Silent Film Music and other Sounding Off

Talking about music, consciousness, silent film, Italian food, travel, good books, married life, kids, and more

Thursday, January 29, 2009

From Rags to Riches

Here's a memento of the THIEF OF BAGDAD performance last month. From L to R: author Jeffrey Vance, Vera Fairbanks, widow of Douglas Jr., author Tony Maietta, and your blogger. We had a great dinner together with Patrick Harrison of AMPAS, and I'm looking forward to reading the Fairbanks book.

I took a trip last weekend to West Seattle's charming Kenyon Hall and played a program of rags by Joplin, Bolcom, and others, as well as illlustrating a lecture by Larry Karp about his series of mysteries based on the life of Scott Joplin. I'm having a great time reading the first one, THE RAGTIME KID, which follows the adventures of young Brun Campbell, a young ragtime pianist from Oklahoma, who comes to Sedalia in Missouri to take piano lessons from Joplin.

Karp whose first profession was physician, has a string of other books to his credit, and in this one, “The Ragtime Kid” (Poisoned Pen Press, 2008), he’s done a remarkable job of bringing the lively milieu of the ragtime era to the page. Campbell is a likable hero who runs away from home at age 15 to meet his idol, and on his first night in Sedalia literally trips over the body of a young woman. A money clip with a tiny music box lies nearby, and soon Brun discovers it belonged to Joplin.

Thoroughly researched, this book is teeming with detail about commerce, bordello life, race relations and the music publishing industry, all of which fueled this invented plot. “The Ragtime Kid” is a real page turner that sent me back to my collection of Joplin’s rags to refresh my memory about the individual pieces that figure in the story.

Joplin’s career is truly fascinating, and although it ends unhappily with a mental and physical decline, the first part of his life is an important part of American musical history. “The Maple Leaf Rag” (1899) was the first piece of sheet music to sell over a million copies and established Joplin as a major composer who shunned the slapdash works that permeated the music industry of the time and strove to create an American equivalent of the salon music of Chopin and Schubert. Karp’s sequel, “The King of Ragtime,” follows Joplin to New York where he becomes implicated in a murder in Irving Berlin’s office. I am looking forward to the final volume.

An audience of about 100 drank in the details of Karp's talk about life in Sedalia Missouri, sipped the fabulous root beer floats, and enjoyed my impromptu raggy version of "Hail to the Chief," one of a couple of suggestions from the audience for takeoffs on familiar pieces.

The following night I played for Mabel Normand's first Keystone, The Water Nymph, and a later film, The Nickel Hopper, plus A Corner in Wheat (Griffith, 1909) and When the Clouds Roll By with Douglas Fairbanks. Quite a full evening that didn't see me in bed till midnight Seattle time, when my physiology wearily proclaimed it to be 3am.

Here's a rag that I wrote for the occasion:

First you need a little introductory phrase, maybe something like this

Now we have a secton we'll call A
to take it away and get things rolling
It's got to swing a bit, jiggle and sing a bit
Left hand steady while the right hand's ready to
   Syncopate, it's a 
   Little late, it's a
   Bit behind, but you'll find it's not that
Bad, it won't make you sad
You'll be glad you heard the
Self-Referential Rag

Typically this section repeats again
To keep it symmetrical, continue strolling
Swinging the phrase while the bass always stays
Just nice and steady so the right hand's ready to
Syncopate, it's a
Little late, it's a
Bit behind, or perhaps ahead but never
On the beat so you can tap your feet
To the Self-Referential Rag

Now we modulate, you see,
To another tune in another key, and
The rhythm to a
Different style
All the while
Keeping that bass going
Back and forth Rock
steady down south
While up in the north the
Melody wanders, the audience ponders
Where it will go, the pianist don't know
He's making it up as he sings the cho-rus of the
Self-referential rag.

Now the last strain
I't's cutting loose
Like a long freight train
That's lost its caboose
It's running amok
And with a little luck
It'll end pretty soon 
Before I explode
I'm gonna overload
And pop my top
LIke a New Year's cracker 
or a paper bag
That's the Self-Referential
Quite insconsequential
Don't be deferential to this
Rather inessential
Self-Referential Rag!

©2009 Farmhouse Window Productions
All rights reserved.


  • At 10:13 PM , Blogger Debbie said...

    who needs tom lehrer? you're great!

  • At 12:59 AM , Blogger chris said...

    Great stuff. I would like a musical primer like this for all genres. It would make a really fun tutorial. Let me know if your interested, I could do some fun graphics or animations.


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