Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Van Ronk's Last Cigar and Other Fables

Dave Van Ronk's last cigar is now just a small circle of ashes scattered around a bush in the middle of a park in Grand Rapids, Michigan. That's where songwriter David Massengill smoked it after holding onto it for a couple of years. Van Ronk gave it to him shortly before he died in 2002. It was Dave's last cigar by his own admission, dug from the back of a dusty shelf at a party. Massengill, being the true sentimentalist, just couldn't smoke his friend's parting gift without due ceremony. He thought of smoking it often, but the cigar took on legendary significance among a close circle of mutual friends, so he couldn't. There were anniversaries and other times when it almost seemed proper, but no.

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 ropes
'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)
The 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.

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


Tim McMullen said...


I am consistently in awe of the diversity of your topics and the consistency of your message. You also provide a great service by making readers aware of people of whom they might not have heard.

The story of Massengill and Van Ronk’s cigar is a great one. Van Ronk was the godfather of the folk scene in New York. Patrick Sky introduced his version of “St. Louis Tickle” by saying, “This is a song that I learned from a walking piano roll…with a beard,” referring, of course, to Dave Van Ronk. I look forward to hearing Massengill’s tribute album.

This blog entry is, in part, a continuation of your “Voices of Comfort and Protest” blog. Story telling, as you have often suggested, is a very important part of meaningful songwriting. The James Keelaghan song is a very powerful and moving song, but the power comes not just from the wonderful detail—the creation of a real, sharable, human experience—it, in fact, builds up to a very powerful personal, political yet universal statement. Interestingly, Dave Massengill’s “My Name Joe” explores another powerful story about an immigrant, though he uses humor and surprise to bring his message of tolerance and personal responsibility.

Guy Clark, Cheryl Wheeler, Jesse Winchester, and, of course, Dave Massengill, are some of those great song writers for whom “Character” (from an earlier blog) and “Story” are often paramount. I would add that third component, “Meaning” or significance that great songs have. A song like Skip Ewing’s “Love Me,” is one of those Nashville songs that achieves the classic story telling of “Old Doc Brown” or “Old Shep” by Red Foley.

Thanks for keeping us focused on great song writing and, especially, for valuing the importance of character, story, and meaning in the song.

chromehead said...

Thanks, Tim, for reminding me of "My Name Joe". Massengill is a great story-teller. Perhaps his funniest characters are his least likely (Jesus escaping the mental ward to celebrate Christmas in "Jesus The Fugitive Prince").

You are correct in adding the component of 'meaning' to the stories and songs. I often refer to this as the 'writer's motive' when I teach. What are we trying to covey, communicate or demonstrate with our songs? Even if a song is entertainment, it helps to remember that comedy is usually funnier when it's based in the absurdity of reality, not invented nonsense. So there's some significance in the humor if we see and record reality with a keen eye. Sometimes meaning is only discovered during the writing process. To paraphrase Frost-- a lyric must ride on it's own melting like ice on a hot stove. I'd bet that Keelaghan didn't know exactly how Kiri's Piano would end until he got there. The point is that he knew there was significance in the story, a "point to the telling", and whether he saw it initially or struggled to find it at the end, he didn't quit until the work was finished.

Anonymous said...

I don't leave many comments, but I read all your blogs. I found this one just a great read. I am going to post a link back to this on a couple of songwriting forums that I frequent.

Great blog!

Kevin Emmrich

chromehead said...

Thanks Kevin. Glad to have you as a reader.

Jannie Funster said...

Like song about the 52 Vincent motorcycle and the red-headed girl.

yeah, gonna write me one of those!

As usual, your writing takes on a soul of it own.


Martin Hill said...

yeah, its a very sentimental piece of writing depicting a freinds heartiest love for the other who has even stored a cigar given by the former to remind him of their freindship.This feeling compelled him to compose a song which is also as sweet as their freindship.Now the freind is no more nor the cigar but their freindship is remembered for ever.I think this song is as sweet and crisp as Cuban Cigars the more you smoke the more you want.