Finally, almost burdened by the acquired weight of it, one night on the road he said "what the hell"... in Grand Rapids of all places (I was too entertained by this tale to ask him why he'd brought the cigar from NYC to Michigan). He partook of the sacred rolled leaf with a friend who was also a songwriter. There they shared it in reverence, blowing smoke rings at the moon and invoking Dave's ghost. Then they gathered up the tobacco ash, every speck of it, and made a gray ring on the earth around a bright shrub in loving tribute to a musical legend. Thus was a small piece of Van Ronk's history laid to rest under a conspicuous bush in Michigan in the form of a big fat cremated cigar.
Now, try to forget this simple story. If you're like me, that may be a difficult thing to do. Fortunately my friend David Massengill has turned it all into a beautiful tribute song on his latest CD "Dave On Dave" just in case you manage to forget it.
"We took to the road and he showed me the ropesThe story and the song both demonstrate that it's the quirky romance of life that makes it all worth talking about in the first place. It isn't the mundane rituals of our day, not the false romance we like to delude ourselves with-- the cliched candles and wine; not the ruts we're stuck in or the dashed dreams.
'Never count the house* kid, keep dreaming your hopes
And keep an eye open for the bizarre'
Lessons I learned from Dave Van Ronk's last cigar"
(Copyright 2007 David Massengill Music ASCAP)
(*i.e., don't count the number of people in the audience)
It may be too idealistic of me to expect this of everyone else, but before I write my next song I'll ask myself if I have a story to tell. Is the story worth repeating, and would I tell it to a stranger in a bus station at midnight?
If you have one, and if you would tell me, I will listen. Give me the strange, the beautiful, the haunting, the unlikely. I'm thirsty for it.
The best stories are usually the unnoticed incidents that gain significance in the story-teller's words. On the surface they are events hardly worthy of a sentence in the newspaper, yet told properly they resonate deeply and make the daily headlines seem crude and transitory. It's what we make of our tales, how we mythologize them, not how grand they are in reality.
My friend James Keelaghan sings one called "Kiri's Piano". I challenge anyone to find a simpler and quieter, yet more compelling story than this: Kiri's Piano lyrics.
Nashville used to tell us good stories. Tom T. Hall was a master. So were Johnny Cash and Shel Silverstein. Darrel Scott, when he manages to get one cut, still reminds us of what Nashville used to be in the days when artists weren't afraid to portray authentic characters in songs.
Today it's all about the artist, not the story song. Everyone seems desperate to define who they are in a genre with 150 other singers who sound just like them, but they make the mistake of trying to create unique PR rather than having unique stories to tell and unique characters to play in their music. As a result, the differences between popular artists are as deep as page one of the tabloids. It's the fear of being swallowed by the whale of consolidated media, I suppose.
Yet I still have hope that some mainstream artist among the crop of younger torch bearers will finally realize that story-telling and role-playing made Johnny Cash, and Marlon Brando great. Oh, please stop trying to tell us how different you are in your bio, and just be different when you pick songs.
Find your stories.
Stories give us the barest implications about the mysteries of life-- the life that we never seem to fully grasp. The big picture is too large for our frame, we must have it scaled down to viewable size. A story is a way to attach tangible form to our least definable emotions. It's part of the eloquence of life's quietest truths.
copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt