I spent 1976-7 in New York learning Dave Van Ronk guitar arrangements while listening to Yazoo pre-war blues reissues, but only got up the nerve to attempt a handful of the pieces I heard on the old records. Of the few I managed to work out, my favorite was “Ragtime Millionaire,” recorded in 1928 by William (Bill) Moore, a barber who was born in Georgia but apparently lived most of his life in coastal Virginia. It was included on the Guitar Wizards anthology, from which I also eventually picked up a couple of Carl Martin’s songs and some of my favorite Blind Blake numbers — but that first year, Moore’s song was the one that caught my attention, in part because of the jaunty lyrics, but also because it had a catchy guitar riff in the chorus that was one of the first guitar licks I managed to pick up off a record without help from tablature.
I don’t think anyone knows where Moore learned to play guitar, but I later became fascinated with his rhythmic quirks — he mostly stayed in basic ragtime rhythm, but every once in a while he’d throw in a sort of Latin or Caribbean accent on the bass strings, which caught my attention as I got deeper into African guitar styles. (I’ll be exploring that material in a few months, and for the moment anyone interested can check out “Masanga” and “Iko Iko.”)
The song itself was Moore’s reworking of a ragtime hit from 1900 by one of the most popular African American songwriters of that period, Irving Jones. As Paul Oliver noted in Songsters and Saints — a foundational book on the broad variety of African American singing often subsumed under the catch-all term “blues” — Jones’s compositions seem to have been particularly popular with early guitarists, or at least the ones whose work was preserved on record. Gus Cannon recorded an earlier Jones hit with the same theme, “My Money Never Gives Out,” and it’s easy to see how both songs would have appealed to a street singer trying to catch some passersby with a fun lyric that included a subliminal suggestion to reach in their pockets and be generous.
I couldn’t understand all of Moore’s lyrics, so I changed the words around some, but basically do it like he did it, and for a while this was my big showpiece, aside from a bunch of Van Ronk songs. The fact that it was my one big non-Ronk number incidentally led to its being what I played on my radio debut — Dave was doing a six-show weekend at Passim Coffeehouse in Cambridge and WERS wanted him to do a morning interview, and he hated to sing in the morning, so he brought me along as a (poor) substitute. I obviously wasn’t going to do one of his songs in a situation where everyone listening would just wish he was doing it instead, so I played “Ragtime Millionaire.”
To finish that story, when we got to the club that evening, Dave asked Bob Donlin, the owner and booker, if he’d listened and he said he had, and Dave said, “So what’d you think?” and Bob said, “He was OK,” in a voice that clearly conveyed his lack of interest in having me play there anytime soon… And to finish that story, he relented a couple of years later, and gave me the chance to open for Norman Blake, and then for Tony Bird, and some other people, and a lot of people considered him grumpy, but I liked him and miss him.