This week I noted the recent release of a few books by and about R. Crumb and the upcoming release of a new recording of Scott Joplin rags, performed by my lovely wife Marilyn Nonken.
Like everyone else, I’ve been easing back into things, including this blog, after an extended period of admittedly intermittent activity. Along with the recent Plague-Year-and-a-Half (apologies to Daniel Defoe), we’ve been in medias res between living spaces as our recently purchased new apartment has been undergoing renovation. Private time has been tricky for all of us, and though Virginia Woolf insisted that a room of one’s own was a necessity, it’s not always a possibility. Still, a light has appeared at the end of the tunnel, and I hope that we can open up at full capacity soon, masks not required.
Fortunately my usual Friday watering hole is now permitting bar seating. I’ve come to believe that the first mark of a civilized society is the ability to walk into a bar, pull up a stool, and sip quietly at an adult beverage as one considers with a bartender and a friend (or in solitude, if that prospect pleases) the events of the day and the mysteries of life on this earth. Without this liberty, all is chaos. See you at Cafe Katja later today.
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.
Crumb’s World, a record of the unforgettable 2019 R. Crumb exhibition at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York, is a portrait of the artist at work, considering Crumb’s long career and embracing all of the forms in which he’s worked: the autobiographical comic, obviously, but also illustration and social satire. It’s impossible for any single volume to encompass all seven decades of Crumb’s art, of course, and the focus here (as well as the gallery show) is the evolution of his style and his draughtsmanship over those decades. Arranged in chronological order, we have early comics and sketchbook pages, along with reproductions of book layouts and cover art, tracing his progression from funny animal comics to the contemplative and semi-parodic but exquisitely rendered Art & Beauty series. There are a few more recent treats to be found, too — “Art and Money,” a two-page conversation between Crumb and exhibition curator Robert Storr, and “Bad Diet & Bad Hair Destroy Human Civilization,” a Trump-era meditation by Crumb and his wife and long-time collaborator Aline Kominsky-Crumb. Storr’s introduction is a blessedly non-academic consideration of his career. The book is published by David Zwirner Books. No Crumb collection is complete without it.
Storr may have avoided academese, but the academy too is sitting up and taking notice of Crumb these days. Just a few weeks ago, the University Press of Mississippi released The Comics of R. Crumb: Underground in the Art Museum, a collection of essays that seeks to situate him the context of his culture and aesthetic influences, and the same press issued David Stephen Calonne’s R. Crumb: Literature, Autobiography, and the Quest for Selfback in February. Usually professorial interest in a popular culture figure like Crumb is a kiss of death (though it’s true that his work erases the distinction between popular and so-called “high” art), especially for a figure as irreverent and controversial as Crumb, but at least the first book had his co-operation, and both books seem worthy purchases.
The range, variety, and sheer volume of Crumb’s work bears comparison with Mark Twain’s; like Twain, he worked in popular culture forms and extended their expressivity into self-deprecatory autobiography, social satire, and dour meditation on art, the spirit, and the world. In this range alone, He stands apart from his peers; but the extraordinary level of his achievement in his best work transcends genre, and it must be said that he is as good a writer as he is a visual artist, a master of American vernacular. As these books all demonstrate, R. Crumb’s comic, bitter, and misanthropic grumblings, as well as his more esoteric meditations (especially his concerns with the environment and creeping conformity and authoritarianism), speak to the 21st century as much as the 20th — if not moreso.
Arthur Marshall (1881-1968) was about thirteen years old when Scott Joplin joined the Marshall family in Sedalia, MO, as a boarder in 1894, and had already had some training in classical piano. Recognizing the young man’s talent, Joplin encouraged Marshall’s musical studies and took Marshall on as a protégé along with Scott Hayden, Marshall’s classmate at the segregated Lincoln High School. Marshall and Joplin enrolled together at Sedalia’s George R. Smith College, where Marshall studied music theory and education and eventually earned a teaching license from Teacher’s College. For some years, Marshall made a living as a performer and ragtime composer, retiring from music in about 1917 after his second wife’s death and several health problems. He held a variety of odd jobs in St. Louis and elsewhere until 1950, when he came out of retirement to perform in ragtime festivals during ragtime’s first revival after the Second World War. He died in Kansas City, MO, at the age of 87; he had been married a total of four times.
Marshall is of course best known for his two collaborations with Joplin, “Swipesy Cakewalk” and “The Lily Queen.” Below, Scott Kirby performs one of Marshall’s solo compositions, “The Pippin,” from 1908. Bill Edwards has a fuller biography of Marshall here.
A definition of the term “ragtime” seems to be as hard to pin down and as sinuous as the music itself; we might think that, like Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of obscenity, we know it when we hear it, but history and truth aren’t on our side here. “Ragtime” itself meant many different things to those who composed, performed, and heard it in the early years of the 20th century. To novelist E.L. Doctorow and fans of the 1973 film The Sting, “ragtime” meant solo piano compositions, occasionally orchestrated for the small instrumental ensemble. But these compositions emerged — like the vocal ragtime song, like the semi-improvised “ragging” of European piano music, like the music of banjo and guitar players and string and jug bands of the period — from a particular social and musical culture which all of these ragtime forms shared. In discussing ragtime, one is often forced to winnow the definition down to only one or two of these various forms, a process ultimately unfair to the others which have just as much call on the definition as solo piano music.
What seems certain is that ragtime originated in the secular dance and musical forms that arose in the American Black community of the Reconstruction and Redemption Eras in the south. African Juba dances, domesticated and Americanized by Blacks (free and enslaved) and their children, were marked by the rhythmic syncopations that are a defining feature of ragtime music; similarly, the vocal music created by Blacks on slave plantations and elsewhere bore some resemblance to African forms, but these too were affected by both the secular and religious music they heard that originated from white communities. As Blacks emigrated from the rural south to more cosmopolitan midwestern and eastern small towns and cities, these dances evolved through minstrelsy and other performances into the cakewalk, the immediate predecessor to ragtime dance music; the songs and music, too, followed this emigration, absorbing both popular songs as well as the classical music influences to which early ragtime composers were exposed in these cities and towns, ultimately leading to the establishment of Tin Pan Alley in New York in the early 20th century.
This thumbnail history is necessarily as crude and simple as two paragraphs can make it, but nonetheless it points to a few characteristics of ragtime that are shared across all of its forms. The first characteristic, as I mentioned, was an emphasis on syncopation, but there’s more than that. Another important feature is the new chromatic colorations and sonorities that resulted from the secular Black community’s use of African and other indigenous musical vocabularies: frequent alternations between melancholy and joyful strains in the same brief work, too, rendered it distinct from European and white American music of the period.
A more problematic question, of course, is the extent to which any kind of music could be called “American,” any more than music composed by French or German or other composers somehow possesses an essentialist quality of a particular nation’s culture. We might say that Wagner’s music is particularly German, or Debussy’s is particularly French. But what does this mean? Can one musicologically define what is particularly French or Polish in a Chopin waltz, or, for that matter, American in Joplin or a song by Irving Berlin? This may not have been particularly problematic a few decades ago, but today the question is particularly thorny.
Prior to the Civil War, America’s most accomplished composer may have been Louis Moreau Gottschalk, himself of a multicultural background (born in New Orleans of a Jewish father and French Creole mother), whose music reflected what he heard in his Louisiana youth. What is without question is that, from its Black origins, ragtime in the early 20th century became popular in white America as well, perhaps the first genuinely popular multicultural musical form in modern times (Gottschalk’s music was largely performed in what we might call “classical” venues like concert halls, rather than the theatres, barrooms, and domestic salons in which ragtime could most commonly be heard). But both musics were the product of what Albert Murray would much later call a “mongrel culture”:
American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite. It is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations of those who would have it otherwise, incontestably mulatto . . . Indeed, for all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and so-called white people in the United States resemble nobody else in the world as they resemble each other.
Albert Murray, The Omni-Americans
This cultural background is relevant to ragtime’s history, but of course it doesn’t come close to describing or defining ragtime’s soundworld itself, a soundworld which all of ragtime’s forms create: perhaps not nostalgic, but certainly melancholic, alternating as I said earlier with great joy: a soundworld that somehow touches on individual memory; a harmonics that seem to encourage an elevation from the domestic to the otherworldly and back again, simultaneously bucolic and urban in its pastoral and more — well, more emotionally ragged expressions. It’s this soundworld which has appealed to ragtime enthusiasts from the early 20th century to the present, a soundworld kept alive by ragtime pianists like Max Morath and William Appling as well as ensembles like the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra and the East River String Band, to name only four of a great number of practitioners dedicated to the preservation and reinterpretation of this surprisingly rich music. A secular form, ragtime is music for all of us, and welcomes multiple perspectives.