Singing the blues about ragtime

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The Independent Online
I WAS listening to Joshua Rifkin talking about Bach on Radio 3 the other day and my attention drifted back to the time when I, too, could have been Joshua Rifkin. This was in the early Sixties, when, long before the ragtime revival started, I decided I wanted to play some of the stuff on the piano. Jazz groups were always playing 'Maple Leaf Rag', 'Panama Rag', etc, but you never heard how the rags were intended to sound, on the piano, as written. I liked the idea of it being written down. It would mean I wouldn't have to rely on my stunted powers of improvisation.

So I went out to buy the printed music. But there was no printed music. There was nothing in print at all. Sorry, sir.

So I went to the British Museum, to find original Scott Joplin scores, photocopy them and play them. I found the original sheet music. I couldn't find a photocopying machine. In those days it was easier to find incunabula than a mechanical gadget in the British Museum Reading Room. Perhaps it still is. So I started copying 'Maple Leaf Rag' out by hand.

I don't know if you have ever copied 'Maple Leaf Rag' out by hand, but a lot of it is above the treble clef, where, with a shaky blue ball-point pen, most of the notes tend to blur together, like planes stacked over Europe in midsummer. This means that when you come to play the thing it seems harder than it really is, so although I achieved a fair version of 'Maple Leaf Rag', it was never really good enough to attract a talent scout, and my putative ragtime revival fizzled out before it had really started.

I was, had I but known it, ahead of my time. A few years later The Sting came out, and Joshua Rifkin became Professor Ragtime, and I found that absolutely nobody is impressed if you tell them you were playing all this stuff a few years back. But I have never been one to bear a grudge, and when I had the good luck to meet Joshua Rifkin all those years ago, I did not even mention the fact that he had ruined my ragtime career.

What he said to me was far more interesting anyway, and worth writing down even at this late date. The Scott Joplin recording project was not at all inspired by The Sting, as I recall; it was simply that the record company for which Rifkin worked (Nonsuch) had imposed on him so many projects of their choosing that, for one LP at least, they decided to let him do what he wanted. And he opted for an LP of ragtime written by Scott Joplin, which he thought had never been played properly on record in the way that Joplin wanted.

'Joplin saw ragtime as serious music,' he told me, 'and himself as a serious composer. And that was the way I tried to play it, slow and stately. But when they first brought me the artist's drawing for the record sleeve, I couldn't believe my eyes. There was a black guy sitting at the piano with lots of piccaninnies dancing round him. I think he may even have been wearing a straw boater and smoking a cigar. Whatever it was, it was all Uncle Tom and entirely against the spirit of the music and the record.

'So I told them to go away and do a new cover, which showed Scott Joplin as a kind of Beethoven figure at the piano. I wasn't just being perverse. It was how Joplin saw himself. Also, and just as important, it was a better way to sell the record, because then you were telling Americans that they had a Beethoven of their own on their hands, and America would go out and buy. If you can satisfy Americans' aspiration to glorify their own country, make them feel they're having a cultural experience and give them something to enjoy, all at the same time, you're on to a winner.'

The piccaninnies were consigned to oblivion. The front of the record, and subsequent volumes, showed a serious black American seated at the piano with a sort of halo provided by candlelight round his head. He looked like a suntanned Schubert at his most inspired. It exuded respectability, solidity and worth. It sold millions.

It also made me realise that my ragtime revival was fated never to have got anywhere. It wasn't that I couldn't play the piano as well as Rifkin. It was that, unlike Rifkin, I had no image, no marketing strategy. I could, I suppose, have commissioned a drawing of the British Museum Reading Room, with the sunlight falling on a solitary figure copying out an ancient ragtime score by hand, with the words, 'The Ragtime Revival Starts Here]' but I don't think anyone would have bought the LP. I know I wouldn't.