Ragtime break: Sunflower Slow Drag


In the next few weeks you’ll be hearing more here about Syncopated Musings, Marilyn Nonken‘s new album of music by Scott Joplin and his collaborators, now scheduled for release in January of 2022. As a preview, Divine Art Records is providing Marilyn’s performance of Scott Hayden and Scott Joplin’s “Sunflower Slow Drag” on YouTube below. Per the promotional copy:

While Scott Joplin’s ragtime music shot back to popularity in the 1970s, many of his pieces are still relatively unknown and this also applies to pieces in which Joplin collaborated with other musicians. American pianist Marilyn Nonken has a new album in which she takes us on a journey through some of Joplin’s most attractive rags and concert waltzes, including works in which he partnered with Scott Hayden, Arthur Marshall, Charles Lamb, and Louis Chauvin. Syncopated Musings will be available worldwide on February 11, 2022, and direct form Divine Art in early January.

You can read more about it here. In the meantime, sit back and relax to the strains of this 1901 classic.

Patrick Sky

Among the first LPs I purchased for my new turntable were the first few albums by the folksinger Patrick Sky, who left us just a few weeks ago at the age of 80. The New York Times obituary is here.

Back in 1979, John Pfeiffer strolled into my Bard College dorm room bearing a copy of Songs That Made America Famous — maybe the most scurrilous folk album of the era. Said Rolling Stone upon the album’s belated release in 1973:

Sometimes a record comes along that so affronts common decency, so offends public morality, and so insults established canons of taste that its very appearance understandably prompts cries of outrage, shock and indignation. Veteran folk minstrel Patrick Sky’s latest opus is just such a record. … Such a record belongs in every American home; enjoy it while you still can.

Sky’s album was a series of songs not atypical of the black humor of the era, the expression of an impatience with sanctimony that we could still use today. Some of them, like “Our Baby [Died Last Night],” were just offensively silly. But two of the cuts — “Child Molesting Blues” and “Bake Dat Chicken Pie,” Sky’s cover of a 1907 song by blackface performers Collins and Harlan — suggested that folk and roots music weren’t entirely a gentle traipse down Nostalgia Lane, but were potentially minefields. The “folk” weren’t entirely innocent nor bucolic; you could get your leg blown off that way.

Before 1973 Sky was one of the more popular and talented of the musicians to come out of the New York City folk revival (praised particularly by Dave Van Ronk, who wrote the album notes for his first few releases), and in later years he devoted himself to the preservation of the uilleann pipes, an Irish instrument not unlike the Scottish bagpipes. You can see him perform one of his signature songs, “Many a Mile,” at a 2013 concert here. (Don’t miss his comic reference to Oscar Wilde’s comments on bagpipes at the top of the song.)

Sky, like yours truly, was a great fan of W.C. Fields, with whom he shared a sardonic nasal twang. In a 1964 concert he covered W.C. Fields’ “song,” “The Fatal Glass of Beer,” which first appeared in Fields’ 1933 short subject of the same name. You can hear it below.

A little something for Father’s Day

Currently sitting in a room nearby are boxes containing a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO turntable with a Sumiko Rainier cartridge; this’ll be powered by a Pro-Ject PhonoBox S2 phono preamp, running into a Sony STR-DH190 stereo receiver with Bluetooth capabilities. These, as well as a Bluesound Node 2i wireless music streamer and a Cambridge Audio AXC35 CD player, will be run through a pair of Polk Audio TSi400 speakers — that is, once I move into my new apartment this weekend; and because no post of mine is without cliché, I’ll be setting these up on Father’s Day as a little testosteronic gift to myself. (A tip of my hat to Crutchfield Audio, which guided me expertly through the minefield of entry-level audiophila.)

I was started on this when I paid a recent visit to a local stereo equipment store, curious about what kind of turntables and speakers they’re making these days. After a salesman set up a Rega Planar 3 and a pair of speakers, he sat me down on a chair and told me to listen, and listen I did, as I hadn’t in years. I won’t go so far as it say it seemed as if the musicians were there in the room with me. But I’ll go almost that far.

As keen readers of this site are aware, this is only another anachronistic interest of mine, to go along with American popular music of the turn of the century, as well as Mark Twain’s writings and that steadfast pillar of American culture, comics. Next year I’ll be turning the corner of six decades and am getting crankier by the minute. Over the pandemic I’ve been listening to a lot more music than I used to, and I’ve also become much more of a grumbler about the poor quality of sound reproduction on iPhones, iMacs, iEarpods, whatever, and am somewhat astonished that as the music industry seems to be doing just fine in this era of streaming and enthusiasm continues to run high for whatever music the culture produces, the quality of this sound reproduction is awful — tinny, without a wide listening spectrum, and cold to the aural touch.

I haven’t set the system up yet, but thinking ahead I bought a few vinyl LPs and a few days ago showed them to my children, 11- and 12-years-old, slipping the LPs from their sleeves and explaining that the music resided in the microscopic grooves of the record — that it’s not encoded on microchips. This was a bit of a revelation to them, and I explained that back in the Neanderthal Age in which I grew up that’s how you listened to music: either that way, or you’d turn on this thing called a “radio” (sort of like Bluetooth, except hundreds of thousands of people could listen to it at the same time, creating an invisible audience of listeners instead of private, exclusive enjoyment). Or, of course, you could make your own music, sing or play an instrument. I suppose what I missed about vinyl LPs was the warmth of the listening experience; the tactile quality of handling (carefully, carefully) the records, dropping a needle on them and hearing the result of that tactile experience come through the speakers. Not unlike the tactile quality of handling the pages of a book contributes to the reading experience. It’s somehow warmer; more human; and, what’s more, it’s concrete: It’s something you can see and touch, essential in this world of continuing digital dissipation and ephemerality.

Of course all these things age: vinyl LPs collect dust and imperfections, books can tear and yellow. But the digital world seems little better; when file formats change, files become unreadable, nonsense; and there’s bit rot to contend with.

Too, the content of vinyl LPs and books is less manipulable than their digital counterparts: you can’t just call up Word or Audacity and cheerfully begin to mess around with words and music. I have to admit I rather like keeping my grubby little hands off the books I read and the music I listen to, granting a little more respect to their creators rather than believing I can either (a) improve these things myself or (b) override the original creators’ intention just to suit my own pleasure.

I’m not enough of a Luddite to dismiss the digital sound world entirely, hence that Bluesound streamer and the CD player, and I’m sure they’ll sound great through those Polk speakers too. But they won’t match the experience and the ritual of placing an LP on a turntable and easing the tonearm over the opening grooves. It is said that a part of the enjoyment of marijuana is picking the seeds from the leaves and crafting the thin joint from thin cigarette paper: the high itself is the reward. I don’t think that vinyl is much different, really. That musical experience is the reward. And I’ll know more about it myself on Sunday.

 

Memorial Day special: Remembering Leon

Leon Redbone.

Yesterday marked the second anniversary of the death of Leon Redbone, the singer and guitarist who brought American popular song back to the attention of a jaded public through his eccentric appearances on Saturday Night Live and elsewhere beginning in about 1975. Although Redbone cultivated a self-consciously odd personality that some might find just a bit twee, it was this personality that drew audiences to his music, a collection of American popular song classics that included both standards and rarities from the early years of the 20th century. Complain about that self-conscious weirdness as you will, for me — a 13-year-old boy growing up in a declining coal town of northeast Pennsylvania far from any city — Leon Redbone’s appearances on Saturday Night Live in 1975 were my first exposures to this music, which I doubt I would have found anywhere else on my own; soon I was purchasing and listening to albums by Fats Waller, Hoagy Carmichael, Robert Johnson, Blind Blake, R. Crumb and the Cheap Suit Serenaders, and others. My enthusiasm for this music continues to this day, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who must credit Redbone for this discovery. (Not to mention I’ve come to appreciate his dedication to his art and his subversive persona more than ever in the past few years.)

Redbone during his lifetime remained a stubbornly private individual, but in the years since his death some of the mystery about his past has dissipated, not least because of Megan Pugh’s in-depth profile of the performer, “Vessel of Antiquity,” in The Oxford American, published a few short months before Redbone’s death (complications of dementia). The short 2018 documentary “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” which features footage of Redbone’s final performances as well as tributes from John Prine and others, can be found below.

Joplin et al.

The recordings are in the can and there’s not much left to do but pull the whole package together. A collection of Scott Joplin rarities and collaborations, Marilyn Nonken‘s Syncopated Musings will drop (as the kids say) this fall, probably in October, from Divine Art Records. The album pulls together 17 of the composer’s most intriguing compositions, a fresh look at Joplin’s career and the place of ragtime in musical history. Sez the press release:

Acclaimed for her interpretations of works by early twentieth-century composers such as Arnold Schönberg and Charles Ives, Nonken turns her attention to their contemporary, Joplin, whose music — often mischaracterized as a simply American vernacular — reveals his close ties to opera and vocal genres. In Joplin’s works and those of his students and colleagues, one recognizes a heretofore underappreciated worldliness, elegance, and virtuosity. Taken together, these compositions celebrate the lively artistic community of which Joplin was the central figure, highlighting the underappreciated lyrical and dramatic range of ragtime itself.

The first draft of my liner notes is also in the can, so keep an eye out here; I’ll let you know when it’s ready for pre-order. In the meantime, you can read my own short meditation on ragtime, and I point you towards Ethan Iverson’s essay on American piano music, which situates Joplin & Company in musicological context. “References to ragtime [are] part of what makes fully notated American music American,” he says, then goes on to explore ragtime’s influence on Charles Ives and Conlon Nancarrow. It’s worth a peek.