Bad Dream Blues (Dave Van Ronk)

Though Dave Van Ronk was not principally known as a songwriter, he wrote some damn good songs. But before he got into songwriting in more ambitious ways, he recorded a handful of blues songs for which he took author credit. He didn’t consider these fully original compositions, since they had a mix of old and new verses, some adapted, some borrowed, set to guitar parts and melodies that were likewise a mix of traditional influences and personal quirks. They were original (or unoriginal) the way a lot of blues songs are original: as he liked to put it, “Blues is like a kielbasa — you don’t sing a whole one, you just cut off a section.”

blues projectThis was one of those original blues, which he recorded a couple of times in the mid-1960s, on his Just Dave Van Ronk album and more powerfully on an Elektra sampler of the current blues scene titled The Blues Project. (One of the featured artists was Danny Kalb, who shortly copped the album’s name for his blues-rock band.)

Like “Keep It Clean,” this was one of the arrangements Dave did during his transitory love affair with open tunings, and was likewise dropped from his repertoire when he decided re-tuning was too much trouble. The odd thing about both pieces is that the tuning gave them a distinctive flavor, but the basic arrangements were clearly based on standard-tuning models, and he could easily have come up with something suitable in standard had he cared to. This one is reminiscent of some of Mississippi John Hurt’s charts in E, and I just took that route.

As I recall, I didn’t actually learn this one. I just happened to think of it one day during that winter in Spain, and started fooling around with it, and found that I knew most of the verses. I’ve always thought that was the mark of a particularly well-written song: it sticks in your head, because the pieces fit together so neatly that one reminds you of the next. When I heard Dave do this I don’t remember noticing that it was more than a loose assemblage of generic verses, but when I started singing it, they all fell into place in a particular order, and if I’ve sometimes left one or two out and needed to jog my memory, they’ve mostly stuck.

As for Dave’s more ambitious compositions, I’ve posted a bunch of them: “Sunday Street,” “Another Time and Place,” “Losers,” “Gaslight Rag,” “Blood Red Moon,” and the instrumental “Antelope Rag.”