A toast to … Huckleberry Finn

For about the third or fourth time in as many years, I’m picking up Adventures of Huckleberry Finn again, finding that it appeals, as all great satires do, as a comment on conscience, conformity, and corruption: the integrity of and respect for the individual conscience, conformity to community values, and the corruption of the human spirit, especially as it expressed itself through the institution of slavery in the United States. And all this in the 300 pages or so of the Penguin Classics edition.

Ordinarily such a book wouldn’t stand up to re-reading as frequent as that, but it’s an extraordinarily rich novel and seems, with every year, to become richer. Certainly the Western liberal idea of the integrity of the individual is, in 2020, under attack around the world, even in the West; there’s increased social, political, and military pressure to walk in lockstep with puritanical and exclusionary ideas about the ideal community and ideal behavior; and, finally, systemic racism in America is perhaps for the first time under profound investigation. The problematic final third of Huckleberry Finn becomes less problematic if one reads it as Twain’s commentary on the Redeemer movement in the South, which started about ten years before the book’s publication in 1888 — a movement which, if nothing else, proved that racism and slavery did not end in 1865 with the close of the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederacy. (The book, set in the 1830s or so, exemplifies the “double vision” of most satiric literature: a criticism of the present through a story set in the past.) Though theoretically “free,” Jim becomes a pawn in Tom Sawyer’s cruel game, and he continues through the end of the book to be regarded as less than human by the Phelpses and their neighbors, even though he’s demonstrated great empathy and courage (more, perhaps, than anybody in the book with the possible exception of Huck Finn himself).

Not to mention that much of the book is extraordinarily funny and in terrible, horribly bad taste, especially when it’s at its subversive best.

Only eleven years after Twain put the final touches on Huck Finn, and only 160 miles to the southwest from Twain’s home town of Hannibal, MO, Scott Joplin published “Maple Leaf Rag” through John Stark’s music publishing company in Sedalia, and from then on ragtime and Twain flourished through 1910, the year of Twain’s death. Twain was perhaps the most celebrated and recognized figure in America through those years, and ragtime the nation’s most popular and celebrated music. The enthusiasm for ragtime faded about the time the First World War began, and indeed both Twain and ragtime were in cultural eclipse until after the Second World War, when Twain’s work began to be reluctantly admitted to the academic canon and a few ragtime aficionados tried to keep the form alive and recognized as a distinctly American music.

If we can’t actually live sanely, we can at least read sane books and listen to sane music until — and if — the current storm of insanity passes. Which is why I’ll be raising a glass to Huckleberry Finn at Cafe Katja this afternoon, safely distancing and all the rest of it. Prost!

Tuesday music: Wall Street Rag

About “Wall Street Rag” (1909), from Edward A. Berlin’s King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era (Oxford University Press; second edition, 2016):

“Wall Street Rag” [is] a piece that refers to the Wall Street Panic of 1907, and may reflect on employment he reportedly had at the time. … Joplin may have personally observed the distress of Wall Street workers as, according to unconfirmed, but plausible, information, he had been playing piano in a restaurant in New York’s financial district, possibly Fraunces Tavern, at 54 Pearl Street, the historic site where George Washington made his farewell address to his officers. …

“Wall Street Rag” is a highly unusual work. First, it has a programmatic narrative that assigns a different mood to each of the four strains:

A–Panic in Wall Street, Brokers feeling melancholy
B–Good times coming
C–Good times have come
D–Listening to the strains of genuine negro ragtime, brokers forget their cares

Modest as this narrative is, it reveals several points about Joplin’s perception of ragtime: not all ragtime is “genuine”; only the African American creation is authentic; and genuine ragtime is a happy music, endowed with the power to alter moods.

The program indicates that the piece should begin in a melancholy mood. The obvious musical device to suggest melancholy is the minor mode, but Joplin avoids the obvious. Instead, while in the usually “happy” key of C major, he introduces modal ambiguities and dissonances. Over a C pedal point he presents tonal vagueness with diminished chords, a prominent repetition of the dissonant and tonally ambiguous tritone interval of C–F-sharp, and a suggestion of the minor mode with a flatted sixth degree of A-flat. The final strain is dominated by unprecedented dissonances. These are off-beat discordances — at times, actually tone clusters — placed in a high register. The programmatic intent is probably to suggest the twanging sound of ragtime banjo strumming.

Below, William Appling performs “Wall Street Rag,” from this important collection.

Heliotrope Bouquet

Today’s music is “Heliotrope Bouquet,” a 1907 rag composed by Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin. Chauvin was a ragtime composer of great promise who alas fell victim to a turbulent and dissipated lifestyle in 1908 at the age of 27. Bill Edwards describes the composition and structure of the music here:

This rag contains the only known surviving compositional fragment of Louis Chauvin, who by most contemporary accounts was a very creative, skilled and prolific pianist who knew a multitude of pieces, though he was unschooled and could neither read nor write music. Chauvin lived a hard life as an itinerant pianist and died of complications from syphilis and multiple sclerosis shortly after his 24th [sic] birthday. The first two sections of “Heliotrope” are Chauvin’s, which Joplin first heard while visiting Arthur Marshall in Chicago in 1906, and thought enough of them to put them down to paper. The harmonization and last two themes were later completed by Joplin, with some tie-ins to the first two. The A section, utilizing a tango rhythm, is fairly unique in all of ragtime for its structure, rhythm and melody. The B section also contains some unexpected syncopation. The C and D sections are obviously born of Joplin’s writing in their nature, but the C section does contain a snippet of Chauvin’s melody in the middle.

The performer is Joshua Rifkin. Mr. Edwards provides a fuller biography of Louis Chauvin here.

A toast to … trash

Cafe Katja.

At the blog this week, I recommended an upcoming concert of American spectral music, relaxed with a bit of ragtime, and welcomed the new issue of Mineshaft magazine.

Poking around on the internet yesterday, I came across this interview with comics artist Chris Ware, who mused upon the reputation of the form to which he has devoted his career:

As an art of reproduction, comics always returns to its status as trash, which I think is key to its being seen clearly and read critically; it has none of the innate prestige of writing or painting and so has to earn its stature on its own terms, every time.

An interesting consideration, and one which intersects with two of my other preoccupations, ragtime music and Mark Twain. One of the reasons for comics’ status as “trash” is the original audience to which it was addressed: the broadest general audience, the audience for what we generally call popular culture. Comics, certainly, as entertainments for children published in disposable newspapers and comic books, were never considered lasting contributions to the expression of the human spirit by critics, teachers, or the elite. In 1901, the American Federation of Musicians dismissed ragtime as “‘unmusical rot.’ Members were encouraged to ‘make every effort to suppress and [to] discourage the playing and the publishing of such musical trash.'” The musical journal The Etude went further a year earlier, thundering that “the counters of the music stores are loaded with this virulent poison which in the form of a malarious epidemic, is finding its way into the homes and brains of the youth to such an extent as to arouse one’s suspicions of their sanity.” And in 1885, the year Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published, the New York Herald reported the deliberations of the Library Committee of the Concord, MA, Public Library:

Another committeeman perused the volume with great care and discovered that it was “couched in the language of a rough, ignorant dialect” and that “all through its pages there is a systematic use of bad grammar and an employment of inelegant expressions.” The third member voted the book “flippant” and “trash of the veriest sort.” They all united in the verdict that “it deals with a series of experiences that are certainly not elevating,” and voted that it could not be tolerated in the public library.

What made this American trash particularly trashy, in part, was its use of vernacular forms. All three — comics, Huckleberry Finn, and ragtime — were distinctly American creations, repudiating European expression and embracing American voices. But as Ware suggests, it also has to do with the mass reproduction of the work itself, lending it to easy disposal and dismissal; it is, by definition, ephemeral. The greatest artists in each of these forms — Joplin in music, from Mark Twain to Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor in language, and from George Herriman to Robert Crumb in visual art — shanghaied popular American slang culture to serve as a new vehicle for deeply personal individual expression, thereby becoming profoundly subversive of what for a better phrase we call “high art.” And its reputation as popular culture serves, as Ware also suggests, to keep these creators modest, if not necessarily honest.

So at Cafe Katja this afternoon, Gabe and I will raise our glasses to American trash. Long may it live.

Tom Turpin’s “Harlem Rag”

An ad featuring Tom Turpin’s business in the St. Louis Palladium, an African American newspaper, March 4, 1905. The State Historical Society of Missouri, Photograph Collection.

Ah, ragtime. This, arguably America’s first homegrown musical genre, “originated on the folk level,” said Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, two of the earliest enthusiasts of the form, but “several outstandingly gifted composers of both races carried the music to a creative level that can only be termed classical.” Just so, and its alternating joy and poignance eventually emerged also in the finger-picking guitar style of the Piedmont Blues. “Piano ragtime was developed by the Negro from folk melodies and from the syncopations of the plantation banjos,” Blesh and Janis explain. “As it grew, it carried its basic principle of displaced accents played against a regular meter to a very high degree of elaboration.”

Of course, Scott Joplin is considered the king of ragtime, but his reputation has obscured that of many other royal ragtime composers. The first of these must be Tom Turpin (1871-1922), whose “Harlem Rag” was published in 1897, predating Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” by two years. (It may have been composed as many as five years earlier.) Turpin’s bar in St. Louis, the Rosebud, was a popular meeting place for Joplin and other ragtime composers as well; in 1905 Joplin would dedicate his “Rosebud March” to Turpin. Turpin would go on to write other rags as the “Father of St. Louis Ragtime.”

Below, Ann Charters performs “Harlem Rag,” from the 1961 Smithsonian Folkways album Essay in Ragtime: Ragtime Piano Classics.