Ronk)

Dave Van Ronk was not primarily a songwriter, but he turned outGaslight cafesome gems and oddities over the years. This was his first attempt to compose a multi-section rag, and his paean to the room that was his professional home for much of the 1960s: the Gaslight Cafe on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village.

The lyric contains some anachronisms: John Mitchell, who originally opened the Gaslight in 1958 to host poetry readings, sold it in 1961, so by the time Mitchell at GaslightPatrick Sky and Phil Ochs were on the scene it was no longer “Mitchell’s cafe.” But Dave was its reigning star for much of its heyday, doing feature nights and hosting a regular Tuesday evening hootenanny (what we’d now call an open mike), and if some facts are jumbled, the song conveys his wry affection for a unique time and the place he described as “my office and second home.”

newmayorcoverDave’s years at the Gaslight are described at length in The Mayor of MacDougal Street — an honorary title he was given during that time by the bartender at the Kettle of Fish. That was the bar upstairs from Mitchell’s “hole in the ground,” where Dave tended to spend the time he wasn’t onstage, since the Gaslight served only coffee (and, as Dave recalled, dreadful coffee at that).

The regular denizens of the Gaslight included Tom Paxton, whom Dave (and no one else) called “Pogo,” (I’ve previously posted Paxton’s musical vignette of the Gaslight scene, “The Name of the Game Is Stud“), and a motley array of poets, comedians, folksingers, flamenco gaslight ad 1-16-64guitarists, and blues singers. It was a place where you could see a double bill of Skip James and Doc Watson one night, Len Chandler and a Middle Eastern group the next, and then Mississippi John Hurt with Dave and Paxton opening… and I was three years old and two hundred miles away. If anyone invents a time machine, book me passage.


(Incidentally, the fish shirt I’m wearing in the video is a tribute to Dave’s sartorial tastes — he would have described it as “horrible,” meant as a compliment.)