He was best known as an important figure in New York City during the acoustic folk revival of the 1960s, but his work ranged from old English ballads to Bertolt Brecht, rock, New Orleans jazz, and swing. He is often associated with blues but he pointed out at concerts that he actually had only a limited number in his repertoire. He became known for performing instrumental ragtime guitar music, and he was an early friend and supporter of Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Patrick Sky, Phil Ochs and Joni Mitchell, among many others.
Van Ronk moved from Brooklyn to Queens in 1951 and began attending Holy Child Catholic High School (Queens, New York). He had been performing in a barbershop quartet since 1949, but left before finishing high school, and spent the next few years bumming around lower Manhattan, except for shipping out twice with the Merchant Marine.
His first professional gigs were with various traditional jazz bands around the New York area, of which he later observed: "We wanted to play traditional jazz in the worst way...and we did!" The jazz revival didn't take off though, and Van Ronk turned to performing blues music he'd stumbled across and enjoyed years earlier, by artists like Furry Lewis and Mississippi John Hurt. Van Ronk was not the first white musician to perform African-American blues, but became noted for his interpretation of it in its original context. By about 1958 he was firmly committed to the folk-blues style, accompanying himself with his own acoustic guitar. He performed blues, jazz and folk music, occasionally writing his own songs but generally arranging the work of earlier artists and his folk revival peers.
He became noted both for his large physical stature and his expansive charisma, which belied an intellectual, cultured gentleman of many talents. Among his many interests: cooking, science fiction (he was active for some time in science fiction fandom [he referred to it as "mind rot"] and contributed to fanzines), world history, and politics. During the 1960s he supported radical left-wing political causes and was a member of the Libertarian League. Somewhat by accident, he took part in the famous Stonewall Riots during which he was arrested, abused and briefly jailed. In 1974 he appeared at a concert with his old friend Bob Dylan, to aid refugees from the military coup by Augusto Pinochet in Chile.
In 2000 he performed at Blind Willie's in Atlanta, clothed in garish Hawaiian garb, speaking fondly of his impending return to Greenwich Village. He reminisced over tunes like Good Ol Wagon, a song teasing a washed-up lover, which he ruefully remarked had seemed humorous to him back in 1962. He was married to Terri Thal in the 1960s, lived for many years with Joanne Grace, then married Andrea Vuocolo, with whom he spent the rest of his life. He continued to perform for four decades and gave his last concert just a few months before his death. He found it amusing to be called "a legend in his own time."
Van Ronk died before completing work on his memoirs, which were finished by his collaborator, Elijah Wald, and published in 2005 as The Mayor Of MacDougal Street.
In 2004 a section of Sheridan Square, where Barrow Street meets Washington Place, was renamed Dave Van Ronk Street in his memory.
He is perhaps underestimated as a musician and blues guitarist. His guitar work is noteworthy for both syncopation and precision. In its simplest form, it shows similarities to Mississippi John Hurt's, but Van Ronk's main influence was the Reverend Gary Davis, who conceived the guitar as "a piano around his neck." Van Ronk took this pianistic approach, and added a harmonic sophistication adapted from the band voicings of Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington. He ranks high in bringing blues style to Greenwich Village during the 1960s, as well as introducing the folk world to the complex harmonies of Kurt Weill in his many Brecht-Weill interpretations, and being one of the very few hardcore traditional revivalists to move with the times, bringing old blues and ballads together with the new sounds of Dylan, Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen. During this crucial period, he performed with the likes of Bob Dylan and spent many years teaching guitar in Greenwich Village, including to Christine Lavin, David Massengill, Terre Roche and Suzzy Roche. He influenced his protégé Danny Kalb and The Blues Project. The Japanese singer Masato Tomobe, American pop-folk singer Geoff Thais and the musician and writer Elijah Wald learned from him as well. Known for making interesting and memorable observations he once said "Painting is all about space, and music is all about time."
Thanks to what he had learned from Davis, Van Ronk was among the first to adapt traditional jazz and ragtime to the solo acoustic guitar. His guitar arrangements of such ragtime hits as St. Louis Tickle, The Entertainer, The Pearls and Maple Leaf Rag continue to frustrate and challenge aspiring guitar players. He also did fine compositions of his own in the classic styles, such as Antelope Rag.
Robert Shelton described Van Ronk as, "the musical mayor of MacDougal Street, a tall, garrulous hairy man of three quarters, or, more accurately, three fifths Irish descent. Topped by light brownish hair and a leonine beard, which he smoothed down several times a minute, he resembled an unmade bed strewn with books, record jackets, pipes, empty whiskey bottles, lines from obscure poets, finger picks, and broken guitar strings. He was Bob (Dylan's) first New York guru. Van Ronk was a walking museum of the blues. Through an early interest in jazz, he had gravitated toward black music -- its jazz pole, its jug-band and ragtime center, its blues bedrock.....his manner was rough and testy, disguising a warm, sensitive core. Van Ronk retold the blues intimately....for a time, his most dedicated follower was Dylan."