Song of the day: DAVE VAN RONK – Last Call (1973 / 1994)

Dave Van Ronk was one of the most important figures of the folk revival of the late fifties and early sixties, springing out of the coffee houses of New York’s Greenwich Village. He was an unreconstructed communist (when being such a thing wasn’t exactly a great career move in the US), an early mentor of Bob Dylan, and an all round good guy. “Last Call” is one of those rare songs where the lyrics say everything that needs to be said about it. Van Ronk first recorded it in 1973 on his Songs for Aging Children album, and revisited it 21 years later on Going Back to Brooklyn. Crime writer Lawrence Block named his book When The Sacred Ginmill Closes after the song. I can’t recommend Van Ronk’s autobiography The Mayor of MacDougall Street highly enough. It’s a colourful, moving, and frequently funny memoir of the NYC folk scene. Sadly the author didn’t live to see its publication – he died in 2002 aged 66.

And so we’ve had another night
of poetry and poses,
and each man knows he’ll be alone
when the sacred ginmill closes.

And so we’ll drink the final glass
each to his joy and sorrow
and hope the numbing drink will last
til opening tomorrow.

And when we stumble back again
like paralytic dancers
each knows the question he must ask
and each man knows the answer.

And so we’ll drink the final drink
that cuts the brain in sections
where answers do not signify
and there aren’t any questions.

I broke my heart the other day.
It will mend again tomorrow.
If I’d been drunk when I was born
I’d be ignorant of sorrow.

And so we’ll drink the final toast
that never can be spoken:
Here’s to the heart that is wise enough
to know when it’s better off broken.

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6 responses to “Song of the day: DAVE VAN RONK – Last Call (1973 / 1994)

  1. i had the good fortune to catch van ronk at blind willie’s in atlanta several times in the last fifteen years or so of his life..

    one time he introduced this song by saying that he’d been out on a bar crawl with joni mitchell and leonard cohen (and isn’t that a hell of a trifecta?) and the next morning (afternoon, more like) found these lyurics in his notebook in a handwriting none of them recognised.

    since it was in his notebook the other two informed him that he obviously wrote it.

  2. It should probably be noted that Dave sang this song unaccompanied (“a capella”). The melody is very well suited to this style ~ if it’s not the tune of some old traditional Celtic or English ballad, it sure sounds lilke one.

  3. …an amazing song. I covered it on a recent CD release. Regarding the “tune of some old traditional Celtic or English ballad” comment above, check out the Pentangle version of “Lord Franklin.” In the finest folk tradition Dave borrowed much of the melody.

    Thanks for telling the story of this song. I had heard about the notebook and the Mitchell-Cohen-Van Ronk trifecta through the grapevine… nice to see the story corroborated. True or not, it’s a fitting tale for a song like this.

  4. It was used one summer only for a Renaissance event years ago (30) and it still haunts me. So glad Van Ronk was willing to share the lyrics on the net.

  5. Pingback: Elsewhere on the internet… « Mathew Lyons

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