Dave Van Ronk intended this to be the title song of the album we ended up calling Going Back to Brooklyn — he was proud of the song and thought as a title it would be suitably ironic, especially considering his economic situation at the time. However, his manager thought calling his first album of original songs “Losers” was asking for trouble, and then his wife Andrea did the beautiful stained glass of a red moon rising over the Brooklyn Bridge, and that was that. In any case, this song is a fine example of his lyrical gifts, along with “Sunday Street” and “Gaslight Rag.”
Dave wrote this around 1980, and I see from old setlists that I played it at the first gig on my first national tour. That was at the Mill in Iowa City, a nice bar run by a nice man named Keith Dempster, who booked me for two nights, not mentioning that it would be the first big football weekend of the season. It was a baptism of fire, my chance to prove what I could do in a noisy, rowdy bar, and I failed the test — though no harm was done, because no one was listening.
I don’t have much more to say about this song, because it speaks for itself — except to note that Dave had a deep and broad love for the English language. How many songs use the word “whosis,” or the phrase “groan bin”? I’d never run across “groan bin” before, and was charmed when I looked it up in Google and the only reference was to a Donald Duck comic in which “Donald warns Huey, Dewey, and Louie that their lack of outdoor survival skills will lead to a ‘trip to the groan bin’.” As it happens, Dave was an inveterate reader of Donald Duck comics, had a collection of vintage Disney books he sold for a pretty penny in the late 1970s, and bemoaned what he regarded as my inexplicable (and generally undeserved) good luck by calling me “Cousin Gladstone,” a reference to Donald’s ridiculously lucky cousin, Gladstone Gander. “HoJo,” for the young folks, is the Howard Johnson’s restaurant chain. And according to Eric Partridge’s dictionary of slang, “Sneaky Pete” was a term for cheap wine, in use among hoboes in the 1930s.
I always thought “Losers” was one of Dave’s funniest songs, but given the current president’s proclivity for the word, and the state of the nation in his singularly incompetent hands, I am not only beginning to take it seriously, but proposing it as our new national anthem.