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.

This Sunday, Marilyn Nonken plays Joplin and Ives at St. Bart’s

Charles Ives and Scott Joplin.

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.”

Information and tickets here.

A toast to … World Press Freedom Day

This week I compared and contrasted two Missourians, Mark Twain and Scott Joplin; noted Alexander Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow’s misattribution of a quote to Mr. Twain, supplying a more cogent Twainian observation about the press; and chuckled over E.B. White’s change of heart about New York.

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:

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.

I won’t be able to get to Cafe Katja this afternoon, so I’ll raise a glass to journalists and press freedom at home, and direct the savings to Reporters Without Borders. I hope you do, too — and subscribe to your local paper while you’re at it.

Prognosis negative

E.B. White in the introduction to his 1977 collection of essays, remembering his 1948 “Here Is New York” (his observation more true now, perhaps, than ever):

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.