Thursday, April 05, 2007

Beans, Biscuits, and Blues

by Len Hart, The Existentialist Cowboy

Since posting my modest tribute to E. L. Doctorow's novel, Ragtime, and his take on the US Constitution, I have been thinking more about Ragtime as a musical idiom. In fact, I have been thinking about music, in general --how it makes lasting impressions, how it shapes our early lives, how political it can be, how interwoven it is with with all levels of culture. Music is essential to the art of being human. I can't promise to deal adequately with any or all of those still half-formed ideas. But I will share with you some music that I like and would not like to be without.

Anything written about Ragtime must begin, of course, with Scott Joplin. The son of a former slave, Scott Joplin was born around 1868 in the little town of Linden, TX. The precise date is in dispute. It fair to say, however, that by the time he sold Maple Leaf Rag to John Stark and Son music publishers of Sedalia, MO, he had already absorbed a classical music education from a German classical musician --Julius Weiss --and a study of theory, harmony, and composition at George R. Smith College in Sedalia. By that time, he had heard the John Philip Sousa band. It would have made an impression.

Joplin had ambitions for his new syncopated music that he and perhaps one or two other "professors" invented. Professor, of course, was the term used to designate parlor piano players in houses of ill repute.

Like rock, disco, and rap, Ragtime swept the nation but not without opposition from "high brows" who never lacked a derogatory or racist epithet to describe it. Nevertheless, Joplin crafted a new, energetic music that typified even more than Sousa the nervous energy that was America at that time.

Joplin himself took his music seriously. As if to declare his belief to the world, he wrote a Ragtime opera: Treemonisha. Sadly, it was not performed in his lifetime cut short by his death from syphilis. It was left to the Houston Grand Opera to become the first opera company in America to present Scott Joplin's Treemonisha. Building upon its success, HGO would become the first major opera company to produce the most faithful version of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. HGO boasts that it is the only opera company in the world to win a Tony, two Grammy and two Emmy Awards. The New York Times calls the Houston Grand Opera "the jewel in the cultural crown." The Tony, as I recall was for Treemonisha.

There is a dearth of real Ragtime music to be found on the internet. Ragtime is not a music to be tossed off as an afterthought. Too many would-be players of Ragtime fail to play the music; they punish the music and the poor piano they bang it out on. Serious, talented musicians often completely miss the point by playing rags too fast, too loud, or jazzed up. I wish the would just show a little respect.

A great rag doesn't need jazzing up. It doesn't need to be made sophisticated. It doesn't need to be played too loud or too fast. As Mozart said of his own music, there are just as many notes in a Joplin rag as the rag requires. A great Joplin rag, like the Maple Leaf Rag, can carry the player, if only he/she will but surrender to it.

If you overlook the sound quality, the following is one of the best that I've found on the net.


Ragtime was played in what are euphemistically called "Houses of Ill Repute". The pianists were called "professors" and competitions between them were called "cutting contests".

Growing up in Odessa, TX, I was, naturally, exposed to Honky Tonk music. At that place and time, there was, in fact, no hope of escaping it. This was a time when C&W stars like Hank Williams began incorporating some swing and blues into what had been a strictly "bluegrass" genre. However, if you listen closely to Bill Monroe, you will hear notes as blue as any played by Louis Armstrong. As a tribute to the many "Honky Tonk" musicians whose juke box lullabies on Second St lulled me to sleep each night, here are Hank Williams and Patsy Cline:


Barely a teenager in Odessa, I met, at a block party, a musician who was destined to make rock history. You may have heard of him. The musician who would one day be a legend was Roy Orbison. The video that follows was recorded in Los Angeles for HBO in September 1988. Sadly, Roy passed away on December 6, 1988. Orbison is a rock legend admired by the Beatles who held him in awe. Watch this clip from Black and White Night. Count the number of superstars --Springsteen, Jennifer Warnes, Elvis Costello, K.D.Lang et al. They were not merely content but honored to have been playing on the same stage with this ol' country boy from Wink, TX.


In those days, Orbison's band was called the Teen Kings. They could be seen and heard every Saturday afternoon on the local TV station - KOSA-TV. Here is a link to one of the better histories that I have been able to find about Roy Orbison, especially his days in Odessa, TX.

Much later, Roy comes back in what seems in retrospect to have been if not another life, at least, a rebirth. He is seen here teamed up with K.D. Lang to perform one of his legendary hits: Cryin'


It was only fitting that I conclude this loosely connected collection of American music with a Patsy Cline standard. The following clip is from the movie "Sweet Dreams" with Jessica Lange as Patsy Cline. Lange admitted that she couldn't sing. She most certainly lip-synced Cline's unmistakable voice.

Patsy Cline died in a plane crash in 1963. She was only 30 at the height of her fame and career. Nevertheless, she is remembered and recognized to have been one of the most influential female vocalists of her era.
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