Antelope Rag (Dave Van Ronk)

In the early 1960s, when other people on the folk scene were learning rural string band and blues music, Dave Van Ronk recorded the first fingerstyle guitar arrangement of a formal, multi-part rag, “St. Louis Tickle.” As I wrote in the “Tickle” installment (and others),  that piece spawned a small ragtime guitar scene that by the mid-1970s had produced a dozen or so albums and spread to Europe. Dave meanwhile had been concentrating on other things. He took a second crack at arranging classic rags on his Ragtime Jug Stompers LP, but handed over the instrumental leads to Danny Kalb, Artie Rose, and Barry Kornfeld, and then he got into modern singer-songwriter styles, formed a rock band, recorded with larger ensembles, and put the fancy guitar work on the back burner.

The hiatus lasted till about 1975, by which time the folk boom was over, he hadn’t managed to cross over to a pop audience, and he was forced to give guitar lessons to pay the rent. For better or worse, that meant he had to think long and hard about his guitar playing, and he reached the conclusion that he was fundamentally an arranger rather than a picker. That, in turn, led to the thought that he should create some more complex arrangements, and he worked out beautiful charts of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” Jelly Roll Morton’s “The Pearls,” and a bit later Joplin’s “The Entertainer.”

Dave was haunted, though, by a comment he had made back in “Tickle” days to the effect that solo guitar wasn’t really suited to piano rags and it would be better either to arrange them for two guitars or write new rags specifically for solo fingerstyle performance. So, around 1980, he finally wrote one. I remember the first time he played it for me, sitting on his huge and sagging couch. He was very pleased with how it had turned out, and explained that he’d titled it “Antelope Rag” because a friend had commented that his left-hand movements in the the third section looked like a leaping antelope.

By that time I’d gotten over my own flirtation with classic ragtime, and although I liked the piece I probably wouldn’t have learned it… but a few years later Dave hired me to do the tablature for his guitar instruction book. That meant learning all the arrangements, and this was one of them, and was really fun to play, so I kept playing it. I even played it for Leo Wijnkamp in Antwerp, who was one of Dave’s modern models of a ragtime guitarist, and although Leo was tired of ragtime by then and composing modernist pieces for multiple guitars and clarinets, he said some nice things about the use of dissonance in the fourth section, which made Dave very happy.

(Dave’s guitar book is long out of print, and there don’t seem to be any plans to reissue it, but Dave’s wife is willing to sell tab sheets for this piece — so if you want a copy, get in touch with me.)