Dave Van Ronk was hailed as the pioneering arranger of “classic” ragtime for fingerstyle guitar more or less by default. In the early 1960s he did an arrangement of “St. Louis Tickle” that was the first recording of a multi-part piano or orchestral ragtime composition on fingerstyle guitar — but he tended to argue that other people had probably played something similar in the ragtime era, and simply failed to be captured on disc or cylinder, like most music of that time.
Be that as it may, he was hailed as a pioneer, and when ragtime became news thanks to The Sting, the Joshua Rifkin recordings of Scott Joplin piano rags, the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble, and suchlike, Dave took up the challenge and began arranging more classic rags. Among them, not surprisingly, was Scott Joplin’s masterpiece, “The Maple Leaf Rag,” which Dave recorded on his Sunday Street LP. However, when I interviewed him about this he said he never really saw himself as a ragtime instrumentalist:
“When I played ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ there are probably a hundred fifty guitarists around the world who could tear me a new asshole on ‘Maple Leaf Rag,’ playing pretty much the same arrangement as I did…. But I never did that so I could do that. That was a research project. And what I learned from learning how to do that has been applied hundreds and hundreds of times to accompaniments for songs. Which is what I do do.”
He also explained that Reverend Gary Davis was the source for his arrangement: “I would have tried to play ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ in C, but I saw Gary fooling around with it and he did it in A. It was like a light bulb going on: ‘Right, that’s it!’ The rest of it came kind of easy, but only because Gary had shown me the way.”
All of which being said, what is striking about Dave’s arrangement is how simply and comfortably it falls on the guitar. Although he plays all four sections of Joplin’s rag and Davis only attempted the first section, Dave’s version is much easier to play. And although other guitarists have come closer to an exact transcription of the piano chart, none (to my knowledge) has come up with an arrangement that feels like something a guitarist might have generated naturally on the instrument. Dave’s gift was that although he loved piano music, when he arranged for guitar he thought like a folk-blues guitar player who liked ragtime, and his ragtime arrangements are completely accessible to anyone with decent fingerstyle blues guitar skills. Which, I suppose, is just a way of saying I can play the damn thing without tying my fingers in knots, and am forever grateful.