Ragtime Jug Stompers

Dave Van Ronk and the Ragtime Jug Stompers

This is why people were so enamored by the folk revival. The Stompers made it sound like anyone could play this music, and I mean that in both the ways it seems. There is a chaotic energy driving the arrangements, and the recordings sound like old style bluegrass one mic live takes, though that can’t be true. Recording for Mercury Records they must have had at least 2 mics.

It starts with a kazoo driven jazz number. Kazoo. And jazz. That’s one aspect to this record that feels so accessible. It communicates to the audience: just grab anything, some spoons, some wax paper and a comb, and make some noise. Look this ain’t complicated, it’s just music.

The most polished songs are two B-side breakdowns, “Temptation Rag” and “Georgia Camp Meeting.” The mandolin and banjo sound isolated and crystal clear. And the takes are clean. But that is by far the exception to a foot stomping, hollering good time.

This is what I mean when I say I think I understand why so many people were attracted to the folk revival and why so many people were unconcerned with historical origins or with politics. The music was an excuse to cut loose. Through the guise of folk music, the performers and audience could let out something deeper. The mask of someone else’s culture gave the singer a kind of freedom. Van Ronk vamping it up on “Shake that Thing” shows why white musicians were so attracted to black music. They could put some blues in the licks and stank on the vocals. Let it hang out. Just have a good time, man, don’t worry about nailing the performance. In a way, you already know you’re not playing it “right” so just play it loud and have fun. Compared to the polish of the Kingston Trio, these guys seem like anarchists.

All of this of course obscures how practiced the members of the Ragtime Jug Stompers really were. Van Ronk’s excellent blues guitar anchors the band, even in its messy energy. These really are practiced musicians even as they go slumming.

The final song is a jazz song by way of southern blues about smoking weed. But they move the action to Washington Square, demonstrating the centrality of the Greenwich scene to this end of the revival.

In final reflection, this work helps me to understand some of the more psychedelic folk rock bands that followed them. There’s a little bit of the same Ragtime Jug Stompers energy in Country Joe and the Fish or The New Vaudeville Band.

Album Essentials:

Label: Mercury – MG 20864

Released: 1964

Arranged By – The Jug Stompers*

Arranged By, Guitar, Vocals, Liner Notes – Dave Van Ronk

Backing Vocals, Jug, Bass [Washtub], Jug – Sam Charters*

Banjo – Barry Kornfeld

Guitar – Danny Kalb

Mandolin – Artie Rose