Cocaine Blues by Dave Von Ronk, 1961

Man, what a great song. In 1961, my dad, a Lieutenant JG in the reserves, was called up for the Berlin crisis, and his ship, the destroyer escort Daniel A. Joy, was reassigned from Chicago to Newport, Rhode Island. I spent the summer of 1962 in an attic in Newport, and every night my parents would play a reel-to-reel party tape they had made before leaving home. It had a marvelous mix of stuff — Odetta, Ramsay Lewis, Bob Dylan’s first album (I didn’t realize it was Bob until I was in college), a lot of Gaelic stuff, a lot of civil rights songs (“Ain’t gonna let Bull Connor turn me around . . . “), Wally Cox losing control while singing “Tavern in the Town — just an incredible hodgepodge of folk, protest and novelty stuff. The standout, though, was Dave Von Ronk’s version of Rev. Gary Davis’ “Cocaine Blues.” Von Ronk was a Greenwich Village contemporary of Dylan’s — in fact, they became estranged after Dylan stole Dave’s arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun.” He had a huge voice which could go from tender to dangerous in a flash, and his spare, emotional arrangement of the song is very affecting. One night, as my mother was tucking me in (I was 5 that summer), I asked her what cocaine was. I’ve remembered the answer verbatim: “It’s something that makes you feel like you’re floating, but it costs a lot of money.” My mother’s pretty cool.

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