Along with being a fine musician, awesomely well-read, and one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met, Dave Van Ronk could be supremely silly. His W.C. Fields imitation was legendary and I treasure his recordings of “Teddy Bear’s Picnic,” “I Want to Go Back to My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua, Hawai’i,” Willie Nininger’s “I’m Proud to be a Moose” (which he adopted as a theme song in later years), and this song, which he first recorded with the Hudson Dusters and again on Sunday Street. I also heard him do this time and again at Passim Coffeehouse in Cambridge, because Bob Donlin, the owner, regularly requested it.
Dave’s typical reaction was to murmur, “Of course,” then growl to me, sotto voce: “There’s nothing funnier to a lace-curtain Mick than a Brooklyn accent.” But he always acceded, and laid on an extra dose of Brooklynese.
The song was originally from Bing Crosby, though to this day I’ve never heard his version — in fact, strange as it seems, I’m not sure I’ve heard anyone sing it other than Dave. Crosby was one of Dave’s favorite singers, which surprised me the first time he mentioned it because I grew up in a world in which Crosby was regarded as distantly old and hopelessly square. Dave had grown up in an earlier era, and appreciated Crosby’s insouciance as well as his easy swing and smart phrasing — in the mostly forgotten jazz-world version of the Beatles/Stones split in which fans opted for either Crosby or Sinatra, Dave was thoroughly a Crosby man.
I got to be a pretty fair Crosby fan myself, but favored the early stuff with the Rhythm Boys, and then with hot pick-up groups including the Dorsey brothers, Joe Venuti, and Eddie Lang, his regular guitar accompanist and reputedly his closest friend (by some accounts his only close friend). The first side I fell in love with was “My Honey’s Loving Arms” with the Mills Brothers, on which they not only sang, but did a mouth-instrumental break — I’m pretty sure I bought that record at Dayton’s during the year with Dave, just to see what he was so excited about, but it may have been a bit later.
In any case, it’s still Dave’s version of “Swinging on a Star” that’s in my head, and I love it and miss him.