'The Music Survives': An Interview with Max Morath
One might say that Max Morath has ragtime in his blood. His mother played piano for the silent movies, and taught him from an early age to appreciate many kinds of music. When he started out playing piano for melodramas in Cripple Creek, Colorado, he had to learn the appropriate music for the time period of the plays. This led not only to a love of ragtime as music, but as a part of American history and culture. During a life-long love affair with early twentieth century music, Max Morath has become not only the preeminent player of ragtime, but one of music's most highly regarded historians, with quite a few books and many albums to his credit. Now, he has a new show in the middle of its run at the York Theatre- Ragtime and Again.
While it is certainly not necessary to understand ragtime to appreciate Max Morath's show, some background helps, and he is only too happy to put the music into context. "Ragtime was the name given to all popular music for about twenty years," Morath begins, and asks rhetorically, "What was the music of the 60's and 70's? Rock. What was the music of the 30's? Swing. What was the music of the first twenty years of the century? Ragtime." In his show, Morath demonstrates the growth of modern music, beginning with the syncopation that is the basis for ragtime. That syncopation gave birth to jazz, which gave birth to rock. But the original rhythm was ragtime, which flourished primarily in poor, black neighborhoods. The race of the composers and artists, unfortunately, meant that much of their work went unrecognized. "People today, they think, 'They didn't write much about Scott Joplin in those days, so he must have been pretty obscure' And yes, he was obscure, partly because he was black." Joplin's popularity came posthumously. His music, however, and the music of his contemporaries, directly influenced the next generation. "All of our great composers- American songwriters- the guys who wrote the standards, they were all born within a few years [of each other]," Morath says about the 20th Century's celebrity composers: for example, Duke Ellington, The Gershwins, Richard Rodgers, and Irving Berlin. "They all grew up as children with ragtime around them. Ragtime was an influence by osmosis. It was the music they heard. It imprinted them."
Vaudeville played a major part in the development of ragtime. "You go back and read the trade magazines," Morath says. "They spoke of ragtime, and they were talking about the vaudeville songs... The vaudeville people, they wanted songs tinged with the steady, constant syncopation." Ragtime's popularity also increased with the popularization of sheet music. Woolworth's and other 5-and-10-cent stores carried the sheet music to many songs, even though not many of their customers could read it. To help customers choose which songs to buy, the stores hired young educated white women to sit at pianos in the store and play whatever songs a customer might want to hear. These women, Morath explains eagerly, could never socialize with the young black men who composed these songs, but their worlds were bridged through music. Some of these women, in turn, became rag composers themselves, although they often had to quit the business when they married. (There have been enough female ragtime composers to warrant a CD of their work, which Morath has made.) "The [black] men failed," he ruminates, "and the women failed, but the music survived." At least one of the female composers had some success with her work: Adeline Shepherd's "Pickles and Peppers" became the theme song for William Jennings Bryan's presidential campaign.
Throughout his show, Morath stresses the youth of the ragtime composers, referring to them as the "Ragtime Kids". "They were kids!" he says with great excitement. "They were struggling, they were talented! Most of them failed! Joplin only had one hit. He wrote two operas, one of which went nowhere. His big opera [Treemonisha, written in 1911] won the Pulitzer posthumously when it was finally produced [in 1976]. He wrote another that has been lost." The rag that opens Ragtime and Again, Jimmy Johnson's "The Steeplechase Rag", was composed when Johnson was only sixteen years old. Ragtime was America's first popular music, and as Morath says in his show, "popular music has always belonged to the kids." Full of improvisations that never found their way to printed sheet music, ragtime was (and as played by Morath, still is) spontaneous and joyous, a celebration of emotion and passion.
As a musician and historian, Max Morath loves taking ragtime on the road, and bringing it to people who might not otherwise hear it. The decision to tour with ragtime is not purely artistic, however. It's also easier. "You don't have to have a band," Morath laughs. "It's a solo style, and I don't know how many times over the years people have [suggested that I do music of the '20's] which requires at least six people, and that's a totally different drill. It's a different way to live. Also, it turns out that I have the kind of voice that can do that kind of music." He leans in with a conspirational grin, and adds, "I've had several vocal laryngologists tell me I have a larynx that looks like leather. So that's just luck!"
Despite his vast knowledge of musical and cultural history, Morath does not use too much of it in his show. His primary goal, he emphasizes, is to entertain, not educate. He likens Ragtime and Again to Jelly's Last Jam- a show that does not require prior knowledge of the subject matter, or even great interest in it. "It's theatre!" Morath says. "It's a show about America. It's a show about music. The show is not aimed at some group of afficionados. I just want to entertain them."