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Scott Joplin Had Wall Street Down

With markets teetering to the flailing batons of impotent conductors, the Musical Patriot delves into the archive for this bagatelle from the previous collapse.

—CounterPunch, April 5, 2008

A parallel survey of the historical soundtrack and stock market crashes reveals that musicians are not deaf to the beat of the financial markets, the euphoric crescendo and inevitable diminuendo of boom and bust, the ecstatic coloratura of good times and the gloomy introits to bad. While bottom-line laments sung by executives in recent years have silenced many artistic enterprises from across the musical spectrum, financial indices reflect, even if in inverse proportion, the universal demand for healing song when things go bad.

How else to explain the fact that the resounding collapse of 1929 led seamlessly into one of the great years of American popular song: 1930 yielded Hoagy Carmichael’s Georgia on My Mind, Johnny Green’s Body and Soul, George Gershwin’s Embraceable You, and Cole Porter’s Love for Sale, to name just a few.

There’s also Harold’s Arlen’s Get Happy. Composed in 1929 and published the following year, the song might be heard to respond, if indirectly, to economic depression. Coupled with Ted Koehler’s bouncy lyric, the music is almost ridiculously optimistic, though it is not the Secretary of the Treasury (then the tax-evading tycoon Andrew Mellon), but the Holy Ghost that provides the necessary stimulus package:

Forget your troubles c’mon get happy,

you better chase all your cares away.

Shout hallelujah c’mon get happy

get ready for the judgment day.

Good humor mixes with apocalyptic fears for this much-needed palliative for those newly dark times: the music and lyrics are all about diverting the listener from the cruel realities of the present.

Indeed, music has buoyed markets for as long as markets have existed.

The greatest musician of the Dutch Golden Age, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck had already been dead fifteen years by the time the tulip craze imploded in 1637, but his music remained popular at the time of the crash. Sweelinck had made himself famous in part by playing organ concerts featuring variations on secular dance tunes in the Old Church in Amsterdam as traders strolled below, making deals that included rampant speculation on tulips. That’s why I’ve always heard in the insouciant charm of his variations something of the effervescent thrill of high-risk stock trading.

The Old Church was then, as now, in the heart of Amsterdam’s red-light district, so that these schemes were forged with sex for sale just outside the unconsecrated Calvinist walls. (In the reformed church, religious buildings became sacred only when The Word was present—a convenient theological principle that allowed the enterprising Dutch to make multi-purpose use of ecclesiastical edifices.) That the secular songs treated by Sweelinck often had lascivious texts confirms that his performances were energized by the same magnetic field that binds sex and money. Stock-jobbing and prostitution offer kindred, and sometimes conjoined, forms of arousal, something the recently deposed Sheriff of Wall Street, Eliot Spitzer, clearly knew but didn’t let on about until the spectacular tumble of his own share price a few weeks ago.

Before the advent of the Euro, Sweelinck’s proud portrait graced the ten-guilder note on what was then Europe’s most colorful currency. This was an apt commemoration for the Orpheus of Amsterdam’s vital contribution to culture and commerce-an artificial distinction in more than just the case of the entrepreneurial Dutch.

Similarly, I like to think that Handel penned the music for the South Bubble Sea, which burst in August of 1720, puncturing a host of similarly corrupt stock schemes across Europe.

The bubble was born with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, a curiously far-reaching document that concluded the War of the Spanish Succession. One of its terms granted the South Sea Company exclusive British trading rights in the South Atlantic slave trade from West Africa to the Spanish colonies in the Americas. The scheme was set up by the Lord Treasurer, Robert Harley. To help service the massive deficits run up during the war, holders of short-term government debt were convinced to take shares in the new company.

Though the movie musical fed a mass market far different than that of Italian opera in 18th-century London, the appeal of opulent entertainment even, or perhaps especially, during economic downturns unites Handel and Busby Berkeley, whose career was born with the Great Depression and flourished over its course.

While the relationship between music and markets is a complicated one, the correspondences between them are far from random. It is not only the fortuitous eruption of the zeitgeist that accounts, for example, for the appearance John Philip Sousa’s most famous march Stars and Stripes Forever in the same year as the Panic of 1896, which brought with it an acute Depression.

On the day that William Jennings Bryan delivered his Cross of Gold speech at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in July of 1896, a spontaneous display of flag-waving broke out in the New York stock exchange. The long-time broker, H. R. Halsted, who later died of food poisoning, procured what the New York Times account called “a large American flag.” As Halsted began marching around the boardroom, “instantly cheers for the flag arose, and fully 150 brokers fell into line behind the standard bearer and marched around the room three times. Mingled with frequent cheering there were cries of ‘Give us sound money!’ ‘Down with populism!’ ‘The American flag against the red!’ Down with the Anarchists!’ &c.” (How different is the present-day attitude on the floor of the exchange each time soft money comes sluicing in!) The more recent hoorahs at the above-mentioned demise of Eliot Spitzer pale by comparison.

An alliance of monied Democrats and Republicans still familiar to us formed quickly on the floor of the exchange: “Members of the Bankers and Brokers’ Republican Campaign Club had a large supply of McKinley buttons, and they found plenty of Democratic brokers willing to wear them.” Even trading was halted for the enactment of this outpouring of fiscal responsibility and nationalist sentiment.

Is not the proper music for these 19th-century brokers in lock-step Sousa’s celebrated march, just as it could well have been for the draping of the huge stars-and-stripes across the Exchange after September 11, the brightly colored, super-thin, anti-terror prophylactic that still sheathes the erect columns of the building’s neo-classical facade? Composed in a year of financial disaster, Sousa’s greatest hit is the patriotic hymn of unbridled capitalism. Whether urged on by macho trombones or absurdly cheery piccolos, this America marches unwaveringly towards a brighter future, if not brighter for everyone, then certainly for the captains of industry and their faithful lieutenants.

In contrast to music historians and festival organizers, who habitually capitalize on anniversaries, market watchers steer a wide course around such commemorations, since they inevitably direct thoughts towards the cyclic nature of markets and the unavoidable crash around the corner. Thus the Panic of 1907, when stock prices dropped by 50 per cent, received hardly a nod during its turbulent hundredth anniversary year.

But looking back musically, we can still see a bright orange cone marking this deep pothole in America’s golden pavements. Composed in the wake of the Panic, Scott Joplin’s Wall Street Rag appeared in 1909 when confidence in the markets had been largely restore. The unbridled, if blinkered, gung-ho of Sousa gives way to a good deal of doubt. Joplin was also adept at playing the patriotic card; the cover of his Nonpareil rag of 1907 shows Uncle Sam unfurling an American flag. But Wall Street registers a much wider range of emotion, even fears, though it, too, never makes claims for great profundity.

The epigrammatic opening of Joplin’s Wall Street is cast in “Very Slow March Time” rather than the “Slow March Time” of so many of the composer’s other two-steps and rags. It’s as if the poised brightness of these other pieces has been transformed into a dirge; indeed the cover of Wall Street presents the view towards Trinity Church, and the dark-suited mob assembled in front of the Stock Exchange looks as if it has gathered for a funeral. (The brisk tempo of the allegedly original Joplin piano roll, recorded on a modern instrument and released last year by Editions Milan Music, must be wrong; on many of his printed scores, Joplin enjoined the buyers of his music in the starkest terms not to rush: “Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast!”)

The rag’s opening section, “Panic in Wall Street” depicts the “Brokers feeling melancholy.” Nowadays, no one would think to ascribe such an introspective, contemplative state to momentarily impoverished Wall Streeters forlornly nursing their martinis and patting their suit pockets to check for the reserves of pharmaceutical cocaine. But it is precisely Joplin’s elegant handling of this rarefied sentiment that sends a classy strain of tubercular European salon music wafting over the manic, money hungry stone and asphalt caverns of New York’s financial district. There is a subtlety here that Sousa had no time or talent for.

The next section of the rag moves from these shapely Chopinesque chromatic inflections and gracefully sliding parallel figures to the rollicking right-hand chords and thundering bass octaves of “Good times coming.” I’ll bet Joplin had Sousa in his ears for this. And soon enough “Good times have come” and Joplin focuses his musical material in the middle-range of the piano where the breathless repetitions gather a locomotive’s momentum.

The rag closes with financial worries chased away. Now even the greedy have time for entertainment. Re-enriched, Wall Street can let itself have fun again: “Listening to the strains of genuine negro ragtime, brokers forget their cares.” The left hand romps along as the right hand ascends— like the surging Dow—to the top of the keyboard’s compass. The carefree and poor, as if unaffected by the cycles of the market, and never burdened by the heavy responsibilities of steering the economy, offer up their carefree song for the celebration of the financiers. Joplin feeds the myth: what’s good for Wall Street is good for America.

But this final section is ambiguous. The rag does not embrace the system without some qualms. “Genuine negro ragtime” invokes a notion of authenticity that the high-collared brokers can never attain: the dividends of pleasure that only music can pay are never taxable.

Yes, Joplin wanted to make a buck too. In 1899, He negotiated a royalty of a cent per copy of Maple Leaf Rag, a deal that brought him some $360 a year for the rest of his life. His publisher made a lot more money, but Joplin did all right himself. The outburst of Negro joy after a black period in the markets wants to make us believe that way down at the bottom of the economic heap someone will always be singing and dancing,

Yet Wall Street does what Wall Street wants: it consoles in bad times and rejoices in good. In spite of the superficial attempt to convey social unity across class and race, however, the surreal concluding tableau of Joplin’s Wall Street, with its the wealthy whites dancing in front of the stock exchange to joyful Black music, cannot fully divert our ears and eyes from the more fundamental, and still operative, truth conveyed by this final image: the Negroes have the rags, the brokers the riches.

(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com.)

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