I arrived on Dave Van Ronk’s doorstep just as he reached the high-water mark of his interest in ragtime guitar, so I emerged from my year of study with “St. Louis Tickle,” “Maple Leaf Rag,” “The Entertainer” (which was so overdone that I quickly forgot it), and Jelly Roll Morton’s “The Pearls.” (I don’t think Dave had yet composed his own contribution to the genre, “Antelope Rag,” but it followed in the next couple of years, and I’ll get around to it in good time.)
“The Pearls” may have been my favorite — though audiences never got as excited about it as they did about “Maple Leaf,” so I played it a good deal less. I was not familiar with Morton’s piano version at the time, so Dave’s guitar arrangement was the first way I heard it, and it was so damn pretty, with neat chords and interesting harmonies. Morton was Dave’s favorite composer and one of his favorite musicians, alongside Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.
Dave would later say he worked out these piano rags as research projects to improve his understanding of the guitar, and that was certainly part of it, but there was also some pride involved. He was trying to get off the road and make his living from teaching, and he wanted to feel like he was the kind of guitarist an ambitious young student might want to study with, even in the musical mecca of Manhattan — and, damn it, he was the acknowledged pioneer of classic ragtime guitar and wanted to justify his reputation.
That had gotten a lot harder by the mid-1970s, because like many pioneers he had inspired a wave of followers who didn’t have to labor under his handicaps — starting with his own lack of predecessors, but also a clumsy right hand that kept tripping him up, since he was a natural lefty. Dave Laibman and Eric Schoenberg had credited him on their debut LP, which was the first full album of ragtime guitar instrumentals, but soon a bunch of players came along who were only marginally aware of his contribution. He was particularly taken with the Dutch guitarist Ton Van Bergeyk, and also Leo Wijnkamp, and then I introduced him to Guy Van Duser’s work, which led him to begin musing about the unique affinity Dutch and Dutch-American guitarists seemed to have for ragtime… until his lady, Joanne, broke in to point out that he had about as much Dutch ancestry as he had Cherokee.
I later got to know Leo, met Ton a couple of times, and took one lesson from Guy, but I continue to particularly like Dave’s arrangements, because they both feel and sound like something a guitarist would naturally play. Most classic ragtime guitar arrangements sound to me like attempts to play piano compositions on an instrument that has too few strings — like Dr. Johnson’s hind-leg-walking dog, one is impressed that it can be done at all, not because the results sound particularly pretty. Dave’s arrangements always sounded pretty — and when I finally heard Morton’s piano recording, I was struck by how much of it he had managed to translate into guitar language, and reasonably simple guitar language at that.