Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Birds Of A Feather

In 1899, fifteen-year-old Sanford Brunson (Brun) Campbell ran away to Sedalia, MO, to take piano lessons from Scott Joplin. Before he left Sedalia, Joplin nicknamed him The Ragtime Kid.

For nearly ten years, Brun worked as an itinerant pianist throughout the midwest, Colorado, and California. When interest in ragtime faded, Brun took up the barber trade, first in Tulsa, then in Venice, CA. He played a major role in the ragtime revival of the 1940s, working tirelessly to promote ragtime, Scott Joplin, and, not incidentally, himself.

Last spring, I got an email from a Los Angeles antiques dealer who had cleaned out a house, and found three cartons of items that had belonged to Brun Campbell. Having never heard of Brun Campbell, the dealer googled his name, and up came Larry Karp's ragtime historical-mystery trilogy. A quick negotiation, and a few days later, three cartons arrived at my house. I opened them in jig time. My summer project lay before me.

One of the cartons was nearly filled with typed manuscripts. About half were titled When Ragtime Was Young; these were accounts of Brun's career as an ragtime pianist. The rest were short pieces, treating one or another aspect of the history of ragtime. Brun had hoped to publish this material.

 It didn't take me long to decide that the historical writings should remain unpublished. Most of the information is now common knowledge, but more important, Brun simply was not a historian. Why spend time chasing down a fact when an opinion would serve just as well, maybe better? In addition, Brun was, to put it tactfully, an embellisher. Probably his most egregious historical invention was a description of Scott Joplin's funeral. Brun alleged that the procession to the cemetery consisted of a long line of carriages, each bearing a placard with the name of one of Joplin's rags. But Joplin had died broke and forgotten, and was buried in an unmarked grave.

I spent six years in Brun's close company as I wrote my ragtime trilogy, and I think I got to know him pretty well. In my imagination, I pressed him on the point of Joplin's funeral procession. His answer? "Well, the way I told it, that's what Mr. Joplin deserved. That's how it should've been."

So, Brun's histories will stay in their acid-free protective sleeves. But the story of his musical career is another matter. The Kid didn't pick up much in school as regards grammar, spelling, and punctuation, but he was a master storyteller. Those pages held me enthralled - I could hear the old guy talking. Yes, he probably did toss in an exaggeration here and there, but the overall account rang true. He couldn't possibly have made up some of that stuff.

So, I guess for the next year or two, as I'm writing a followup mystery to A Perilous Conception, I'll be trying to work Brun's anecdotes into a coherent, publishable narrative. It's interesting that with all the capable writers of ragtime history throughout the world, Brun's works found their way to another storyteller. I think that would've amused The Kid. Maybe that's how it should've been.

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