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Dave Van Ronk: Ally at the Stonewall Uprising

Dave Van Ronk has been called a “folk singer’s folk singer.” He personified the image of the Greenwich Village artist and musician as the “local” who didn’t forsake his roots for fame and fortune. He was alternately dubbed both “the Mayor of Greenwich Village” and “the Mayor of MacDougal Street,” and stood as a symbol of the Washington Square Park folk scene in the 1960s. What is less known about Van Ronk is that he was one of the original thirteen people arrested on June 28th, 1969 at the start of the Stonewall Uprising, the six-day series of disturbances that began as a protest by LGBTQ+ people against police harassment, but became the start of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement.

Dave Van Ronk performs onstage at the Gaslight Cafe on June 22, 1964 (Photo by Kai Shuman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Van Ronk’s life followed a winding path, from jazz aficionado to banjo player, to a staple of the folk scene in Greenwich Village. Along the way, he was a colleague and friend to artists such as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Tom Paxton, and most of the folk crowd in the Village. He served as a mentor to an array of musicians as well. He might well have slipped through the cracks of historical memory had it not been for his posthumous autobiography (with Elijah Wald), The Mayor of MacDougal Street, and the subsequent film by the Cohen Brothers loosely inspired by his life, Inside Llewyn Davis. Fortunately, due in large part to these, Van Ronk has taken his rightful place in history as a direct descendant of the left-wing folk wave pioneers such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.

Like his contemporaries and his musical progenitors, his music was fueled by political conviction; in the 1960s he was dedicated to the civil rights movement, and he was a lifelong Trotskyite, who relished direct involvement and confrontation. In fact, Van Ronk had an extensive FBI file, started in 1963, which tracked his political life meticulously.

Dave Van Ronk’s residence in 1969, 190 Waverly Place

In 1969, Van Ronk lived at 190 Waverly Place, next door to Julius’ Bar and a block away from the Stonewall Inn. His apartment was a gathering place for both established as well as up-and-coming folk singers. On June 28th, 1969, the night the Stonewall Inn was raided and the protests began, Van Ronk was at a nearby bar called the Lion’s Head Tavern, a popular hangout for writers, artists, folk singers, and political activists. When he left the bar, Van Ronk encountered the activity outside the Stonewall Inn.

Protesters outside the Stonewall Inn

“I was passing by and I saw what was going down,” he said in an interview, “and I figured, they can’t have a riot without me!” Van Ronk was not gay, but he had firsthand experience with police violence, both at the Beatnik Riot in Washington Square Park in 1961, as well as at many antiwar demonstrations. “As far as I was concerned,” he said, “anybody who’d stand against the cops was all right with me, and that’s why I stayed in…Every time you turn around the cops were pulling some outrage or another.”

The crowds swelled to about five hundred people on that hot June night and the police were eventually greatly outnumbered. To escape the frenzy, the police grabbed some of the protesters, dragged them into the Stonewall Inn, and barricaded themselves inside. Van Ronk was one of those dragged from the crowd into the building. The police slapped and punched Van Ronk to the point of near unconsciousness, handcuffed him to a radiator near the doorway, and decided to charge him with assault. A formidable force in the activist crowd, he was one of only 13 arrested at the uprising.

Dave Van Ronk arrest report from June 1969

The police report indicates that Van Ronk was arrested for hitting an officer in the face with “an unknown object.” Van Ronk eventually pleaded guilty to harassment, and he was later sued by the officer he allegedly assaulted.

The uprising lasted for six days of protests and violent clashes with law enforcement, both outside the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, in neighboring streets, and in nearby Christopher Park. Van Ronk was not further significantly involved in the ensuing protests, but his activism as an ally to the cause on that night has cast him as a major player in the drama that would ultimately serve as a catalyst for the LGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States and around the world.

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