News Column

Author goes inside the mind of Scott Joplin in new book

June 5, 2013

YellowBrix

June 05--Eric Bronson's new book on Scott Joplin is a combination of research and imagination. "King of Rags," which will be for sale at the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival -- where the author will sign books on Saturday morning in a tent next to the John Stark Pavilion -- falls into the historical fiction genre. It draws on everything we know about Joplin, but Bronson, 42, fills in the gaps with details he dreamed up.

The suburban Toronto author, originally from New Jersey, recently chatted with the Democrat via email while on sabbatical in Denmark.

Democrat: Where did your interest in Scott Joplin and ragtime music come from?

Bronson: Growing up, my parents had the "Red Back Album" by the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble. I used to listen to it over and over. I was trained in classical music. Hearing that chamber orchestra belt out Joplin's work was like nothing I knew. Then when I got my first Joplin piano book, the cover had a picture of man in a suit and a top hat playing so rough that his beer was spilling all over the piano. I was hooked. Even before I wanted to grow up to be a police officer or a ship captain, I wanted to be that guy in that suit spilling that beer.

Democrat: What was your experience like researching in Sedalia (in 2007)? Were you pleased or disappointed with the Democrat's coverage of ragtime and Scott Joplin in their heyday? What is the most interesting thing you learned?

Bronson: The truth is, ragtime historians like Edward Berlin have already done a thorough job combing the newspaper coverage in Sedalia. I went to the Democrat to look for offbeat stories that would help color the time period and boy did I find them. There were crazy stories like a French guy drinking half a barrel of beer, bar fights and baseball pony rides. It was the advertisements, though, that attracted me the most. Hypnotists and anarchists coming through town, along with an opera company performing Faust's deal with the devil. These stories were great backdrops to explore some of the issues a guy like Joplin would have to confront in his desperate desire to be taken seriously in his music.

Democrat: What do you think of the preservation (or lack thereof) of ragtime culture in Sedalia?

Bronson: I think Sedalia is really the one place in America that's keeping it alive. I don't just mean the music, but the way of life. The humor, the joy, and even the deep currents of melancholy that make the music so meaningful. The German philosopher Schopenhauer has described the sadness of searching for happiness in other worlds. It was constant yearning for the ragtime musicians in Sedalia, and the great musicians that visit there still really get that.

Democrat: What inspired you to write a book blending history and fiction? Was this your approach from the beginning or did the story demand to be written this way through the research process?

Bronson: It's funny, but I never intended to write historical fiction. I always had in mind a story about a sensitive artist who won't compromise his values and therefore gets crushed by a commercialized world. I wanted that beer-spilling piano man to have some vague stirrings of beauty, some kind of higher calling that puts the lie to material success. Once I started researching musicians, it became clear that Joplin fit the description so perfectly that my work of fiction was really historical fiction. All that was left was to find other characters who made different choices to contrast or complement Joplin's. Guys like Bert Williams, who chose the bright lights of Broadway over edgier theater, or activists like Frederick Douglass and Ida Wells who put their lives at risk to fight for something more than they would ever have.

Democrat: Did the "syncopated" style of writing come naturally with this material, or did you have to train yourself to write that way?

Bronson: It was very difficult to write in a syncopated style. Telling stories with clear beginnings, middles and ends is so deeply ingrained in all of us. That's the typical template for historical fiction these days, really delving into one's character's thoughts. But the interesting and tragic thing about these itinerant musicians is how they are constantly starting and stopping, leaving town, starting over. It's a jumpy and jarring lifestyle, just like the music they compose. I wanted to capture that in my writing. As much as possible, I tried to keep some important things unfinished and incomplete, like the way they lived their lives.

Democrat: Do you think Joplin was actively trying to be a force for social equality and justice (as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X would be more than 50 years later)? If so, do you feel like that aspect of his life and career have been somewhat underplayed in historical accounts?

Bronson: Joplin's awakening to race and social justice would have come from his own experiences in America's cities at the turn of the 20th century. A number of prominent ragtime musicians were influenced by the Dahomeyan warriors' performance at the Chicago Columbus Exhibition in 1893. Those themes of loss, of courage, and of resistance are critical in understanding seemingly happy ragtime numbers like Joplin's 'Entertainer.' Much of this is terribly underplayed in historical accounts. So many of these musicians and their works just disappear. That's the real heartache. As W.E.B. DuBois wrote, "And herein lies the tragedy of the age: Not that men are poor -- all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked -- who is good? Not that men are ignorant -- what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men."

Democrat: Is there a "Ragtime and Philosophy" or "Scott Joplin and Philosophy" book in your future? (Bronson is the editor of several "Pop Culture and Philosophy" books, most recently 2012's "The Hobbit and Philosophy.")

Bronson: "King of Rags" is really my "Ragtime and Philosophy" book. Instead of historical fiction, I like to think of "King of Rags" as Phil-historical Fiction. The book opens with a quote from Schopenhauer that I think really captures the philosophy angle. "The profound and serious significance of our existence hangs over the farce ... and never leaves it for a moment."

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Eric Bronson (author of "King of Rags") book signing

WHEN: Saturday morning

WHERE: Outside the John Stark Pavilion, corner of Fifth Street and Ohio Avenue

WEBSITE: NeverlandPublishing.com

The 212-page paperback will be available for $16.95 at the ragtime store, 507 S. Ohio Ave., and the book signing.

WEDNESDAY'S JOPLIN SCHEDULE

9 a.m. to 4 p.m.: Various performers, Stauffacher Center, State Fair Community College, 3201 W. 16th St., free.

2 p.m.: Kickoff Concert, Stauffacher Theatre, State Fair Community College, 3201 W. 16th St., $20. Featuring Daniel Souvigny, Dalton Ridenhour, Dave Majchrzak, Frank Lavosi, Tom Brier, Jim Radloff, Steve Standiford, Max Keenlyside, Morgan Siever, Tex Wyndham, Terry Parrish and Adam Swanson.

8 p.m.: "The Entertainer" Concert, Stauffacher Theatre, State Fair Community College, 3201 W. 16th St., $30. Featuring Donal Ryan, Tex Wyndham, Stephanie Trick, Bill Edwards and Frederick Hodges.

After hours: Open piano, Best Western State Fair Inn, 3120 S. Limit Ave., free.

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