Real Life Rock Top 10: September 18, 2023
1. & 2. Terri Thal, My Greenwich Village: Dave, Bob and Me (McNidder & Grace) and Bozie Sturdivant, “Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down” (YouTube). Thal, born in Brooklyn in 1939, was married to the folk singer Dave Van Ronk; in the late ’50s she managed him, and briefly, later, Bob Dylan. Her book, written now, in her eighties, doesn’t have the grace or romance of Suze Rotolo’s A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties, or the keening, all but anthropological eye Dylan brings to the same time and the same terrain in his Chronicles, Volume 1. What it does have is the story of a questing girl in an age of silence, a lifelong socialist, a proudly Jewish woman in a milieu that was very much not, a complete lack of embarrassment over any detail—she made choices, if she was lucky they had consequences—and a voice so full of vehemence it makes everything interesting. So I was reading chapter 2, “My Introduction to Folk Music,” and I came across this:
I’m writing now about what I perceived in the 1960s—so I feel comfortable describing what we thought the blues was then: the music of the neglected, the exploited Black residents of the South for whom the blues was a way to express unhappiness and dissatisfaction . . . I still hear that in the music. But I also hear the joyousness and grace of such songs as “Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down,” sung by Bozie Stirdivant and heard on Negro Religious Songs and Services, a Library of Congress record, which still mesmerizes me every time I hear it.
I believed her. Somehow I was certain it would mesmerize me too. I knew the song—from Aoife O’Donovan with Crooked Still to Johnny Cash and before and after, hundreds of people have recorded it. It’s Oscar Isaac’s signature song in Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers movie loosely mined from Van Ronk’s memoir, The Mayor of Macdougal Street. But I didn’t know this recording.