Something in the Missouri water

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.

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

Charles Ives and Scott Joplin.

Lately I’ve been listening to the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra‘s excellent recording of Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha; more on that at another time. (For now, I point you toward Philip Clark’s essay/review of the recording in Gramophone.) For now, I just wanted to point out that tickets are available for American Voices of the 20th Century, Marilyn Nonken‘s May 5 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.”

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.”

For now, I hope you’ll join me for Marilyn’s concert on Sunday, May 5; it starts at 2:30 p.m.; tickets and more information here. I have yet to convince Marilyn to program a concert of Joplin’s music, and I doubt I’ll ever succeed, but the juxtaposition of Joplin and Ives will surely speak for itself.

Below, Joshua Rifkin’s performance of “Bethena” from his landmark early 1970s recordings that put Joplin on the map again.

The roots of the roots

When American roots music is celebrated, it’s usually done so with the Ken-Burns-like solemnity of PBS specials like American Epic — eminently worthwhile, but also studded with the kinds of celebrities (Willie Nelson, Jack White) who can tart up the joint enough to guarantee a least embarrassing rating. All well and good, and if PBS can do its bit to put this kind of music in the public eye, then sure, you can have my five bucks a month to keep the squirrel running in his wheel. But really, this history-minded survey class favors the past rather than the present, and if you want to hear this music and see it performed today — live, as it was meant to be heard and performed — then you have to look elsewhere. And the next best thing to hearing it live is to listen to contemporary musicians who still feel it important to keep it out there, as entertainment of the highest quality rather than a trip down memory lane. Not that it’s going to make anybody rich, as this band recognized 30 or 40 years ago.

So it was with extraordinary pleasure that I sat down last night with Coney Island Baby, the new album from Eden & John’s East River String Band, a local outfit based in the deep East Village, which has been performing “a vast spectrum of traditional American Blues, Country and Pop music ranging from the late 19th to the early 20th Century” for more than a decade. To call the 17 songs on the album “roots music” — in the sense that PBS will tell you that true roots music is exemplified by groups like the Carter Family — is somewhat misleading. Eden Brower, John Heneghan, Robert Crumb, and Ernesto Gomez, the core group of the ERSB, have gathered together here a wide-ranging repertoire, from traditional blues and rags to more recent (relatively speaking) standards like “Nobody’s Business if I Do” and “He’s Funny That Way.”

This is not particularly concert music like formal ragtime, nor, when it was first written and performed, was it meant to be. Back in the day, before the Victrola, the only way to hear music was to either hear it live or play it yourself: pick-up bands who took possession of a gazebo or bandstand in a small American town for a parade or barbeque, roadhouses and juke joints in more remote regions of the south, an occasional visit from a touring minstrel show, or a few hours just sitting around with a few friends on somebody’s porch. (It’s something that Charles Ives knew well.) Coney Island Baby, at its best, puts you in the room with Brower, Heneghan, Crumb, Gomez, and the rest for spirited, relaxed musical good times.

Brower fronts the band with a solid, whiskey-dampened (if not whiskey-soaked) voice, a bright, mature sensual full-bodied woman’s tone instead of the girlish puerility of most contemporary female singers (as the father of two girls about ten years old, I’ve heard enough of these to last a lifetime). She’s bawdy and even a little beyond on “Moonshine,” “Skinny Leg Blues,” and the delightfully dirty “Adam and Eve,” though capable too of some sensitive nuance on songs like “Nobody’s Business,” “He’s Funny That Way,” and maybe my favorite song on the album, “Arlena.” She’s backed by Heneghan on a strong, energetic guitar that offers a few of the rougher-in-the-best-sense moments (he gets his due on his sole solo cut, “Desert Blues”) and Crumb’s vibrant and subtle ukelele, mandolin, and banjo, while Gomez contributes a terrific harmonica, especially on “Moonshine.” The “Sometimes They Show Up If They Feel Like It Players” — Pat Conte on fiddle, Eli Smith on banjo, Jackson Lynch on fiddle, Geoff Wiley on bass fiddle, and Walker Shepard on guitar — fill out the one or two instrumentals on the album.

It’s worth pointing out that the term “American roots” is a little specious. The music that the ERSB performs may be characterized as distinctly American, but it’s only because that we’ve grown to hear it that way. This music didn’t magically spring up from the indigenous American soil but instead was the product of the music that was brought to these shores by a variety of immigrants and exiles, voluntary and involuntary: it has its origins in the music of Europe, but equally in the musics of Africa, South America, Asia, and even Hawaii. It doesn’t take long for enthusiasts of this music to go down the paths of its true origins. Heneghan does so in his own John’s Old Time Radio Show, often joined by Crumb, which I highly recommend; along with recent episodes about yodelling and ukelele music, Heneghan has also recently featured programs on early recorded African, French, and Brazilian music. Check it out, and do your part for immigration.

If you want to support this kind of music and the research that inevitably follows once you’ve developed an interest, why not cough up the monthly sawbuck that buys you membership in Smithsonian Folkways Recordings? Better yet, support your local band by purchasing a few of these fine offerings. And best, play them for your kids. My daughters Goldie (10 years old) and Billie (a year younger) joined me in listening to Coney Island Baby yesterday evening, and immediately started snapping their fingers and tapping their toes along to Eden, John, and the rest of their stylish gang. They loved it. So I’m doin’ what I can to corrupt the next generation. Order the album for a measly $14.99 (they’re throwing postage and handling in for free) and tell ’em Goldie and Billie’s dad sent ya.

An informative interview with Eden Brower and John Heneghan can be found here. Below, the ESRB’s version of “Arlena.” That’s Eden Brower on vocals, John Heneghan on guitar, Robert Crumb on ukulele, Pat Conte on guitar, Geoff Wiley on the bass fiddle, and Walker Shepard on the fiddle.

A toast to … putting a point on it

I’ll be attending my usual residency at Cafe Katja this make a quick stop first just two blocks south at CW Pencil Enterprise, 15 Orchard Street, a charming boutique that opened last year and over which pencil maven Caroline Weaver presides.

As it happens, tomorrow, March 30, is National Pencil Day, Forbes magazine reports. Something there is in me that does love a pencil. As far as pens go, I’ll never give up my Pilot G-2 0.38mm standby, but the Pilot is aggressively plastic from end to end. The pencil is a little marvel of engineering, seemingly all-natural wood and graphite from tip to eraser, a writing implement that dates from the 16th century, when a graphite deposit was discovered in Cumbria, England. It is most likely the first writing instrument most of us used, apart from the crayon, and unlike the crayon the pencil has been a favorite tool of writers and editors for centuries. Among fans of the classic Blackwing 602 pencil, for example, have been John Steinbeck, E.B. White, Eugene O’Neill, Archibald MacLeish, and Vladimir Nabokov. The Blackwing 602 even has its own website, and The Hollywood Reporter, no less, traced its influence upon the entertainment industry in 2013. And so far as nature goes, Henry David Thoreau himself was the scion of a well-known New England pencil family.

Blackwing also offers the socially-conscious glow-in-the-dark Volume 811 pencil, “a tribute to libraries and the hope they represent.”

Although I’ve been using my Pilot to complete New York Times crossword puzzles for years, my first visit to CW Pencil Enterprise yesterday encourages me to pick up a pencil once again. In part, I suppose, this is humility — unlike the pen, the pencil comes with its own eraser, and we could all use a little more modesty in our daily lives; we all, the pencil’s eraser reminds us, make mistakes. CW Pencil Enterprise helpfully offers a sampler set of crossword puzzle pencils suitable for both the daily newsprint and Sunday glossy puzzles. You can also pick up a few Blackwing 602s and a box of 811s at the shop, but there are many, many more, along with a curated selection of related apparatuses, including sharpeners, erasers, and notebooks. For the kid in all of us, a separate sticker room fulfills all of your sticker needs, as it did for my two daughters yesterday evening. (I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Ms. Weaver’s own handsome book about the pencil, The Pencil Perfect, available for purchase here and at the store itself.)

So this afternoon at Cafe Katja I will raise a glass to the pencil, to Caroline Weaver, and to her CW Pencil Enterprise. I’ll see you there (and don’t worry if you forget a sharpener; I’ve got one of these on my key ring now).

As bad as we say it is

When in the early 1970s the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce needed a slogan to promote the city to businesses and tourists, the best it could come up with was “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is.” It’s hard to determine exactly what the Chamber of Commerce expected as a result. In the ten years following the slogan’s launch, the population of Philadelphia dipped by 13.4 percent, from 1,948,609 to 1,688,210. And on the eve of the city’s Bicentennial celebrations in 1976, then-Mayor Frank Rizzo requested 15,000 federal troops to maintain order in Philadelphia that summer, fearing violence from political demonstrations. Tourists stayed away in droves. The total number of visitors to Philadelphia in 1976 was estimated to be between 14 and 20 million, which fell far short of the planners expectations, Madison Eggert-Crowe and Scott Gabriel Knowles write in the online Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. Much of the shortfall may be attributed to fear of violence spread by media attention to the protests and the mayor’s reaction to it. During the Bicentennial there was also an outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease. Hundreds of members of the American Legion staying at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel contracted an infectious disease through the hotels air conditioning system, killing more than thirty of the Legionnaires. Local wags inclined to punnery called the city Filthydelphia, and the same wags, referring to the main artery into town, the deteriorating high-speed Schuylkill Expressway, were prone to call it the Surekill Distressway. We regularly booed our sports teams, which inevitably found themselves in the basement of the standings a few weeks after the opening of the season, at their home games. Philadelphia was, at the time, the self-loathing Larry David of American cities. It remains so in some respects. It may be no coincidence that the phrase “We have met the enemy and he is us” was popularized in the 1970s (though not coined) by Walt Kelly, the creator of the comic strip Pogo and a Philadelphia native.

I consider myself a native Philadelphian too — I was born at Pennsylvania Hospital at 8th and Spruce Streets in 1962, in the heart of Center City — and I remain one, though I’ve lived in New York since the early 1990s. I spent quite a bit of time in Philadelphia in the 1970s (I must have passed that billboard many times myself) and remember this period well. But then, Philadelphia was never one to curry favor with outsiders, or with ourselves. Compare Philadelphia’s slogan of the 1970s with, for example, New York’s “I Love New York” advertising campaign, which launched in 1977 — a screaming success. A success, at least, when it came to the city’s self-image, if little else; New York’s population also suffered a 10 percent decrease during the 1970s. Nonetheless, the contrast between the two slogans reveals about Philadelphians their steadfast refusal to believe their own bullshit.

Bullshit is a fine fertilizer, and like other fertilizers it’s a compound, its individual elements consisting of hyperbole, publicity, half-truths, whole-lies, arrogance, exaggeration, conceit, egotism, self-delusion, greed, and a narcissism verging on religious mania. The danger is in believing your own bullshit, and if anybody believes their own bullshit, it’s New Yorkers. The sentence “Philadelphia is not as bad as Philadelphians say it is” unintentionally reveals a more laudable modesty and humility at the heart of its civic and urban culture. That modesty and humility have done damage to the city and its reputation, no doubt. But they have also done the city and its inhabitants more good than may be evident at first glance, and it obscures the far greater civic and urban damage that bullshitters who believe their own bullshit can accomplish.

The roots of this difference between New York and Philadelphia may lie in their histories. William Penn, the founder of the city whose statue looks down from the top of Philadelphia’s City Hall, deliberately established Philadelphia on the Quaker values of tolerance, piety, pacifism, and order in its original prospectus. (Though the statue itself is solemn and dignified, from the right angle, when it’s raining, it looks like Penn is peeing in the general direction of North Philadelphia. Thanks to my late father for this rather surprisingly relevant insight, though I’m sure he was hardly the first to notice it.) He envisioned it as a greene country towne, a city of brotherly love that would disdain excessive commerce and business activity in the pursuit of a prosperous (within reason) but civilized community of compassionate, like-minded citizens. Within fifty years of its 1682 establishment, of course, these ideals had fallen by the wayside as the non-Quaker population — diverse and heterogenous as it was in terms of religious, social, and racial composition, a diversity and heterogeneity ironically encouraged by Penn himself — displaced the original Quaker settlers, forming a more practical and commercial population, personified by no less than Benjamin Franklin, inventor, entrepreneur, and civic leader. On a recent walk through Olde City Philadelphia, I counted no fewer than fifteen statues and historical references to the inimitable Franklin — he’s hard to miss — but above it all, Penn and his memory still look down over the city. There is, no doubt, some bullshit in Penn and rather more in Franklin; the capacity for bullshit is something that differentiates the human race from the animals, after all, and none of us is entirely devoid of it, even and perhaps especially seemingly benign visionaries like Penn. New York, on the other hand, was founded as a trading post. And New York is still a trading post — magnified a millionfold, and powered by the latest in technology, but a trading post nonetheless. And there’s no better fertilizer for business, commerce, and publicity than bullshit. I hate to say it, but if Benjamin Franklin may be the personification of colonial Philadelphia, Donald Trump may be the personification of contemporary New York.

That Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is also suggests a bit of a desire to be left alone. In these more connected and networked days, a Facebook intimacy, in which we can be friends with hundreds, if not thousands, of people that we never meet, undermines traditional conceptions of community and friendship, which traditionally required us to actually meet, talk, and enjoy each other’s real-world presence. Such traditional conceptions themselves undermine the ability of bullshitters to successfully bullshit us; we can see the deceptive glint in their eye as they spew it.

About twenty years ago, Philadelphia got around to hiring a rather more adept publicity firm, which came up with the slogan “The Place That Loves You Back.” This might be interpreted as a somewhat sarcastic response to New York’s “I Love New York,” which doesn’t love anyone, apparently. In 2012, Prof. Richardson Dilworth, Director of Drexel University’s Center for Public Policy, compared the two Philadelphia slogans in an insightful essay for NewsWorks, seeing in the later slogan something of a betrayal of the Quaker ideal of universal love. (Dilworth is something of an insider and so has a particular insight; his namesake grandfather was the Mayor of Philadelphia from 1952 to 1956.) The claim that Philadelphia loves you is really the opposite of Quaker-inspired universal love. The slogan suggested intimacy, while universal love is cold and impersonal, Dilworth noted. If I love everyone, I love no one in particular. And Philadelphia has indeed often been perceived as a uniquely cold and unwelcoming place. Cold and impersonal, perhaps — but also cautious, and, befitting the essentially conservative (with a small c) nature of the city, fonder of and more comfortable with the devil it knows rather than the devil it doesn’t.

Dilworth cites Digby Baltzell’s landmark 1979 study Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia as he continues:

According to Baltzell, the radical equality and antiauthoritarianism of the city’s Quaker leaders fostered a uniquely individualistic culture that was more tolerant of dissent than the more paternalistic culture fostered by the authoritarian Puritan leaders of Boston. … Though generally considered a negative characteristic, Philadelphia’s antisocial reputation was intimately connected to the city’s perceived virtues — the opposite side of the coin of tolerance and acceptance is indifference and disregard. …

Since the city’s antisocial reputation also defined some of the city’s perceived virtues of tolerance and acceptance, it seems worth asking what shared sense of community we gave up in selling ourselves more successfully to tourists.

“The Place that Loves You Back” suggests that we offered to welcome tourists into a warm and intimate community. We want you to have fun; in fact, we’re going to insist that you have fun, because we love you and we care.

But in making this new offer, have we forsaken the mixed history of tolerance and indifference that allowed anyone to come here and do what they wanted? And in exchange, we really wouldn’t care?

There’s a reason that one of the more significant studies of Philadelphia of recent years is titled The Private City.

The more years I spend away from Philadelphia, the more I come to appreciate its eccentricities, including its reserve, self-deprecation, and modesty. I find in these qualities more realism than skepticism, more honesty than self-hatred. Naturally, I’m not blind to its many deficiencies. I’m glad that my daughters are enrolled in public schools in New York, given the worrisome condition of the public school system in Philadelphia today; its arts community, compared to that of New York, is less vibrant and less daring, though there’s enough vibrancy and daring in Philadelphia if you know where to look. Its newspapers are a shadow of what they once were. And very little of Philadelphia’s urban cuisine — those cheesesteaks, the pulled pork sandwiches at DeNic’s — will end up on the cover of Eating Well magazine anytime soon; five minutes in the Reading Terminal Market will send any vegan or health-conscious eater screaming to the exits. On the other hand, Philadelphia, for many reasons, encourages an individual to come to private terms with a history — his own, as well as his culture’s — that’s worth preserving. Perhaps that’s the bullshit I believe, and perhaps it’s the bullshit Philadelphia believes, too. In which case, to each his own.