Suggested reading: Tom Carson on Huckleberry Finn

Some critics believe that Mark Twain’s work took a turn towards misanthropy and pessimism with the 1889 A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and the 1894 Pudd’nhead Wilson, but in a recent essay for The Baffler Tom Carson suggests that the darker edge of Twain’s satire had been there all along, specifically in the 1884/1885 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Writes Carson:

Huck moves us because of how tenaciously he’s working out the rudiments of becoming a grown-up, from his budding moral reckonings to his improving survival skills. With few exceptions, he’s learning that people are rotten. That’s bound to make navigating their — or even his — future rottenness the ultimate test of adulthood. …

… [Not] much about Huck’s formative life could reasonably be described as either lovable or beautiful. There was, to start with, the prolonged trauma of growing up in the care of vicious, drunken Pap Finn; then the killing of Buck Grangerford. (“I cried a little when I was covering up Buck’s face, for he was mighty good to me.”) Even coping with the King and the Duke’s rodomontades was an object lesson in the unreliable nature of even the most casual encounters with adults on the make. All in all, only the river and friendship with Jim qualify as genuine spurs to Huck’s youthful spirit, and the river isn’t always benign.

I’ve always been of the opinion that Tom Sawyer, Huck’s sunnier, more playful comrade, may have been among the very first and amoral con men in American literature — a quality evident not only in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but especially in the last third of Huckleberry Finn as well. It may have been this encounter with Tom’s true spirit that made Twain reluctant to run Tom and Huck through adulthood in other books, as he’d originally planned.

Carson goes on to examine the glorification of adolescence in American life through a properly jaundiced eye; you can read the entire essay here.

Remembering Scott Joplin

Joplin, who died penniless in an asylum on Wards Island, shares his grave with two others; the grave was unmarked for nearly 60 years. Credit: Adrienne Grunwald for The New York Times.

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.

 

A toast to … Cafe Katja

I spent this week in a nostalgic and musical frame of mind, looking back to a peculiar television personality of my childhood and listening to a bit of American musical history.

My usual Friday getaway is to the delightful Cafe Katja at 79 Orchard Street, only a few blocks from my home; I’ve been going there since its opening in 2007, when it was only a third of a size it is now. Blissfully free of big-screen televisions (except during World Cup finals) and jukeboxes, the bar/restaurant is formally a buschenschank, an Austrian-style bistro specializing in local food and alcohol offerings; owners Erwin Schröttner and Andrew Chase preside over a multiculti staff and offer new twists on traditional Austrian cuisine. The drinks — my main concern on Friday afternoons — are exquisite, the food even more so. So I lift my glass to my Friday regular today; that’ll be me down at the end of the bar. Prost!

Less than zero

Waiting for me at home: The Yamaha FG800.

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.

Dr. Shock

The youngsters out there won’t remember this, but up until around 1975 or so there wasn’t any such thing as cable TV. Instead, we had the three major networks, PBS, and then something called UHF — smaller local stations located up beyond channel 2-13 that carried syndicated talk shows, reruns, and various forms of lower-budget local programming. Philadelphia boasted three of these in the early 1970s: Channel 17 (WPHL), Channel 29 (WTXF), and Channel 48 (WKBS). Many of these stations featured children’s programming, according to the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

One of the more absurd children’s personalities that wound up on Channel 17 was “Dr. Shock,” the nom de cheap television shows of Joseph Zawislak. (Channel 17 also ran a local children’s show featuring the somewhat more conventional Wee Willie Webber.) From 1969 through 1979, Dr. Shock hosted a Saturday afternoon program (variously titled Scream In, Mad Theater, and Horror Theater) featuring a library of Grade-Z horror films that Channel 17 had somehow picked up; the films themselves were interspersed with wildly comic skits, magic tricks, and comments from Zawislak, along with wildly incongruous appearances from his young daughter Doreen and other children.  After a 13-week tryout period in 1969, Channel 17 cancelled the show, only to unleash a storm of 10,000 protest letters. Once Dr. Shock was back, he was back to stay.

Born in Philadelphia himself, Zawislak was a resident of Roxborough, and his resume reveals that prior to his television debut he had been a devoted amateur magician, a deli worker, an insurance salesman, a pinball arcade manager, and a gas cylinder truck driver. Alas, Dr. Shock died all too young of a heart attack at the age of 42, and his show died with him in 1979. There’s more information about Dr. Shock and his career here, and Channel 17 ran this feature during their 50th anniversary special:

I vaguely remembered watching him as a child, but the below tribute documentary put together by his longtime producer and collaborator Rick Fox reveals that my memories of this genuinely absurd show were sadly incomplete. Dr. Shock and other local television personalities like him inspired Joe Flaherty’s wonderful Count Floyd creation for SCTV later that decade; I’m sorry that we don’t have shows like this any more: budget-basement local programming propelled mostly by extraordinarily enthusiastic local amateurs, who in time became beloved professional entertainers. I suppose we have YouTube videos, but as you’ll see below, YouTube videos are no substitute.