Being There

CW: Transphobia, homophobic slurs

I saw a meme a couple weeks ago talking about how Dave Van Ronk was arrested during the Stonewall riots. Van Ronk was what we would now call “cishet”. He was a local folksinger, “The Mayor of Greenwich Village”, they called him, and he got that name by making it his business what went on in Greenwich Village. When he found out that the cops were arresting people there, he went down to check it out, and what he saw what was happening, he joined the protests.

Given the community the meme circulated in, I’m probably one of the few people who saw the meme who actually knew who Dave Van Ronk was. I’ve read his autobiography, which might actually have been called The Mayor of Greenwich Village. Maybe Van Ronk mentions being at Stonewall in his autobio, but I didn’t remember ever hearing this particular information before. When I read his autobio, I was still repressing pretty hard, and Van Ronk led what we might call a colorful life. The Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis was based reasonably closely on a single episode in Van Ronk’s life. I’ve read reviews of the film that dismiss the plot of the film as “far-fetched” and “absurd”, even though it was something that actually happened.

Dave Van Ronk was also a key influence on Bob Dylan, in his early days. Dylan learned about folk music from stealing Van Ronk’s record collection. A lot of people in folk music borrowed, from anything they heard, they saw, but Dylan stole. He was a Great Artist.

Dylan had come to New York to see the folksinger Woody Guthrie, who was dying in Brooklyn at the time, and stuck around. He wrote a poem, in those days, about Guthrie, “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie”. He concludes:

“Your feet can only walk down two kinds of roads…
You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You’ll find God in the church of your choice
You’ll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital”

That was Dylan. Always looking for the next road to go down. Wound up going to the church of his choice and Brooklyn State Hospital, and contrary to what he says here, a lot more besides, and wound up walking away from all of them. They booed him, they called him Judas, and sometimes he got mad about that, but he never met a place he wouldn’t walk away from.

Which meant that he wasn’t at Stonewall, and Dave Van Ronk was. Bob Dylan had already been to Greenwich Village.

Dylan was, by the time of Stonewall… he was upstate. It was two months before the Woodstock festival, and he was living in the area. They kept waiting for him to show, at Max Yasgur’s farm, but he never did. That was another way he was different from Van Ronk. He was never mayor of anywhere.

But they looked up to him, they learned a lot from him, the longhairs of the time. The Byrds got their start covering his songs in a rock and roll style. The Byrds were an unusually talented group – one of their lesser lights, at the time, was a guy by the name of David Crosby. Crosby left, went on to be part of his own group, wrote a song called “Almost Cut My Hair”. Long hair was important to Crosby. It was a symbol of resistance to the Establishment. People hated him for having long hair, so it was important that he keep it.

By that time a lot of people had forgotten, or chosen not to remember, why the “straights” hated them for having long hair. It wasn’t because long hair represented political radicalism. It was because people looking at long-haired folks couldn’t tell if they were boys or girls, and this made the straights very uncomfortable. And it was this experience, this experience of being hated, that made longhairs radicals in the first place.

The lyrics to the Jefferson Airplane song “We Can Be Together” say: “Everything you say we are, we are – and we are very proud.” I’m not sure the people who wrote those lines – they’re actually taken, uncredited, from a pamphlet by a radical group called “Up Against The Wall, Motherfucker” (the Jefferson Airplane were, themselves, Great Artists) – fully understood their import, fully understood what it was exactly they had to be very proud of.

You can see glimpses of it, sometimes, in the collected writings of Up Against The Wall Motherfucker:


  • Hip Survival Bulletin #2

Who the hell knows what they meant by that. Were they being transphobic? To be perfectly honest, probably. UAWMF were wild, radical, deranged, all over the map. The few times they refer to queerness it’s not exactly in a positive light:

“1,000 hits of sacred acid distributed while Krishna fakers sing against drugs…
2,000 years of repression emerged as bald-headed faggots.”

  • Summer Solstice, New Mexico

UAWMF, the hippies, were a lot of things. They reclaimed everything, championed everything, whether or not it was theirs to reclaim. Everything, it seemed, except for us “faggots”.

Maybe people didn’t just call Dylan “Judas” because he had an electric guitar player in his band.

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