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.”
Speaking of Joplin, this Sunday Marilyn will perform a program of Scott Joplin’s sublime, melancholy concert waltz “Bethena” (1904) and Charles Ives’ majestic Concord Sonata (1911) at St. Bart’s Church in New York. More here.
And speaking of the press, today, May 3, is World Press Freedom Day, declared in 1993 by the United Nations General Assembly. According to UNESCO, it is “a date which celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom, to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.”
The year 2018 was not a particularly good one for journalists. According to Reporters Without Borders, 66 professional journalists were killed in connection with their work around the world (compare this to the 13 Jewish men and women who were killed in anti-Semitic attacks last year according to this recent study issued in connection with Yom Hashoah — people who also were killed just for being who they were), and the organization remarks in its 2019 World Press Freedom Index that “an intense climate of fear has been triggered — one that is prejudicial to a safe reporting environment.”
Nor are things better here in the US. There was, of course, this:
The press is doing everything within their power to fight the magnificence of the phrase, MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! They can’t stand the fact that this Administration has done more than virtually any other Administration in its first 2yrs. They are truly the ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!
And whether or not you think such stupidity has contributed to the dangerous hostility against the press both here and abroad (and I think it has), Reporters Without Borders says the hostile climate reaches past even this:
As a result of an increasingly hostile climate that goes beyond Donald Trump’s comments, the United States (48th) has fallen three places in this year’s Index and the media climate is now classified as “problematic” (orange). Never before have US journalists been subjected to so many death threats or turned so often to private security firms for protection. Hatred of the media is now such that a man walked into the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, in June 2018 and opened fire, killing four journalists and one other member of the newspaper’s staff. The gunman had repeatedly expressed his hatred for the paper on social networks before ultimately acting on his words.
Some, like “Here Is New York,” have been seriously affected by the passage of time and now stand as period pieces. I wrote about New York in the summer of 1948, during a hot spell. The city I described has disappeared, and another city has emerged in its place — one that I’m not familiar with. … The last time I visited New York, it seemed to have suffered a personality change, as though it had a brain tumor as yet undetected.
At the White House Correspondents Dinner last Saturday night, biographer Ron Chernow quoted Mark Twain — or, rather, misattributed a quote to him. “As we head into election season, I will leave you with one final gem from Twain: Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reasons,” Chernow said in farewell; the error also picked up by CNN’s story about the dinner here.
As Matt Seybold of the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College and Editor-in-Chief of MarkTwainStudies.orgpointed out, this was just about par for the course; it’s so common for individuals to shoehorn into their writing an apocryphal saying of the great American author that the Center even has a section of its web site devoted to such misattributions. Twain himself was a newspaper reporter early in his career, and Chernow’s case was particularly troublesome, Seybold writes: “If America’s leading historical biographer can’t be bothered to properly source the quote he chooses to conclude what he knows will probably be the most-watched speech he will ever deliver, what hope is there of defeating the ‘relentless campaign against the very credibility of the news media’ which he rightly describes?”
These are parlous times for the free press. At first, the man in the White House called “Fake News” the “enemy of the people”; he has since broadened his attacks to demonize the press generally. All right, Chernow was giving a speech, not writing a news story, but Seybold’s concern is well-taken. Also well-taken is Seybold’s injunction that “the stuff [Twain] actually said is always preferable to the weak witticisms of others we attempt to spruce up by imagining them coming out of his mouth,” and offers up, as an example, this much more robust and detailed characterization of the press from a speech that Twain gave in 1888:
Remind the world that ours is a useful trade, a worthy calling: that with all its lightness and frivolity it has one serious purpose, one aim, one speciality, and it is constant to it – the deriding of shams, the exposure of pretentious falsities, the laughing of stupid superstitions out of existence; and that whoso is by instinct engaged in this sort of warfare is the natural enemy of royalties, nobilities, privileges and all kindred swindles, and the natural friend of human rights and human liberties.
An especially cogent thought, given the sham, pretentious, false swindler currently living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
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.