First of all, I must state with pride and pleasure that the first time I ever tried cocaine was courtesy of Dave Van Ronk. It was in my parents’ living room, late at night, after a fair amount of whiskey had been drunk, and he had it in a twist of plastic wrap and gave me a line. To the best of my recollection it had no effect whatsoever, or at least any chemical thrill was dwarfed by the thrill of getting my first taste from the man who had recorded “Cocaine Blues.” I should also record for the sake of history that it was the only time I knew Dave to have or use that drug, and subsequent experience taught me it was not my thing, at all.
(For anyone who thinks I’m making a startling public admission here, I have a more involved anecdote about coke in my book Narcocorrido, describing a long evening in Monterrey, NL.)
Going back a bit, “Cocaine Blues” was life-changing for me because it was one of the first songs I heard by Dave, on a Fantasy Records sampler, and the combination of the two songs on that sampler and a couple on Blues at Newport were sufficient to persuade me and my mother to go see him in concert. It was a split bill with Patrick Sky at Jordan Hall, with Patrick on first, and he and Dave had clearly been doing some drinking ahead of time, but both were in great form. Patrick’s set included “The Pope,” off Songs That Made America Famous, which caused my mother literally to fall out of her seat, she was laughing so hard. (The clincher was probably, “They know that they could never quibble/With a man who is infallibibble!”)
Then Dave came on. I don’t remember what he sang, but from the moment he started to sing, we were hypnotized. That’s not just a figure of speech, either — I was interested in magic, and had been exploring hypnosis, and I clearly remember trying to look away from the stage, and realizing that I couldn’t. (Actually, the feeling is that you could look away, but yet you don’t, and don’t, and don’t.)
I saw Dave on some great nights after that, including a couple of hypnotic ones, but that first time was unlike anything I’ve experienced before or since. He seemed to expand and fill the whole room with his presence. It wasn’t just me: my mother, who had always loved Dylan Thomas and always regretted that she had never seen one of his legendary, boozy, brilliant, hypnotic readings, walked out saying, “That must be what it was like to see Dylan Thomas.”
I soon had a collection of Dave’s records, including the Fantasy double album that included Dave Van Ronk: Folksinger and Inside Dave Van Ronk, both recorded in 1963 or ’64. Through a quirk of CD reissuing, most people now remember Inside as the great album, but Folksinger was the one. I still know nine of the twelve cuts, and a couple of them became part of the common language of the 1960s folk-blues scene — there are still hundreds, if not thousands of people who can play Dave’s arrangement of “Come Back, Baby,” and “Cocaine.”
“Cocaine” was the closest thing Dave had to a hit, and people yelled requests for it at virtually every concert he gave for the rest of his life, which was almost another forty years. He quickly came to regard it as a millstone, reacting first by adding silly verses and comic throw-away lines, and by the time I heard him, probably in 1972, he’d quit singing the damn thing. Which was kind of too bad, because he did it like no one else — but he had plenty of other great songs.
There’s more to be said, some of which is in our book, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, but for the moment I’ll just add that Dave got the song from Reverend Gary Davis, and worked out a guitar part based on Gary’s, with the basses played backwards, and I never bothered to learn that arrangement until a few years ago, after playing the song for almost forty years. So I do some back-picking in the breaks, because I love the way he played it, but not much in the verses, because I still feel more comfortable singing over my own variation.