Morning: A Long Slow Drag

Morning names have been piling up; I’ve been consumed with many things. Here’s the backlog, in order:

methylene blue, Prussian blue (early synthetic dyes, with a raft of uses)

Gluyas Williams (cartoonist)

“A Real Slow Drag” (Scott Joplin composition, from his opera Treemonisha)

The Cockettes (psychedelic theater troupe of the early 1970s)

Today I’ll talk about “A Real Slow Drag” (written in 1910).

A performance on an old piano roll (performer not identified):

Now, on Scott Joplin and Treemonisha, but largely without the social and cultural background for him. From Wikipedia:

Scott Joplin (… c. 1867/1868 – April 1, 1917) was an African-American composer and pianist. Joplin achieved fame for his ragtime compositions and was dubbed the “King of Ragtime Writers”. During his brief career, he wrote 44 original ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet, and two operas. One of his first pieces, the “Maple Leaf Rag”, became ragtime’s first and most influential hit, and has been recognized as the archetypal rag.

… In 1907, Joplin moved to New York City, which he believed was the best place to find a producer for a new opera. After his move to New York, Joplin met Lottie Stokes, whom he married in 1909. In 1911, unable to find a publisher, Joplin undertook the financial burden of publishing Treemonisha himself in piano-vocal format. In 1915, as a last-ditch effort to see it performed, he invited a small audience to hear it at a rehearsal hall in Harlem. Poorly staged and with only Joplin on piano accompaniment, it was “a miserable failure” to a public not ready for “crude” black musical forms — so different from the European grand opera of that time.

… This new art form, the classic rag, combined Afro-American folk music’s syncopation and 19th-century European romanticism, with its harmonic schemes and its march-like tempos. In the words of one critic, “Ragtime was basically… an Afro-American version of the polka, or its analog, the Sousa-style march.” With this as a foundation, Joplin intended his compositions to be played exactly as he wrote them – without improvisation.

… [Treemonisha] The opera’s setting is a former slave community in an isolated forest near Joplin’s childhood town Texarkana in September 1884. The plot centers on an 18-year-old woman Treemonisha who is taught to read by a white woman, and then leads her community against the influence of conjurers who prey on ignorance and superstition. Treemonisha is abducted and is about to be thrown into a wasps’ nest when her friend Remus rescues her. The community realizes the value of education and the liability of their ignorance before choosing her as their teacher and leader.

… In 1976 the Houston Grand Opera first staged Treemonisha under music director Chris Nance and stage director Frank Corsaro. In 1982 the company revived that staging and produced a video of the production for television by Sidney Smith. This used the [Gunther] Schuller orchestration and starred [soprano] Carmen Balthrop as Treemonisha, [contralto] Delores Ivory as Monisha [Treemonisha’s supposed mother], and [baritone] Obba Babatundé as Zodzetrick [a conjuror].

Coming up, that 1982 video of “A Long Slow Drag”, which I think is just fabulous:

Carmen Balthrop (who is luminous in this performance) was born 5/14/48 in Washington DC and for some time has been Professor of Voice, Opera Division, at the University of Maryland, College Park. From her faculty entry at UMD:

Carmen Balthrop made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Pamina in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. With a repertoire ranging from Baroque opera and song to contemporary literature, she has performed leading roles with some of the world’s major opera companies and symphony orchestras

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