I’ve testified in a previous post about my love of the Greenbriar Boys, and in particular their album with this title track. It was one of the formative records of my early teens, in a large part because it was so much fun — kind of like the Kweskin Jug Band, though with more country flavor. This song in particular became one of my standbys, because it was a great way to introduce myself. I’d start my first set with something quiet and pretty — usually “Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me” — and then, when the audience was lulled into thinking I was that kind of guy, I’d hit them with a burst of fast ragtime picking and launch into this:
I just came here to tell you people, I’m ragged, but I’m right,
A thief and I’m a gambler and I’m drunk every night…
Which was stretching the truth a bit, but I was in my early twenties and feeling hot — those were the days when I’d start out wearing a cowboy shirt, then strip down mid-set to a tight black t-shirt with a gaudy picture of Madonna on it. Take that, you folky purists and sensitive singer-songwriters…
The Greenbriars presumably got this from Riley Puckett’s 1934 recording, though I’d been doing it for years before I even knew who Puckett was. That was kind of odd, because he was one of the first major stars in old-time country music, already known throughout the South before Jimmie Rodgers entered a recording studio.
I think I missed him because by the time I came along the revivalist scene had segmented, with blues fans like me on one side and old-time fiddle and string-band folks on another. Since he made lots of records singing ragtime and blues-flavored material, there’s no reason aside from race why Puckett couldn’t have gotten filed on my side along with people like John Hurt and Mance Lipscomb… but race was a major demarcator, plus the fact that he was the guitarist for a fiddle band, Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers. That’s how I first heard him, and I assumed he was mostly a sideman, but Tony Russell quotes the Skillett Lickers’ virtuoso fiddler, Clayton McMichen, saying that in commercial terms Puckett was the star: “Riley proved the people wanted to hear singin’, and if he didn’t sing on the records, why, they didn’t sell much.”
“Ragged But Right” had previously been recorded by an African American group led by brothers Rufus and Ben Quillian, who like Puckett were from Georgia, but their version was sufficiently different that it presumably wasn’t his source. The song dates back at least to 1905, when Abbott and Seroff quote the Indianapolis Freeman describing a popular comedian “cleaning up with one of Bob Russell’s latest songs, ‘Ragged, but Right’.” There was a prominent black theatrical producer named Bob Russell in that period, and I assume this was him, but I have no other evidence that he wrote songs, so it may have been something he bought from the actual composer, and a reference from 1909 credits it to a performer known only as Shoe Strings. (Handily for this research, Abbott and Seroff titled their book Ragged but Right.)
As for the guitar twirl in the last verse, I got that from Andy Cohen, and it came in handy when I worked with Howard Armstrong, who liked me to do it in sync with his mandolin twirl.