American humor, American blues

Blind Tom Wiggins.

When it came to music, Mark Twain professed to enjoy only two kinds: the songs of American minstrelsy and the proto-ragtime compositions and performances by pianists like Blind John Boone and Blind Tom Wiggins, about whom Twain wrote a lengthy appreciation for the Alta California in 1869. Along with evincing a proto-ragtime performance style, Blind Tom was also apparently a proto-Charles Ives, according to Twain:

Tom will play two tunes and sing a third at the same time, and let the audience choose the keys he shall perform in. I heard him play “Fisher’s Hornpipe” with his right hand in two sharps (D), and “Yankee Doodle” with his left in three flats (E flat), and sing “Tramp, tramp, tramp, the Boys are Marching,” in the key of C — all at the same time. It was a dreadful and disorganizing mixture of meaningless sounds, but you could easily discover that there was “no deception,” as the magicians say, by taking up the tunes one at a time and following them a little while, and then you would perceive that in time, movement and melody, each was without fault.

Jeffery Renard Allen wrote about Blind Tom for Buzzfeed in 2014.

Twain’s response to Blind Tom reminds me that of all aesthetic forms, two are particularly grounded in the national characters from which they spring: humor and music. In America, these are particularly fraught fields. Lacking a tradition of formal professional study or patronage, American popular music — especially ragtime and blues, which were the products of black American slaves and their immediate descendants — has had to depend on commercial appeal. And though the southwestern humor that led to Mark Twain’s work has had the reputation of beginning in an oral culture, for-profit journals and newspapers had the job of disseminating it around the country in the 19th century.

Blind Tom was a slave, and though his quasi-classical music doesn’t appear to be influenced by the work songs or other musical forms shared by slave populations, both emerged in the Delta blues and ragtime guitar styles that began to arise in the early 20th century.

Pianist John Davis has written extensively about Twain’s relationship to music, and his CD Halley’s Comet: Around the Piano with Mark Twain and John Davis collects a variety of music and texts that thoroughly explore this relationship. (The New York Times lauded his Le Poisson Rouge presentation of this material in 2010.)

In my spare time I’m taking guitar lessons in hopes of playing around with a little ragtime guitar myself, to go along with my casual interest in Twain and southwestern humor; in what’s left of that spare time, I’m filling in the background with these two books that have some affinity with the above:

American Humor: A Study of the National Character by Constance Rourke. Originally published in  1931. Reprinted, with an introduction by Greil Marcus, by New York Review Books (NYRB), New York, 2004. The NYRB edition was reviewed by Caleb Crain in the Boston Globe on March 28, 2004; by Philip Christman in Paste on August 1, 2004; and by Adam Kirsch in Slate on March 31, 2004.

Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta by Robert Palmer. Viking Penguin Inc., 1981. Reviewed by Peter Guralnick in the New York Times on August 7, 1981; by C. Michael Bailey in All About Jazz on March 8, 2004; and by Rick Saunders in Now This Sound is Brave on September 15, 2001.