Happy April Fool's Day, the official release date for The Ragtime Fool, the concluding book in my ragtime historical-mystery trilogy.
Calculated publicity stunt? No. Until recently, Poisoned Pen Press released books near the end of the month. When I finished writing The Ragtime Fool last May, which projected to an April publication date, I assumed the book would come out in late April.
Where'd that title come from? In 1951, Brun Campbell, the real-life Ragtime Kid, was old and sick, and questioning what he'd done with his life. His wife seems to have had no doubts; she thought her husband was a fool for having devoted his existence to Scott Joplin and ragtime, the Devil's music.
But late in writing the story, I wondered whether Joplin's Journal might be a better title, since my fictional Brun's hope for validation centered upon recovering a diary his mentor had written many years before. But my editor pointed out that as the final volume of a trilogy, coming after The Ragtime Kid and The King of Ragtime, The Ragtime Fool was right on, and should stay. Feeling just a little foolish, I agreed.
I built my story around an event which I believe was the first public honoring of Scott Joplin and his music, a 1951 ceremony in Sedalia, MO, at the Hubbard (Black) High School. The racially-mixed audience listened to speeches and music, and applauded the presentation of a plaque proclaiming Joplin's accomplishments, which was to be hung on a wall in the school. To make the fictional antecedents fit a proper time line to the real-life ceremony, I had the story begin on April 2. But in the second draft, I realized I'd omitted a critical scene, and to remedy that, I needed to push Page One back to April 1. I resisted the change, because April 1, 1951 was a Sunday, and in 1951, in Missouri, Sunday was a day of rest, when nothing much happened. But I finally saw a way around that problem, and the plot of The Ragtime Fool began to unfold on April 1.
For ragtime enthusiasts, April 1 is The Day the Music Died. On April 1, 1917, Scott Joplin, ravaged by syphilis, and exhausted by years of fruitless attempts to get his opera, Treemonisha, into performance, died on a psychiatric ward in Manhattan State Hospital. Old Brun Campbell refers to that sad day in Chapter 2 of The Ragtime Fool.
In addition, some jazz authorities list April 1, 1917 as the date Victor Records released the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's “Livery Stable Blues,” the first recorded example of the music then called jass. Ragtime then stretched out beside its most illustrious composer, not to stir for a quarter-century, when music historians and musical performers began to breathe new life into the corpse.
Until about a month ago, these coincidences never caught my attention. But as I looked through Poisoned Pen Press's spring catalog, and noticed the date for The Ragtime Fool, a chain of associations cascaded through my mind: April 1...April Fool's Day...The Ragtime Fool...the day Scott Joplin and his music died...the day a bunch of damn-fool diehard Klansmen set a plot into motion to blow up Hubbard High School, with its integrated audience gathered to honor a great Black composer.
I'm glad I didn't think along these lines sooner. If I had, I'd have tied myself in knots, trying to avoid having people think I was trying to pull off a cheesy publicity stunt.
Now, all I can do is eat a little crow with my cheese.
While you're wondering whether to marvel at the way the stars have aligned for this book, or condemn me for over-the-top disingenuousness, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2tx1jky1D1A , and enjoy “The April Fool Rag,” composed by Jean Schwartz, in 1911. I don't know the precise date of publication, but I could make a good guess.
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