Dave Van Ronk and the Hudson Dusters

The Hudson Dusters was a band put together by legendary folksinger Dave Van Ronk in a short-lived attempt to buy into the folk-rock craze that hit the States in the mid-sixties. Though Van Ronk was one of the founding fathers of the original Greenwich Village revival, he had never really conformed to any of the stereotypes which were so quick to develop among his contemporaries. Thus, the music which developed out his “going electric” was far more eccentric than most people’s. This was no attempt to simply copycat (and thus capitalize on) Dylan’s new aesthetics, this was an artist expanding his sonic palate on his own terms.

Dave Van Ronk and the Hudson Dusters, like any Van Ronk record, is an eclectic experience. Not only does the band draw from folk, blues, jazz and rock and roll traditions, but Van Ronk’s unique sense of humor and unmistakable whiskey-and-tobacco voice lend the music a surreal edge. In fact, I’d argue that the convoluted middle-class satire of “Mister Middle” almost lands the proceedings in Mothers of Invention territory. Though neither it nor “Keep Off the Grass” should be considered the era’s sharpest attempts at social commentary, the tongue-in-cheek approach and adventurous musical arrangements make them more entertaining than most such material.

I have to admit that I’ve never been wild about Joni Mitchell, but Dave Van Ronk’s back-to-back takes on “Chelsea Morning” and “Both Sides Now” are surprisingly successful. This is one of those instances where you wouldn’t expect the artist and the material to click, but somehow the deadpan earthiness of the interpreter lends new angles to what are otherwise rather spacey and introverted lyrics. Apparently Mitchell herself praised Van Ronk’s recording of “Both Sides Now” as being definitive, but I’ll leave that one up to the reader to decide.

The Hudson Dusters also run through a few numbers previously recorded by Van Ronk on his acoustic records, such as the Reverend Gary Davis’ “Cocaine Blues” – which has always been something of a signature song for the singer – and “Dink’s Song,” in which subtle strings underscore Van Ronk’s rough-yet-tender vocal performance. The goofy show tune “Swinging On A Star” would also become a Van Ronk standard in the years to come, though my own reaction to this one is lukewarm at best. I much prefer their psychedelic garage take on Dallas Frazier’s old rock and roll chestnut “Alley Oop” with it’s odd, echoplexed vocal chorus.

With a few notable exceptions, the majority of Van Ronk’s 1960s recordings remain unreleased or out-of-print on compact disc, and unfortunately this is one of the former. Don’t let this unfortunate detail deter you, though; Hudson Dusters may not be the definitive statement from Dave Van Ronk (he tended to stick to the acoustic guitar for a reason), but as a rare electric anomaly in his catalog, it is definitely worth checking out.

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“Both Sides Now”

:) Original | 1967 | Verve/Folkways | search ebay ]
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