Title: King of Rags
Author Name: Eric Bronson
Author Bio: Eric Bronson teaches philosophy in the Humanities Department at York University in Toronto. He is the editor of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Philosophy (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), Poker and Philosophy (Open Court, 2006), Baseball and Philosophy (Open Court, 2004), and co-editor of The Hobbit and Philosophy (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), and The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy (Open Court, 2003). In 2007 he served as the "Soul Trainer" for the CBC radio morning show, "Sounds Like Canada." His current project is a book called The Dice Shooters, based loosely on his experiences dealing craps in Las Vegas.
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When I was a kid, the first ballet I ever saw was Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker." It was too long, too serious, too dark, and much too much dancing. I wanted to go home.
When I finally did go home, I saw things. Dancing things. Maybe not toy soldiers or sugar plum fairies, but boring, mundane things in my room definitely appeared to me to be dancing.
It seems to me that's a good a reason as any to give children an education in music. I'm not the first person to write that, obviously. Over two thousand years ago, Socrates also advocated teaching young Greeks music early on in their education. In Plato's Republic, Socrates says that "musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful..."
Music can make graceful our bodies and our souls. One hundred years ago, the king of all ragtime composers, Scott Joplin wrote an opera about an African American child who saves her village from ignorance and superstition. It's a beautiful ragtime opera for children and adults. The child, Treemonisha, learns to
"Never treat your neighbors wrong,
By causing them to grieve,
Help the weak if you are strong,
And never again deceive."
And, in the end, she teaches us that
"Ignorance is criminal
In this enlightened day.
So let us all get busy,
When once we have found the way."
There are lots more important lessons in Joplin's ragtime opera. Perhaps the most important lesson for black history month is that if white adults had the opportunity to listen to more black musicians one hundred years ago, black children might have a bigger voice today.
Tchaikovsky's opera is played every Christmas. Joplin's opera was never published. And that's too bad because children can learn an awful lot when they listen to diverse voices.
We all can.
Book Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Neverland Publishing
Release Date: May, 2013
Buy Link(s): Amazon
King of Rags follows the life of Scott Joplin and his fellow ragtime musicians as they frantically transform the seedy and segregated underbelly of comedians, conmen and prostitutes who called America’s most vibrant cities home. Inspired by Booker T. Washington and the Dahomeyan defeat in West Africa, Joplin was ignored by the masses for writing the music of Civil Rights fifty years before America was ready to listen.
Whenever he had a difficult decision to make, Scott set himself up on the small hill with high grass and wildflowers. In the starlight he was especially careful not to disturb the patient, purple flowers. A traveling white schoolteacher once read to his class the story of the heliotrope from Ovid’s
Metamorphoses. Derided by the world and scorned by her lover the Sun God, a poor nymph keeps her eyes ever fixed to the sun. Streaked with purple, she is covered in leaves and flowers, roots that claw their way around her helplessness, forever binding her to the earth.
“‘An excess of passion begets an excess of grief,’” the schoolteacher quoted. “Don’t reach so high. You’ll be much happier if you lower your sights.”
But there was something about the nymph’s undying faith that touched him inside. She refused to be stuck here in this world, and that refusal brought hope along with the pain. Scott thought he understood the nymph’s eternal conflict. His music wouldn’t right the wrong, but it might help ease the loss. Long after the sun abandoned her, Scott sat among the heliotrope and played for her his coronet.
The hill had a further advantage: it overlooked the new train station. He was there one December day, ten years earlier, when the first Texas & Pacific railway pulled in from Dallas, on its way to Fulton, Arkansas. Since then his father had taught him to play the violin, banjo and coronet, but none of them could take him beyond his colorless world. Maybe the trains couldn’t either, but the tracks held that promise, going outwards, ever away. His mother believed the coronet was
the Devil’s instrument. Scott disagreed. Any instrument that brought relief to others was useful. It shouldn’t much matter who was dancing at the other end.
Under the wavering light of a half-moon, Scott played with all the sounds of the night: the high-pitched melody of cicada bugs over the running bass line of lumber cars and freight trains, garbage crates and short hauls sounding their syncopated iron rhythms: boom-chugga boom-boom: boomchugga boom-boom. The music of the night trains was the sound of waiting—waiting and waning and wasting away. The greatest secrets in life, Scott knew, lay not in the music or the
people who played it, but in the short, silent spaces that sometimes fell unexpectedly off the beat. The Stop Man taught him that without hardly even saying a word.