In 1976 I graduated high school and headed off to New York University — it was the only college I applied to, because it was the only college in Greenwich Village and I was only going to college to take guitar lessons from Dave Van Ronk, who lived in an apartment on Sheridan Square.
I showed up for my first lesson and Dave asked me to play something that would give him a sense of what I knew, and I played this song. I had learned it from my favorite blues guitar book, Woody Mann’s Six Black Blues Guitarists (later republished as Six Early Blues Guitarists), which was beautifully curated, with particularly accurate and clearly written transcriptions. That was where I learned Blind Blake’s “Early Morning Blues,” Scrapper Blackwell’s “Kokomo Blues,” Big Bill Broonzy’s “Long Tall Mama,” and Tampa Red’s “Boogie Woogie Dance,” but at age seventeen “Georgia Rag” was far and away my favorite.
So I played it for Dave, and he chuckled and said, “That was very nice — you played the wrong chord in the bridge, just like McTell did.” We hadn’t even started the lesson, and already he’d provided a revelation: that something Willie McTell played might be “wrong,” and by extension that it was OK to critique the old masters rather than simply accepting them as gospel. I didn’t have the nerve to ask what he meant, but a few months later when my chord sense had improved I figured it out: McTell (at least as transcribed by Woody Mann, whom I tend to trust) starts the bridge with an E chord, then goes to F, adds the sixth, moves that up a fret to play an F#6, then goes to C — and the F#6 is actually a half-assed substitute for a B.
Of course, there are all kinds of right and wrong, and I was used to McTell’s version and liked it and I’ve stuck with it. But that was a good introduction to the way Dave thought about old blues recordings, which was that they were often good, sometimes great, and occasionally works of genius, but that didn’t mean they were above criticism. Nor was anything else — he would listen to Lester Young or Louis Armstrong, and make a funny expression when they hit a “clam” (wrong note), and I won’t swear he was always right, but it was always worth considering. He was the same way with visual art or literature: “The trouble with Shakespeare is he wrote so beautifully that when he ran out of things to say, he kept writing.” Again, the lesson was not so much the specifics, but the idea that you could find fault with Shakespeare — and, more than that, that if you were serious about music, or art, or literature, it was your duty to examine it carefully and seriously, and figure out what worked and what didn’t, and why.
Getting back to “Georgia Rag” — I already had one Willie McTell LP before I left home, and this song was on it, but as far as I can tell I made no attempt to learn how he actually played and sang the song. Part of the reason was probably that he was playing a 12-string guitar tuned down to Ab, so there was no way I could get my guitar in the same pitch, but in any case I basically ignored his version and just learned what Mann had written, then came up with a way to sing the lyric over what I was playing, and called that Willie McTell’s “Georgia Rag.” Which is to say, the wrong chord Van Ronk noticed may be the only accurate thing in my version… but what the hell, I’ve been playing it this way for forty years.
And while we’re on the subject of revealing mistakes… McTell’s recording was a quicky attempt to capitalize on the success of Blind Blake’s “Wabash Rag,” and apparently Blake’s song was still in his head when he made the record, so at one point he slips up and sings “doing that rag, that Wa-Georgia rag.”