The new Coen Brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis was inspired by folk musician Dave Van Ronk and the Greenwich Village folk revival of the early 1960s. Toronto’s Sylvia Tyson, the folk-siren half of the duo Ian and Sylvia, knew Mr. Van Ronk well and was part of New York scene back then. We spoke to her by phone.
Inside Llewyn Davis is set in Greenwich Village in the winter of 1961, and it’s all very bleak. How miserable was it for the folk musicians back then?
We actually had a lot of fun. And I have to say Dave Van Ronk was very well established by the time Ian and I hit New York. He had an apartment. He was married and was giving guitar lessons. He basically worked as much as he wanted to.
What was the energy like back then?
It was a very cohesive scene. Everybody knew everybody, and, on the whole, everybody was very helpful. We swapped songs. It was generous and open.
And the drugs?
It was early days in the drug scene. There was grass, but booze was the drug of choice.
In John Einarson’s book Ian & Sylvia: Four Strong Winds, Ian described it as “beer-drinking country bumpkins.”
Well, it was a little more sophisticated than that [laughs].
In the movie there were a lot of musicians sleeping on floors and crashing on other people’s couches. Was there a lot of that?
I believe so. I always got the impression that when [Bob] Dylan was hitting on girls. It wasn’t so much to hit on them as it was to have a place to stay.
The first New York Times review of Dylan, which was briefly mentioned in the film, was glowing, and it catapulted Dylan. But was it a validation of the scene as a whole?
It was a seminal article, yes. It certainly was for Dylan. As for the scene overall, the article was public exposure of what was already going on. We knew what was happening. Ian and I were working quite a lot, so when we were in New York it was because we weren’t on the road.
The sexism of the era is touched upon in the film. Was it a boys club back then?
It was simply the way things were at the time. We were coming out of the fifties. The reason [Bob Dylan’s girlfriend] Suze Rotolo and I became good friends was because most of the other women on the scene were groupies. There were a few female performers, like Judy Collins and Carolyn Hester. We were all very friendly, but we seldom saw each other because we were working.
How would you compare Toronto’s Yorkville scene to Greenwich Village?
Yorkville was kind of copycat and on a much smaller scale. Again, it was a very close scene. But the scene Ian and I came out of was not Yorkville. Yorkville didn’t exist then. We started a place called the Village Corner Club, which was on Avenue Road, north of Davenport. At that point, the club scene was scattered all over Toronto. Yorkville came later.
There’s the story about Dylan playing Blowin’ in the Wind for you two, which inspired you to begin writing songs yourselves. How did that change affect the folk scene?
It wasn’t that nobody was writing songs before Dylan did, but rather that everybody took notice when he did. As I think it says in the Ian & Sylvia book, we sort of thought if he can write, we can write. We thought Bob was very good, but we didn’t think he was any better than the rest of us. Mind you, I don’t think we realized that we weren’t going to be able to keep up with his output.
This interview has been condensed and edited
Inside Llewyn Davis is playing at select cinemas in Toronto.