David Kenneth Ritz Van Ronk (June 30, 1936 – February 10, 2002) was an American folk singer. An important figure in the American folk music revival and New York City’s Greenwich Village scene in the 1960s, he was nicknamed the “Mayor of MacDougal Street“.
Van Ronk’s work ranged from old English ballads to blues, gospel, rock, New Orleans jazz, and swing. He was also known for performing instrumental ragtime guitar music, especially his transcription of “St. Louis Tickle” and Scott Joplin‘s “Maple Leaf Rag“. Van Ronk was a widely admired avuncular figure in “the Village”, presiding over the coffeehouse folk culture and acting as a friend to many up-and-coming artists by inspiring, assisting, and promoting them. Folk performers he befriended include Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Patrick Sky, Phil Ochs, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Joni Mitchell. Dylan recorded Van Ronk’s arrangement of the traditional song “House of the Rising Sun” on his first album, which the Animals turned into a chart-topping rock single in 1964, helping inaugurate the folk-rock movement. Van Ronk received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) in December 1997. He died in a New York hospital of cardiopulmonary failure while undergoing postoperative treatment for colon cancer.
Van Ronk was born in Brooklyn to a family that was “mostly Irish, despite the Dutch name”. He moved from Brooklyn to Queens around 1945 and began attending Holy Child Jesus Catholic School, whose students were mainly of Irish descent. He had been performing in a barbershop quartetsince 1949, but left before finishing high school, and spent the next few years bumming around lower Manhattan and twice shipping out with the Merchant Marine.