I have been researching the Greenwich Village folk scene for a couple months now, and I’ve run across multiple articles that compare folk singer Dave Van Ronk’s memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, to Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis. While I’m no ethnomusicologist and my musical career didn’t last past high school, I thought I’d share my own interpretation. Warning: spoilers lie ahead.
From the outset, there are clear parallels that show Van Ronk helped inspire Davis. Both went to Chicago to unsuccessfully audition at the Gate of Horn, and both wanted to return to work on a merchant ship but found they had lost their papers. Van Ronk was also asked to join a trio (what would become Peter, Paul, and Mary) but turned it down to continue his solo career. Davis’s solo album Inside Llewyn Davis was based off of Van Ronk’s 1964 album, Inside Dave Van Ronk. Similarly, the Greenwich Village in the movie was very similar to the Greenwich Village in the memoir—The Gaslight Café and Café Figaro both played important roles in the growth of folk music during the period.
I thought Van Ronk’s writing most strongly shone through in the movie’s soundtrack. Throughout the memoir, Van Ronk emphasizes that what was considered folk music in the sixties was really a combination of different styles, techniques, and genres. Musicians took chord progressions, fingerings, and even entire songs from one another. Admittedly, this type of collaboration greatly waned as folk music became more profitable. But Van Ronk, ever a purist, acknowledges the importance of taking inspiration from others. Most of the songs on the soundtrack are re-interpretations of songs performed by 1960s folk singers (which were often re-interpretations themselves). I thought this was an important stylistic decision by the Coen brothers—by having contemporary musicians play the songs instead of using old recordings, the movie is essentially demonstrating what Van Ronk so passionately describes. The music captures a key aspect of the 1960s folk revival, and Davis acknowledges this during a performance when he says, “You’ve probably heard that one before. It was never new and it never gets old, and it’s a folk song.” Van Ronk would adamantly agree.
Folk musicians certainly struggled to find success in the 1960s, but Davis seems to have a deep-seated bitterness that didn’t come out of Dave Van Ronk’s memoir. The storyline of Mike, Davis’s old partner who committed suicide, greatly influenced Davis’s actions—it drove his anger against Mrs. Gorfein and his feelings about “If We Had Wings.” Van Ronk does not discuss any musician facing a similar experience. Davis is much less successful than all the other musicians in the film—he sleeps on people’s couches, struggles with gigs and record sales, and never has money. In reality, most musicians, Van Ronk included, similarly lived day to day. It was an exhausting business that until later in the 1960s, had very little money to share. But by juxtaposing Davis with characters like Jim and Jean, Davis appears to be the sole failure. While the sixties were difficult for Greenwich Village musicians, there was also a lot of camaraderie and fond memories that I think were excluded from the film to exaggerate the plot.
To me, the memoir and movie most strongly diverge in their purpose. Van Ronk was a few years older and gained a group of followers before the real folk wave hit. He spent the majority of his life in Greenwich Village, and his success and experience made him a mentor for new musicians travelling to the city (it was a bartender at the Kettle of Fish, a popular restaurant for musicians, who named Van Ronk “the Mayor of MacDougal Street”). This perspective, plus historical hindsight, allowed Van Ronk to write a memoir that represented not only his life but also folk musicians more broadly. Llewyn Davis, however, followed one person; the differences between Davis and the other characters made his story singular. This is neither good nor bad, but different. Any good researcher developing this screenplay would have read The Mayor of MacDougal Street, and it does provide content for the movie. But to say there is a larger connection, or that Davis is based off of Van Ronk, would in my opinion be an exaggeration.
To read more about Dave Van Ronk and Inside Llewyn Davis, check out this Rolling Stones article and this piece by Terri Thal, Van Ronk’s ex-wife from the sixties. Plus, if anyone can get their hands on the radio broadcast of “Folkplus,” hosted by Angela Page, during which she interviews Andrea Vuocculo, Elijah Wald, and several others who personally knew Van Ronk, please let me know.