I’m pretty sure it was the late fall of 1979 that Dave Van Ronk played Passim Coffeehouse with a younger guitarist named John Miller as the opening act. Dave knew John already, and I had seen John’s two albums on the Blue Goose label, though I hadn’t heard them. Both consisted mainly of country blues, and in the cover photos John looked like a bearded student type, an impression reinforced when I learned that he was based in Ithaca.
None of that fit the man and music I heard at Passim. John had shaved his beard and was playing songs off his latest album. It was called Biding My Time, and consisted entirely of George Gershwin songs, some performed as instrumentals and others sung. Dave and I stood in the back of the room and exchanged sympathetic glances as John redefined our understanding of how a guitarist could negotiate that material. He had none of the kitschy Chet Atkins style, his rhythm was impeccable, and his singing was understated but consistently tuneful and beautifully phrased.
I particularly remember Dave’s expression as John sang the opening verse to “Of Thee I Sing,” treating the lyric with graceful sincerity, and then, where the melody makes a tricky key change, plucked a bar chord, reached up with his right hand to shift the capo from the second to the fourth fret, and went on playing in the new key. Dave made his most mooselike moue. He wanted to call it cheating, but was also consumed with regret that he hadn’t thought of it first.
I bought the album, enjoyed it, and was inspired to learn the title song — not John’s arrangement, which was way beyond my skills, but taking his performances as a model. I worked out my own chart for this, and then for “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” and — getting away from Gershwin — “Taking a Chance on Love” which was my moment of victory, because when I played it for Dave he thought it was John’s. A few years later I found John’s book of the Gershwin arrangements and struggled with it for a while, but they never felt smooth under my fingers. So I stuck with my own charts, and even self-published a book of them, Swing Songs for the Moderate Fingerpicker.
Four decades later, I only play a couple of those arrangements, but this one stuck with me, and always reminds me of seeing John that night at Passim. I’ve met him since and taught alongside him at the Port Townsend Blues Week, and he continues to be best known as a scholar and adept of rural blues guitar styles, but I still think of him as the master of Gershwin.