Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Wednesday Doubleheader - Yankees Suck, Mariners Rock & A Ragtime Urban Legend

      To follow up on last week's post, I got a nice phone call Saturday from Randy Adamack, the Seattle Mariners' Vice-President of Communications. Mr. Adamack told me that ever since the original brouhaha over the Yankees Suck T-shirts in 2002, the official club policy has been that fans may wear a 'Yankees Suck' T-shirt (or any T-shirt they'd like) to Safeco Field, and specifically, the alcohol enforcement officer should not have ordered me to remove my shirt and turn it inside out. As part of the apology, Mr. Adamack invited my wife and me to a game of our choice this month, on the Mariners, something not requested, but gratefully accepted. 
      There always have been and always will be people who set themselves up as guardians of public morality. They need to be opposed vigorously. I'm gratified that the Mariners have taken a clear stance against censorship.

      I keep coming across a word-for-word story about Scott Joplin, my latest encounter being at this site. The account holds that Scott Joplin was the "first music teacher" of Rollin Rodgers, a young white boy in a "small town" in Texas. Years later, Rodgers was offered the opportunity to sing at the Met, but insisted on bringing his old teacher to hear him. The Met refused to allow a black man in, so Rodgers went back to Texas and never did become a star opera singer. Joplin, so touched by Rodgers' sacrifice, decided to take up the composing he'd abandoned because of "money problems, health problems, and a messy divorce." So, Rodgers allegedly was in large part responsible for our having Joplin's ragtime to hear today.
      What really happened: in about 1880, in Texarkana, young Scott Joplin, recognized through the town as a prodigy, came to the attention of one Julius Weiss, a German immigrant employed as a tutor for the children of the wealthy Rodgers lumber family. One of the Rodgers children was Rollin, so he and Joplin were contemporaries. Weiss arranged to give young Joplin free lessons in piano, sight-reading, and harmony, and may also have tutored the boy in academic subjects (which might account for the fact that Joplin, as an adult, was so well-spoken, and moved comfortably in white society). And since Weiss' music lessons focused on European music, Joplin got a healthy exposure to that, and came to know classical and operatic music well.
      Joplin studied with Weiss until 1884, when Mr. Rodgers died, the family cut expenses, and Weiss had to leave town. Joplin, then 16, left Texarkana as well, and became an itinerant pianist in the midwest, finally settling in Sedalia MO in the mid-1890s, where he became a central figure in the city's music communities, and began to write the ragtime music that would make his reputation. He (and his publisher, John Stark) called his music "classic" or "classical" ragtime, since Joplin wanted to make over the rough, raucous folk ragtime of the day into a respected and respectable form of classical music.
      I can find no evidence of any operatic performances by Rollin Rodgers, only that he played the violin, and had a "lifelong interest in opera." Joplin's not-very-messy divorce was in 1903, before he ever went to New York, determined above all else to compose a ragtime opera. During his subsequent health and money problems, he never stopped composing; by all accounts, he was a tune-writing machine. 
      And just for the record, Weiss' appearance in my book, THE RAGTIME KID, is pure fiction. Once he left Texarkana, there is only sketchy information of his whereabouts and activities; he may have been in Houston for a while.

The most comprehensive reference on Julius Weiss is: Julius Weiss, Scott Joplin's First Piano Teacher, by Theodore Albrecht, College Music Symposium 19 (2), Fall 1979, pp. 89-105.

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