Published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Dec. 20, 2013
I came to the Twin Cities in 1969 and settled in the West Bank neighborhood, joining a collection of young folk musicians associated with the Extempore Coffeehouse and, later, the New Riverside Cafe. The main thing I remember about those days was the camaraderie. If there was a new gig, we’d all find out about it. We’d support each other, show each other the new guitar thing we’d learned that day, share a newly released record album. We crashed at each other’s places and were involved in each other’s lives and careers.
The late Dave Van Ronk, whose early career provided the inspiration (however broadly) for “Inside Llewyn Davis,” was a dear friend of mine. The stories I heard from him and from others concerning the Village folk milieu of the late 1950s and early ’60s remind me of my own experiences in the Twin Cities a decade later. In both cases the scene was vibrant and full of interesting, smart people.
The narcissistic dim-bulb Llewyn Davis of the film bears little or no resemblance to the Van Ronk I knew. Maybe the folk revival looked like this in the Bizarro World, but certainly not in ours. Tom Paxton (“Troy Nelson”), for example, isn’t anything like the smug jerk depicted in the film. The music was a passion for these people, not a job; certainly, nobody — at least before Bob Dylan broke through — was getting rich at it. People jammed, hung out together, argued music and politics and art. They loved what they were doing.
It’s hard to imagine, incidentally, that Llewyn Davis could have come up with the solid song arrangements portrayed here. He just doesn’t seem that interested in the music. I was delighted, by the way, to hear Van Ronk’s own version of the traditional “Green Rocky Road” during the closing credits.
A couple of stories — one about the Merchant Marine, the other about the coat — are right out of Van Ronk’s life. That’s where the similarities end, though. Van Ronk didn’t crash on people’s couches. He had a couch.
As movies go, especially dark ones, this is a very good film, something I’ve come to expect from the Coen brothers. The acting is exemplary (some of it’s great, even), the plot is engaging, and the sets are fabulous.
But as you enjoy the story, don’t mistake it for the reality. If it’s history you want, pick up a copy of Van Ronk’s “Down In Washington Square,” recently released as a three-disc retrospective by Smithsonian Folkways, and play it while you’re reading his 2005 memoir “The Mayor of MacDougal Street.”