Black Mountain Blues (Dave Van Ronk)

I got this from Dave Van Ronk’s first album — once again, it was the kind of violent, bragging song that perfectly suited the tastes of a teenage boy who was getting into blues.Scrapper_Blackwell and Bessie Smith Dave had learned it from Bessie Smith’s recording, and had the bright idea of combining her lyric with the guitar part from Scrapper Blackwell’s “Down South Blues” — I didn’t make that connection until very recently, because when I used to listen to Dave’s first record I had not yet heard the Blackwell song. Dave introduced me to that one as well, when he recorded it on Sunday Street in the 1970s, and toward the end of his life he tended to use it as his regular opening number. And, when I got my hands on some live recordings from the 1950s, I found he’d already been singing it back then — but for his album debut he apparently decided to come up with something unique by melding the Smith song with the Blackwell chart.

That exegesis is not particularly germane to my version, since I sing it in a different key, and in any case I didn’t know about Blackwell at the time — I just knew it was a deep, dark, exciting blues, and the title song of Dave’s album (not, as it happens, of the original issue, or even the second issue, but Van Ronk first LPFolkways kept repackaging that baby, and I got the Black Mountain Blues version). Of course, I became a big fan of Blackwell later on, and should have made the connection, but Dave always spoke so poorly of that album — he referred to it as “Archie Andrews Sings the Blues” — that I didn’t go back and listen. Which was stupid, because I liked it a lot when I was a kid and there were good reasons for liking it. Dave had not yet formed his mature style, on either guitar or voice, but  at his best he was already very effective on both, and had good taste in songs, and some of the performances hold up just fine.

Others hold up less well… but who am I to talk? I am forever grateful that I don’t have a recording of me doing this song at age fourteen, because I remember the ferocious, shouting passion I used to summon, and prefer to recall that feeling rather than hearing the undoubtedly ridiculous reality… and, forty years later, it’s still a lot of fun to do.

(Incidentally, the over-the-neck move I do in the last line is pure Josh White, and much of what I play elsewhere is impure Josh White. Dave and I shared an enduring debt to Josh, and affection for his playing and singing.)