This was Dave Van Ronk’s first venture into classic ragtime, and spawned an entire generation of ragtime guitar virtuosos. Dave Laibman, Eric Schoenberg, Ton Von Bergeyk, Leo Wijnkamp, Guy Van Duser… they all started out with “St. Louis Tickle.” Dave had been singing and playing the second section since the late 1950s, as “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” then worked up the next two sections as a solo guitar instrumental, which he recorded in 1963 for his In the Tradition LP. That’s the best-known version, which most people play, but the following year he formed a band with Barry Kornfeld on banjo, Artie Rose on mandolin, and Danny Kalb on guitar (along with Sam Charters on jug, washboard, and vocals), and they worked up all four sections for their Ragtime Jug Stompers album — after which Dave buckled down and charted the remaining parts for solo guitar, though he only recorded that version for the CDs accompanying his guitar instruction book.
I learned the full version from Dave, but frankly was more excited by his arrangements of “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Pearls,” which seemed more intricate and sophisticated. But one night in Málaga a flamenco aficionado invited me to a late-night basement tablao, and at some point I ended up with a guitar in my hands, and I tried to find something they would appreciate and kept striking out (though they were polite about it) until I played “St. Louis Tickle.” At that point, everybody got quiet and paid attention, and said nice things afterwards. I figured if they liked this, they’d love “Maple Leaf Rag,” but I was wrong — they were polite, again, but this was the one that struck them as something special.
I still don’t understand that, but it happened again in Morocco, under even more striking conditions. I was hitchhiking from Casablanca to Agadir in the winter of 1978, and stopped in a tiny roadside village — I don’t remember the details, but someone invited me to spend the night, and we had a fabulous meal, all the men seated around a large earthenware stew dish, eating with our hands and mopping up with hunks of fresh, flat bread. (Incidentally, that bread was the universal stomach-filler in every Moroccan home I visited — I only saw couscous in restaurants and when some French hippies had me to dinner in their van.) (And yes, it was just the men eating in the main room. The women and children presumably ate in the kitchen; I only once stayed long enough in a home that I was accepted as family and ate with everybody.)
Anyway, after dinner they asked me to play some music, and I sang various things, and they were polite about it… and then I tried “St. Louis Tickle,” and the old men got up and started dancing. So I played another ragtime piece, and they sat down again and were polite. And damned if that didn’t happen all the way through Morocco: I never found another tune anyone would dance to, but whenever I played this one, if there were old men around they would get up and start shuffling in a circle, like they recognized it as a traditional village tune.
I still can’t explain that, but it sure made Dave happy when I told him the story.