Chatting via phone with Van Ronk from his digs in New York's West Village, I realized the sound had nothing to do with the connection. As difficult as it may be to understand, his voice is Van Ronk's pride and joy, a sound he's aged perfectly through a lifetime of cigarettes, whiskey and endless nights singing.
Asked if he does anything in particular to protect the cherished instrument, the legendary Van Ronk, now in his 60s, rasps, "Nothing. Nothing at all."
His voice is closer to the multi-harmonic tones of Tibetan monks or Tuva throat singers than the mellow sounds of folk singers like Peter, Paul and Mary. But in 1961, Van Ronk was offered the job of Paul in that supergroup, although he turned the gig down. Noel Paul Stookey took the call from manager Albert Grossman instead.
"My report card as a kid always said, 'Does not work or play well with others,' " Van Ronk explains. "I liked those guys, but it's just not what I do."
After Peter, Paul and Mary, Grossman later forged Bob Dylan out of Robert Zimmerman. Van Ronk, who released his first album in 1959, taught the young Zimmerman how to finger-pick the guitar. Renowned for his complex fingerstyle playing, Van Ronk affords his fingers more care than his voice.
"Sometimes when I'm traveling, I'll wear rubber tips like bank tellers use to keep my nails from getting messed up while I'm manhandling luggage," he confides. "But otherwise, I take reasonably good care not to let them get too long so they don't catch and tear. I always carry an emery board, and just in case, some crazy glue. I've tried artificial nails but they always come off at the worst possible times."
Van Ronk first learned fingerstyle from Tom Paley of the New Lost City Ramblers, as well as from blues artists such as Furry Lewis and Reverend Gary Davis. He carries a repertoire of hundreds of songs, some obscure, some popular, but all done in his own unique style, such as his jug-band version of Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf."
"I like songs that have character and personality," he says. "I've got nothing against three-chord songs. God knows I do a bunch of them. But I like to have some changes to play with.
"Songwriters don't seem to understand that a song is not a poem. A lot of songwriters overwrite. The simple declarative sentence is the rock bottom of a song lyric. In terms of the material I choose, I like a song that says something you don't hear all the time. I mean, 'I love you, you love me, blah, blah, blah.' Most songs are not only poorly written, but are boring. I will not tolerate a boring lyric."
Still working his craft much as he did more than 40 years ago, Van Ronk laments the way gigs have changed.
"It's harder to do now, and it has nothing to do with how old I am," he says. "Back then, I'd go out on the road and I'd work a single room for at least five nights. I knew most of the major cities. You'd open on Tuesday, the reviewer would be in the house on Wednesday or Thursday, the review would come out Thursday or Friday. Hopefully, if it was a good review, you'd have full houses on Friday and Saturday night. Now it's just one-nighters and that's harder, regardless of how old or young you are."
In spite of the trials of life on the road, Van Ronk's satisfied with his career -- one that's allowed both personal and economic freedom -- and has few regrets aside from never having been in a movie.
"I've always wanted to make a film," he says. "I was always curious to see how that worked for me inside."
But he's keeping busy, working on completing another jazz-oriented album, and performing the way he's been doing all his life.
"I never have made big plans," he confesses. "I'm perfectly happy if I have a new piece of material to work on and mull over. Careers in this business are made one song at a time."