It is the early 1960s, in New York City’s Greenwich Village, a burly yet underfed guitarist fusses over a record player, the smoke from a lit cigarette curling around his head. He drops the needle again and again on a scratchy 78rpm record. As the strains of a turn-of-the-century piano rag Saint Louis Tickle warble forth, he plunks his guitar, working out the notes of the melody and the cadence of the bass notes.
The young man is Dave Van Ronk, and he is an anomaly. As the rest of his countrymen are fast-forwarding into a future of fast cars and even faster media, he is looking backward, burrowing back in time to the roots of American music, teasing out its secrets and nuances. There is no money involved, there is no ambition of fame. There is just a driven musician, intent on adding something new, something untried, to his repertoire. He does not know in creating one of the first guitar arrangements for a classic ragtime piano piece, that once other musicians hear it, it will kick off what will become a movement of ragtime guitarists, 60 years after the music’s heyday.
The world is not waiting for anyone to create a new ragtime guitar tune. But still, Dave Van Ronk is uniquely qualified to take this on. Having put in time on the bandstand as a traditional jazz banjo player since his youth, he is a survivor of the ‘moldy fig wars’ – the period when NYC’s cafes and musician’s bars roiled with the controversy of whether be-bop was destroying jazz. Several years later, now self-qualifying as a ‘neo-folk’ artist (the term ‘folkie’ did not yet exist,) he is one of an obscure group of musicians who’ve abandoned mainstream musical trends and the idea of commercial success. Instead, they have set out to mine the canon of traditional songs, searching for real meaning – something that is absent from the music heard on the pop charts. It is a fertile, vibrant milieu of people dedicated to something the rest of the culture has thrown away and forgotten. They gather around record players, trying to figure out the old guitar styles, and join together in Washington Square Park in Manhattan to sing songs of farmers and ways of life that are gone.
Van Ronk was taking the lead as a ‘cultural expeditionary’*, becoming a central figure in the nascent Greenwich Village folk revival. His explorations had already taken him to the back-rooms of Harlem, where, at 17, he was hanging around the thrift store of jazz pianist Clarence Williams, learning songs and hearing him jam with musicians coming through town, the likes of James P. Johnson, and others. He absorbed that pianistic approach, and it became the basis for how he conceived of his own guitar parts.
Now he was taking it to the next level, taking all he’d learned and adding the latest influence of his new guitar mentor, Harlem street singer, the Reverend Gary Davis. At this time, Reverend Davis was still unknown to the world. Having recorded a few tracks in the 1930s, he was now a store-front preacher. Van Ronk found out that RGD was available for guitar lessons for $5, and he set about learning his techniques. What he learned included a lexicon of guitar chord shapes that had been developed by blues guitarists, and shared across the south and in the bars and speakeasies throughout the urban ghettos. Among these, were a number of positions that required the use of the thumb of the fretting hand over the top of the neck to fret notes. This “thumb-over” technique was used by many different styles of players, from jazz to country, and allowed for easier fretting of barre chords. But in the case of Gary Davis’ guitar style, they made possible intricate counterpoint bassline and melody lines. This is just what Van Ronk needed to tackle Saint Louis Tickle on guitar.
Another important technique that paved the way would be the Reverend’s alternating bass technique. This fingerpicking style – known in later years as “Travis Picking”, was the hallmark of an under-appreciated form of blues guitar and traditional American music, know as the “Piedmont” style, named for the region of the eastern seaboard where it was the predominant style. The Reverend Gary Davis, a blind southern street musician, was one of its preeminent players.
Armed with RGD’s chord shapes, and powerful alternating bass, Van Ronk was ready to take-on piano rags. He was aware of the recordings of other performers playing “guitar rags”, like Blind Blake, Big Bill Broonzy, and others. But these guitar rags were in many ways different from the classic piano rags and the arrangements of traditional ragtime for dancing. In applying the kinds of chords and the fingerpicking technique of the Piedmont players to a classic, 19th-century composition, he was bridging two worlds. Later ragtime guitar arrangements that were done for recordings in the 60s and 70s, and for guitar books with Scott Joplin tunes in tablature, used techniques from classical guitar, which gives those pieces a different, less folkie feel.
Dave Van Ronk’s version of Saint Louis Tickle is a laid back, comfortable piece. This kind of thing is difficult enough to execute (another reason it had not really been attempted,) so he doesn’t try for some of the complex counterpoint of full-fledged piano ragtime and relies on the built-in counterpoint of the alternating bass technique. Van Ronk teaches the piece in his book Blues and Ragtime Fingerstyle Guitar. The CD included with that edition is actually a neat collector’s item since it contains the only version of him performing the full version of the tune. The take released on his original vinyl recording was a partial version, without the complex intro. I don’t play this intro in my version, as I grew up listening to the original recording, and that’s what I was excited to learn. As always, with learning, it is not about simply imitating. I don’t use the “thumb-over” positions in my arrangement. I was unaware of the technique when I was learning and actually went out of my way to develop my own style as a workaround. I was simply trying to get the sound of DVR, Reverend Gary, and John Hurt, and it wasn’t until years later that I realized that the sounds I was hearing and deciphering off of the old recordings, were designed to be played “thumb-over” style. I can now see how much simpler the mechanics of those licks are using the thumb to fret the bass. In any case, I play the piece in standard fingering, so here you have an example of how to play Van Ronk’s arrangement, without using “thumb-over”. This involves some different choices for fingerings. I also use a lot of palm muting, with the right hand muting the strings occasionally, in rhythm with the music. A lot of fingerstyle blues players do this, and it becomes an element of personal style the way in which you use this. DVR did not use this kind of muting, and played with his right hand somewhat arched above the guitar, with the pinky finger planted on the face of the guitar. I tend to place the pinky in this manner, especially when recording and working on a take, as when making this video because it helps give stability and improves the chances you’ll make it through the piece without misfiring. But I also encourage people to not be rigid in this practice, and have the ability to move from using the pinky to stabilize, to still being able to pick cleanly without it, or do other techniques where planting the pinkie gets in the way. Van Ronk has said he believes it improves most people’s sound to keep this pinky position. You can try it different ways and judge for yourself.
I do a few things on this video that are also not necessarily Van Ronk’s style. For example, I do three different thumb strokes in this piece. The first one is a standard pattern where I thumb the 1 and 2 beats of the two-step ragtime rhythm, with my thumb moving toward the floor, giving a solid weight to the downbeat, and a little extra accent on the second beat, which gives the piece its bounce. The swing feel in this thumb pattern is what makes the whole thing work. The next type of thumb stroke I use is mostly on the second alternating stroke, on the accent, where I grab the string with my thumb and pull away from the face of the guitar, and snap the string on the fretboard. I try not to overuse this, but I sometimes get carried away. It’s fun and feels good. The dynamics you use are the art of it. The third thumb technique is used in places such as the section when the piece goes to the key of G. There’s a bar of just bass, and here I use a stroke where I am pressing the string into the face of the guitar as if I’m just going to push straight through the top, and letting the string roll off my finger and bounce back. This called pre-loading the string, applying pressure in advance of the note, and letting it pop free.
The most important thing in this style is the right hand and the feel that you put into the music. I have my own touch and style, different from Van Ronk’s. When I get going, little things start happening, and I end up doing a glissando that is not in Van Ronk’s version or sliding into a note in my own way. I learn just enough of a piece so I have the foundation, and at a certain point I just let myself have fun with it and enjoy how it comes out — whether it would meet the approval of the old-time ragtimers – or of Van Ronk, I don’t know. I’d like to think they’d be happy to see the music still being kept alive.