There isn’t much that works quite as it should in our new old house at the moment. We can’t plug the fridge in, the stove isn’t connected to the propane tank, the windows aren’t weatherproof and the workshop doesn’t have a floor. The one thing that does work, delightfully but impractically, is the piano. It came with the house, and as our friend the piano expert discovered, it was made in 1904, meaning that it belonged to the original homeowners. It sounded terrible when we first came upon it, but our friend put some hours into fixing it for us and now it sounds fine. So even when we are freezing our asses off this winter because the furnace isn’t heating our poorly insulated house so much as all of outer space, we can at least tickle the ivories until our fingers rot off from frostbite.
I played piano for a number of years during my childhood, at first with youthful enthusiasm, then, when adolescence hit, glumly, since I did everything glumly back then. I never had any real talent, just enough to know that even if I practiced (which I didn’t), I would never be all that great, and so on to more glumness. Since then I’ve felt twinges of nostalgia once in a while, the longing for something I used to have for which there really is no substitute. Listening to music is surely one of the great human experiences, but making music is something altogether greater still. I’d always figured on getting a piano again one of these days, with the uneasy suspicion that this might end up being one of those “one of these days” things that never would in fact happen. And then I up and moved to a farmhouse. You never do know, do you.
The first sheet music I got for my new old piano is a book of dumbed-down Scott Joplin rags. I say “dumbed-down” even though this stuff is not for beginners; ragtime piano is incredibly complex, or at least seems that way to someone who never studied music theory and would have to study it to understand it because it sure doesn’t come naturally to me. Looking at sheet music for me is something like looking at a poem written in Braille. There might well be something amazing in there but right now it’s just a bunch of unfathomable glyphs. Struggling to make sense of the glyphs, I’ll often find myself baffled at the seemingly random changes from naturals to flats, flats to sharps, major to minor. Yet when I finally puzzle out the correct notes, there’s that sudden oh, wow, yes! That’s right! That’s just—amazing!
I picked Scott Joplin because his music seemed appropriate for the age of our piano, as his most popular tune, “The Maple Leaf Rag,” was written right around the time our house was being built. Even if his name and background aren’t familiar, you’ve almost certainly heard his music in movies set in the late 19th and early 20th century such as The Sting, which made “The Entertainer” famous for all time. It is unfortunate that many people seem to think of ragtime as somewhat goofy. Those perplexing but astonishing chords always seem a little sad to me. “Ragtime,” after all, suggests a time when everything in your life pretty much sucks but you put on your best rags—because rags are all you’ve got—and you go dancing. There’s exuberance, but there’s also a deep longing beneath it all. If you want to know what melancholic yearning sounds like, listen to his “Solace.” If you already know all about melancholic yearning, listen to it several times.
Joplin was born in 1868, a hundred years before my own birth year, and died in 1917—a hundred years before the present year. There’s nothing particularly meaningful about those factoids; it’s not much more than a neat coincidence. Still, it’s interesting for me to think about all that Joplin created in the time he had on earth, which is the same amount of time I’ve had on earth so far. Not surprisingly, Joplin’s life appears to have had its share of struggle and hardship. There were failed marriages, tragic deaths, fortune and poverty in rapid succession. Joplin died in a New York City mental institution; he had syphilitic dementia, and he was buried in an unmarked “potter’s field”-type grave. The huge number of honors and awards and prizes he received were almost entirely posthumous. This is all incredibly depressing and an admittedly strange thing to be dwelling on this first day of the new year, and I don’t want to make some easy conclusion from it like “live each day to the fullest because you never know if you might get the syph!” I’m not entirely sure why all this interests me; playing ragtime in the cornfields in the year 2017 is not likely to have much impact on the world, after all. But I guess it’s always good to discover new things, even when they’re old things, maybe especially when they’re old things. You gain a connection to the past even while you step—baffled and exuberant and longing—into the future.