A toast to … trash

Cafe Katja.

At the blog this week, I recommended an upcoming concert of American spectral music, relaxed with a bit of ragtime, and welcomed the new issue of Mineshaft magazine.

Poking around on the internet yesterday, I came across this interview with comics artist Chris Ware, who mused upon the reputation of the form to which he has devoted his career:

As an art of reproduction, comics always returns to its status as trash, which I think is key to its being seen clearly and read critically; it has none of the innate prestige of writing or painting and so has to earn its stature on its own terms, every time.

An interesting consideration, and one which intersects with two of my other preoccupations, ragtime music and Mark Twain. One of the reasons for comics’ status as “trash” is the original audience to which it was addressed: the broadest general audience, the audience for what we generally call popular culture. Comics, certainly, as entertainments for children published in disposable newspapers and comic books, were never considered lasting contributions to the expression of the human spirit by critics, teachers, or the elite. In 1901, the American Federation of Musicians dismissed ragtime as “‘unmusical rot.’ Members were encouraged to ‘make every effort to suppress and [to] discourage the playing and the publishing of such musical trash.'” The musical journal The Etude went further a year earlier, thundering that “the counters of the music stores are loaded with this virulent poison which in the form of a malarious epidemic, is finding its way into the homes and brains of the youth to such an extent as to arouse one’s suspicions of their sanity.” And in 1885, the year Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published, the New York Herald reported the deliberations of the Library Committee of the Concord, MA, Public Library:

Another committeeman perused the volume with great care and discovered that it was “couched in the language of a rough, ignorant dialect” and that “all through its pages there is a systematic use of bad grammar and an employment of inelegant expressions.” The third member voted the book “flippant” and “trash of the veriest sort.” They all united in the verdict that “it deals with a series of experiences that are certainly not elevating,” and voted that it could not be tolerated in the public library.

What made this American trash particularly trashy, in part, was its use of vernacular forms. All three — comics, Huckleberry Finn, and ragtime — were distinctly American creations, repudiating European expression and embracing American voices. But as Ware suggests, it also has to do with the mass reproduction of the work itself, lending it to easy disposal and dismissal; it is, by definition, ephemeral. The greatest artists in each of these forms — Joplin in music, from Mark Twain to Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor in language, and from George Herriman to Robert Crumb in visual art — shanghaied popular American slang culture to serve as a new vehicle for deeply personal individual expression, thereby becoming profoundly subversive of what for a better phrase we call “high art.” And its reputation as popular culture serves, as Ware also suggests, to keep these creators modest, if not necessarily honest.

So at Cafe Katja this afternoon, Gabe and I will raise our glasses to American trash. Long may it live.

News from North Carolina

Mineshaft #38, the most recent issue of the fine magazine from Everett Rand and Gioia Palmieri of Durham, NC, arrived in my mailbox yesterday, and as usual it does not disappoint. It is the American magazine most suited to my own temperament these days, whatever that says about me; one of these days I must write about what that is. I’m about halfway through the issue now; it boasts work from a variety of fine artists: veterans like R. Crumb, Robert Armstrong, Drew Friedman, and Art Spiegelman, but also artists with whom I wasn’t previously familiar, especially Christoph Mueller and Noah Van Sciver. There’s much more, too, not least a chapter from Palmieri’s novel-in-progress and a selection by Aleksandar Zograf of old photos found at flea markets, accompanied by a few quite thoughtful meditations.

You can learn more about the magazine at its web site. I encourage you to subscribe today — three issues for $32.00, a savings of precisely zero off the cover price (I’ll give them the $2.00 for postage), but it’s worth more, oh so much more, as I wrote here.

Tom Turpin’s “Harlem Rag”

An ad featuring Tom Turpin’s business in the St. Louis Palladium, an African American newspaper, March 4, 1905. The State Historical Society of Missouri, Photograph Collection.

Ah, ragtime. This, arguably America’s first homegrown musical genre, “originated on the folk level,” said Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, two of the earliest enthusiasts of the form, but “several outstandingly gifted composers of both races carried the music to a creative level that can only be termed classical.” Just so, and its alternating joy and poignance eventually emerged also in the finger-picking guitar style of the Piedmont Blues. “Piano ragtime was developed by the Negro from folk melodies and from the syncopations of the plantation banjos,” Blesh and Janis explain. “As it grew, it carried its basic principle of displaced accents played against a regular meter to a very high degree of elaboration.”

Of course, Scott Joplin is considered the king of ragtime, but his reputation has obscured that of many other royal ragtime composers. The first of these must be Tom Turpin (1871-1922), whose “Harlem Rag” was published in 1897, predating Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” by two years. (It may have been composed as many as five years earlier.) Turpin’s bar in St. Louis, the Rosebud, was a popular meeting place for Joplin and other ragtime composers as well; in 1905 Joplin would dedicate his “Rosebud March” to Turpin. Turpin would go on to write other rags as the “Father of St. Louis Ragtime.”

Below, Ann Charters performs “Harlem Rag,” from the 1961 Smithsonian Folkways album Essay in Ragtime: Ragtime Piano Classics.

A musical soirée

Lately my lovely wife has been coming home merrily singing the praises of two new piano solos she’ll be performing at NYU’s Black Box Theater, 82 Washington Square East in New York on Sunday, February 23 — they’re difficult but divine, she insists, and promises a good time. She’s never wrong.

The big piece on the program (which is called American Spectral: Works for Piano and Electronics, by the way) is the hour-long “Music for Piano with Slow Sweep Pure Wave Oscillators,” a new “extended mix” of a shorter 2010 work by highly-regarded avant-garde tunesmith Alvin Lucier. Marilyn will raise the curtain with Philadelphian Ellen Fishman‘s “Ruptures” (2018-19). These works, Marilyn says, “explore how technology changes our sense of time, consciousness, and sonic reality.”

Admission? Gratis. The trouble begins at eight o’clock. I’m told that there’s a new-fangled thing called social media that’s taking the place of the hardworking press agent, so if you visit the Facebook page for the event, please “like” it (whatever that is) and “share” it with your “friends.” Me, I’ve got to get my tuxedo to the dry cleaners; the composers will be present, after all.

I confess to you that I use the word “solo” advisedly here; she will be accompanied by some electric gewgaws. But they aren’t human, and I’m going to maintain my distinction between man (or, in this case, woman) and machine, so matter how complicated the box of wires is. After the show, we’ll all head out to the local tavern (except the computers, of course), where we’ll explore how wine and vodka change our sense of time, consciousness, and sonic reality, though I doubt the sensations will be quite as profound.

A toast to … pessimism

Cafe Katja.

The man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much; if he is an optimist after it, he knows too little. — Mark Twain

This week I tried (and failed) to put some semblance of order into the things I’m enjoying these days, look a quick look into my checkered past, and sat back for a few minutes of good old-fashioned Americana.

It seems like we pessimists in the United States will be rewarded today or tomorrow with further confirmation of the correctness of their temperament, one of those occasions on which being right is no cause for celebration. Nonetheless, we’re ready for it, and there lies the value of cynicism. Let it not lead us to paralysis, however. As another great sage, Walt Kelly, put it in 1953, a time perhaps as politically and culturally dark as our own:

Traces of nobility, gentleness and courage persist in all people, do what we will to stamp out the trend. So, too, do those characteristics which are ugly. It is just unfortunate that in the clumsy hands of a cartoonist all traits become ridiculous, leading to a certain amount of self-conscious expostulation and the desire to join battle. There is no need to sally forth, for it remains true that those things which make us human are, curiously enough, always close at hand. Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blasts on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us. Forward!

Forward indeed. Instead of paralysis, this pessimism will lead me today to Cafe Katja, where I raise a toast to the philosophy that has served me well lo these many years and share a few mordant jokes with the crew there. (And, since one of my children is joining me for an hour or so of Friday non-alcoholic cheer, sharpen the philosophical legacy.) Prost!