As my fingers wend my weary but increasingly accurate way into fingerstyle ragtime guitar, I’m boning up on the classics. Below is a lovely recording from October 1926 of Blind Blake’s “Early Morning Blues.” Jas Obrecht wrote this appreciation of the great blues singer and ragtime guitarist.
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.
If you’re willing to step back a century or so this weekend (and who isn’t?), drop by Metrograph at 7 Ludlow Street for a screening of the 1920 D.W. Griffith film Way Down East, starring Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess. And let’s not call it a silent film — they never were silent, really; Nicholas Sosin will be providing a live piano accompaniment at both the Saturday and Sunday shows.
Yes, this is the famous ice floe film, with Gish making her way gingerly across a frozen river at, probably, Orient Point, Long Island. Her character, Anna Moore, has just been turned out of a house as a woman of sin in the film’s rip-roaringly melodramatic plot, and although the film is based on an 1897 pot-boiler by Lottie Blair Parker some recent critics have considered it a proto-feminist statement, sort of. But in a short review for the Washington Post in 1994, Mark Adamo wrote, “Even the film’s seeming pioneering of feminism is hoary: the Leviticus-style titles would have us believe that Lillian Gish’s tremulous ingenue fallen prey to a heavily mascaraed roue is ‘the story of Woman.'” Well, plenty of heavily masacaed roues about these days. More positively, Adamo also noted, “What’s amazing is that so much of Gish’s tough, funny, intuitive performance, particularly in the film’s middle section as she bears her illegitimate child, transcends time, place and technology. Equally amazing is Griffith’s mighty striving, with his arty location shots, quirky close-ups and riskily staged set pieces, to forge a new and expressly cinematic style.”
Richard Brody was equally enthusiastic about the film in the New Yorker in this undated essay:
Griffith’s Homeric artistry and his painterly insight — his view of the conflict between nature’s horrors (those of a blizzard and those found in the hearts of predators) and its glories (the peaceful landscape and the heart of true virtue) — come to full flower in Way Down East.
And don’t miss Brody’s short, two-minute illustrated discussion of the film at the end of the article.
If that doesn’t whet your appetite, Metrograph has a bar upstairs, where you can argue proto-feminism to your heart’s content after the show. Way Down East will be screened this Saturday, January 20, at 1.00pm and Sunday, January 21, at 7.30pm. The 35mm print comes from a preservation made by The Museum of Modern Art with support from The Lillian Gish Trust for Film Preservation. It runs for 145 minutes. Tickets and information here. If you miss it, you can purchase it from Kino Lorber here.
… I enjoyed Jeremy Irons’ reading of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, caught up on a little history of my old neighborhood, and raised a small flag in defense of humility.
Yesterday’s news story about the president’s comments regarding immigration reminded me that, about a hundred years ago, my own grandparents arrived in this country from Central Europe with little more than the clothes on their backs — none of them had received more than a grade-school education, if that; none were skilled; all of them decided to come to America in hopes of a better life for themselves and their children. And they worked: as coal miners, charwomen, electricians, and textile workers, they made their own small contributions to the culture and economy, this despite the prejudices against Central Europeans, especially Jews, that weren’t uncommon in the first years of the twentieth century. (When the Ellis Island clerk had to enter into his dossier the language that my Ukrainian grandfather spoke, he wrote “Yiddish” — my grandfather never spoke a word of that language, but I think this says something about the assumptions of the time.) The United States was not then too proud to accept these non-English-speaking, unskilled, barely literate refugees from a war-torn Europe; it appears to be now; and that says something, too, about how far we’ve strayed as a nation from the ideals that we once held in common.
But most of the attention that Trump’s comments have drawn have rightfully been drawn to the racism he expressed. Every American has an obligation to stand up and publicly condemn his racist, xenophobic attitude (an attitude all too obvious in the years before he was elected; it’s nothing new), and I do so here. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” Martin Luther King said in 1963. Obviously that dream is still far from being realized. But if our approval of that sentiment is to be more than mere lip service, we as individuals and American citizens have to publicly call out Trump’s crude rhetoric so our friends, family, and colleagues can see it — and it was crude whether he said “shithole countries” or not (this morning he issued an entirely unconvincing denial) — as the bigotry that it so clearly is. If we don’t, we should be ashamed of ourselves.
Anderson Cooper may have said it best yesterday at the beginning of his CNN program; you can hear him below. Until next week; see you at Blaue Gans (gotta pick up the girls in Tribeca today) this afternoon.
About the Lower East Side, where I live now, there seem to be few brief, straightforward narrative histories. Not so for the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia, where I lived and spent quite a bit of time through the 1970s and 1980s and about which I wrote here. Just yesterday, Amazon dropped at my door Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward by Harry Kyriakodis, a nicely illustrated 200-page history of the neighborhood published by The History Press in 2012. A full report will follow.