1. The First Record I Bought

‘Gladiolus Rag’ – Scott Joplin

Yes, I know. I know ragtime wasn’t meant for the concert hall. I know it should be faster than this (despite Joplin’s regular admonishment at the top of the sheet music: “It is never right to play ragtime fast”). I know it’s the oldest trick in the book to slow a piece right down, smarten it up, lay on the rubato, and squeeze every drop of cheap emotion from it. I’ve seen those John Lewis ads, shuddered at the rise of the ukulele cover version. Most of all, I know it’s not right that it should take a white concert pianist on a classical label to get poor penniless Scott Joplin the acclaim he deserves, fifty years too late.

But… but these are the recordings I grew up with. In our house we had an old 70s record player which never got used. When I started to learn some of these rags in my piano lessons, I bought the album, and it stayed on the turntable for years. When I was older I tracked down a recording of the piano rolls which Joplin himself made. He’d play on a keyboard attached to a machine which would punch the notes into a roll of paper to be read by playerless pianos. It’s way faster, and the authentic, jangling, bar-roomy pianola just doesn’t get me the same way. Rifkin’s interpretations may be hammy, but they’re hardwired into my emotional circuitry.

Richer than pop music (which, let’s face it, was almost always about a set of experiences I hadn’t had yet), more accessible than classical, hearing them as a twelve-year-old, these rags were by turns the most heart-rending, stirring, funny, devastating pieces of music I had heard. And so they remain, each one full of sadness and charm, but Gladiolus Rag the pick of them all, the waves of booming octaves in its final section always, always over too soon.

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