Dave Van Ronk was a gifted acoustic guitar player and musicologist, with a vocal style that reminds me of the song title "From A Whisper To A Scream". He would often begin quietly, and as a song progressed he'd build in intensity until it ended in a full roar. In concert, this was riveting theater - and, one suspects - a good way to get an audience's attention right from the start. It worked.
His voice was a marvel of gravel and grit, not unlike early Tom Waits. In fact, it took me a while to like Waits, because I initially dismissed him as a Van Ronk copycat. No doubt he was influenced by him, as were so many others.
Dave was a Brooklyn native who gravitated to Greenwich Village in his teen years. He was fascinated with the jazz scene, and (in-between shipping out with the Merchant Marines) would sit in on gigs and get tips on playing from esteemed pros like Coleman Hawkins. Eventually he'd hear singers like Odetta, and she encouraged him to sing his favorite jazz standards. He got a Village apartment in the mid-1950's, and lived in the Village his whole life. He started recording in 1959, releasing albums of jazz, blues, and jug band music. But his career really took off in 1963 when he issued his landmark "Folksinger" album.
By then he was well established in the growing folk scene, and was a friend and mentor to younger stars on the rise. When Bob Dylan arrived in New York in 1961, he often stayed with Dave and his wife, sleeping on their couch. Thus began the most colorful period of Van Ronk's life, at the center of a circle that included Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Judy Collins, Fred Neil - and others too numerous to name. They'd hang out together in Washington Square Park, alternate sets with each other at clubs like Gerte's Folk City, and carouse the bars. For a full account of this era, I'd recommend reading his memoir written with Elijah Wald and published posthumously, "The Mayor Of MacDougal Street" (2005).
Suffice to say that DVR went on to release many albums, and became a highly regarded performer in folk clubs and at folk festivals in the U.S. and around the world. He considered himself a jazz singer, and loved Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. He collected and studied all the old masters, and was a great song interpreter. His inventive finger-picking style was much admired, and in later years he even taught guitar. Van Ronk is credited with inventing "ragtime guitar", based on the charts and harmonics of jazz pianists like Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington.
All of his albums are great, but I'm spotlighting the CD "Sunday Street" (1976) because it's my favorite. I think it best illustrates his wide-ranging repertoire and varied interests. Dave hand-picked his favorites off his earliest records for the compilation "The Folkway Years, 1959-1961" (1991). "Folksinger" and "Inside Dave Van Ronk" (1969) are available as a two-fer under the umbrella title "Inside Dave Van Ronk" (1991). It's the only way to get "Folksinger", which isn't currently available by itself - and which comprises the first 13 tracks of this reissue. These are the songs that established him as a force to be reckoned with. DVR didn't write many songs, and his records feature few originals. "Going Back To Brooklyn" (1991, reissued 2006) is his only album of all original compositions. "Sweet And Lowdown" (2001, his final studio album) is old standards like "As Time Goes By" performed with a small jazz band. "And The Tin Pan Bended And The Story Ended" is a 2001 recording of his last concert, released in 2005. Dave was a funny story-teller, and that aspect is represented on this "live" CD.
The 6 CD's I've listed above are all essential great listening. Also on CD, but harder to find: "In The Tradition" (1963), half of which is performed with the Red Onion Jazz Band. It is, however, available as the first 12 tracks of the reissue "Two Sides Of Dave Van Ronk" (2002). The Red Onions had previously recorded with Dave's friend and fellow scenester Shel Silverstein on his 1959 classic "Hairy Jazz" (recently reissued on CD); "Ragtime Jug Stompers" (1964), a jug band record; and "To All My Friends In Far-Flung Places" (1994), a 2-CD set of songs written by all his friends (both famous and not-so-famous). All of them are great. There's more - but I can't mention them all! Others you'll have to look for on vinyl until someone has the good sense to reissue them on CD.