Anybody who is aware of Leon Redbone is by this time similarly aware that the musician “crossed the delta for that beautiful shore” yesterday morning. I don’t have much to add to the obituaries and appreciations that have been appearing here and there (especially Megan Pugh’s exemplary profile of Redbone that appeared in March in the Oxford American). Two things worth noting, though: First, that Redbone was himself an anti-celebrity, whose self-conscious eccentricities served solely to foreground the early American music that seemed to be the love of his life; it’s a rare thing. Second, there is a vibrant if small subculture of other American musicians who are doing their best to keep this kind of music alive; Redbone was far from alone, if he was the most visible representative of this subculture. I recommend checking out these fine people.
Social media and the internet are littered with Redbone clips and tributes, so instead I offer something in his memory that I hope would meet with his approval, Laurel and Hardy’s performance of “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” one of Redbone’s signature songs, from their 1939 film The Flying Deuces; it’s a charming two-and-a-half minutes from the past, featuring Stan’s light and loose-limbed dance and Ollie’s very pleasant Georgia baritone. I’ll be lifting my glass to Mr. Redbone and Messrs. Laurel and Hardy at Cafe Katja this afternoon. See you there.
Ragtime composer Scott Joplin is buried at St. Michael’s Cemetery in Queens, and this Saturday, May 18, he’ll be remembered at his gravesite with a memorial concert and barbeque. The event, a 15-year tradition, begins at 2:00 p.m. and is free and open to the public. More information can be found in this flyer.
Joplin biographer Ed Berlin, who helps to organize the event, will give a pre-concert talk about the transition from ragtime to jazz in the St. Michael’s chapel on the cemetery grounds. Berlin was also present at last year’s memorial, which was covered by the New York Times.
Older forms of popular music never die; they just get festivals built around them. The 33rd annual Carolina Blues Festival, presented by the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society, kicks off in Greensboro, NC, on May 18, and the annual Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival will be held in just a few weeks in the birthplace of classical ragtime, Sedalia, MO, beginning on May 29. They also become enthusiasms for cranky individuals like myself. (See here and here, for example.) A few years ago Marilyn gave me an acoustic guitar, hoping to encourage me to take a more personal and practical interest in this music, and since then I’ve tried to get myself up to speed so that I could play at least some of it myself. It’s been hard to find the time to practice, alas, which I confess I regret.
Taking up the guitar in my mid-50s has been accompanied by a series of challenges, many of them time-oriented but some of them somewhat psychological as well. Cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus published Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning, a memoir of sorts about learning the guitar as an adult, in 2012. Marcus set out to discover whether the brain (specifically his own 38-year-old brain) remained plastic enough to acquire the knowledge necessary for developing musical or linguistic skills past childhood, the optimal age for beginning musical and foreign language education. I haven’t read the book, but it seems that, by the end of his project, he was unembarrassed enough to be able to play the guitar in public.
And good for him. But I’m 20 years older than Marcus was when he picked up a guitar again for the first time, as the saying goes. And I have my doubts that I’ll ever be able to play the Piedmont-style kind of ragtime guitar that I most enjoy. Piedmont blues grew out of ragtime; as the Wikipedia page for the music helpfully summarizes:
Piedmont blues (also known as East Coast, or Southeastern blues) refers primarily to a guitar style, the Piedmont fingerstyle, which is characterized by a fingerpicking approach in which a regular, alternating thumb bass string rhythmic pattern supports a syncopated melody using the treble strings generally picked with the fore-finger, occasionally others. The result is comparable in sound to ragtime or stride piano styles. … What was particular to the Piedmont was that a generation of players adapted these older, ragtime-based techniques to blues in a singular and popular fashion, influenced by guitarists such as Blind Blake and Gary Davis.
As much as I enjoy listening to this music, it’s also primarily a music to be enjoyed in live performance. Ragtime primarily circulated and was disseminated through sheet music and, less commonly, piano rolls; although the Piedmont blues became popular some years later via recordings and radio, it remained primarily acoustic in an age when musicians were increasingly going electric. This — and the fact that the music was often taught, performed, and shared in more intimate community venues, such as living rooms and front porches — meant that live performance is perhaps the best, and in some cases the only, way to enjoy this music, both in its performance and as an audience. All music creates particular soundworlds. Ragtime and Piedmont blues styles create a soundworld of plain elegance and often melancholy; of simple joys and more complex hesitations. Not a bad soundworld, these days, for someone like me to live in.
I don’t get to either Sedalia or Greensboro very often. Fortunately here in New York there’s the year-round offerings of Brooklyn’s Jalopy Theatre and School of Music. And I have lessons every once in a long while with an excellent teacher. But listening to more and more of this music these days inspires me to step up my game a little bit, and writing this post, too, is a way of encouraging me to learn the guitar with a little more attention and constancy. Malcolm Gladwell thinks I have to spend 10,000 hours before I become genuinely adept at playing this kind of music. But if I practice often enough, maybe I’ll be able to become a little better than zero. At least I’ll be trying.
I hope you’ll join me tomorrow, Sunday, May 5, at 2:30 p.m., for American Voices of the 20th Century, Marilyn Nonken‘s program of Scott Joplin’s sublime, melancholy concert waltz “Bethena” (1904) and Charles Ives’ majestic Concord Sonata (1911), which, as the program description has it, “weaves together popular music from the Civil War, along with quotes from Beethoven, Wagner, and Debussy.” (I contributed the program notes for the Joplin work.) It’ll take place at St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets in Manhattan.
Ives himself keenly appreciated ragtime, and listening to Joplin’s opera (as well as some lovely performances of the rags from the late William Albright) confirms that Joplin was one of the great early 20th-century composers — and perhaps the greatest — that America produced. Treemonisha itself, far from being a “ragtime opera,” brings together spirituals and call-and-response choral music along with rags and other varieties of indigenous folk music to produce a rather astonishing work. Earlier this year at the WQXR blog, Jenny Houser and George Grella went one step further and said of the opera, “As a work that carves out a new, American, classical genre, it’s equal in quality to anything by Charles Ives.”
Only 150 miles separate Hannibal, MO, where Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain (he never made it easy to write about him) spent his childhood, and Sedalia, MO, where Scott Joplin began to compose his early work; only 14 years separate the publication of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) and the publication of Joplin’s groundbreaking “Maple Leaf Rag” (1899). There’s no evidence that Clemens and Joplin were familiar with each other’s work, even though Clemens would live on until 1910 and Joplin until 1917, but the coincidences are intriguing, perhaps least on the biographical level. Both were popular artists with higher aspirations, of course, but there’s more to them than that; the common conception of both Twain and Joplin is that they’re both lighter entertainers: Twain, the cracker-barrel philosopher blessed with an earthy, down-home comic skepticism; Joplin as the composer of rinky-plinky tunes best served up as accompaniments to silent comedies or honky-tonk drinking establishments. The truth, as the truth usually does in these matters, lies elsewhere.
I’ve just been finishing Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices, a significant landmark in Twain scholarship, and her argument that African-American culture in the Reconstruction era had a seminal influence on Twain’s novel in its structure, vocabulary, and voice and his other work besides — and, therefore, on the entire body of American literature after Huckleberry Finn — is hard to refute, given the textual, linguistic, and cultural evidence and analysis she presents. Before Twain, American literature owed most of its debt to Europe, whether it was Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Melville, or for that matter even Whitman, whose patois emerged from white culture in New England. Twain, however, mingled the vernacular of the American South and Southwest into his own literature. At the same time, Joplin drew upon his own experience in minstrelsy, popular song, and band music, along with his classical music training under the German Julian Weiss and at Sedalia’s George R. Smith College, in transforming European forms and harmonies into something uniquely American; and out of ragtime and the various forms of the blues, jazz emerged.
Over the past few years I’ve been reading more of Twain and, more recently, listening to Joplin again. The melancholy and bucolic nature of much of this work, such as Twain’s evocations of the Mississippi Valley countryside and Joplin’s more langourous rags, especially among his more meditative pieces, appeals to me, but it’s not quite the same as nostalgia, not least because I can’t have nostalgia for a time in which I did not live. Not to mention that the politics of race is bitterly considered in the creations of both men (in Twain, obviously, but also in Joplin’s surviving opera Treemonisha and his lost opera A Guest of Honor, which reportedly depicted the visit of Booker T. Washington to the White House in 1901).
My renewed attraction to this work may also be a reaction to the current political climate. As Fishkin points out in her study, and as Joplin biographer Edward Berlin pointed out in his Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History, Twain and Joplin were essentially multicultural and inclusive artists, drawing from a variety of cultural sources — an aesthetic miscegenation which simply could not be brooked. Ragtime, as a precursor to jazz, was the product of African American music and culture of the Reconstruction and Redemption eras intermingling with American popular and folk songs; and a great deal of the resistance to characterizing ragtime as a uniquely American “classical” music had a racist undertone. (Ragtime had its effect on American literature as well, and not just on E.L. Doctorow: one of the groundbreaking American novels about race, James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, is narrated by an ambitious ragtime pianist.)
I’ve read Huckleberry Finn twice in the past few years (along with The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger) and plan to read it again soon; it’s inexhaustible. Similarly, the more I listen to Joplin’s music, the more there is to find in it. It’s hard to characterize Twain as a marginalized figure in American culture, especially given his presence in it, but I find that it’s his work, not his presence, that tends to receive shorter shrift than it used to; after a period of general popularity, Joplin’s music seems to have once again fallen into some obscurity, and he remains by and large on the margins of the American classical music canon. Perhaps it’s the melancholy strains in this work that appeal to me most these days. But one can get used to the margins, and at my age, it’s not a bad place to be.
Below, Sara Fishko gives an overview of Joplin’s career, presents excerpts of some of Joplin’s more meditative pieces, and speaks to Joplin biographer Ed Berlin in a 2011 edition of the Fishko Files.