Jay: Thanks for that link to your piece in City Arts about my old friend Jimmy Levine, and to Joshua Rifkin’s Scott Joplin performance. (Full disclosure: My wife is the publisher of City Arts.) There’s an interesting linguistic connection between Joplin and your Impromptu Sowellian ruminations on the appellation “African-American.”
In the first decade of the 20th century, during the great flowering of ragtime, Joplin and his publisher, John Stark of Sedalia and St. Louis, turned out rag after rag, masterpiece after masterpiece. One them is The Chrysanthemum from 1904. Alone in Joplin’s entire output, it bears the subtitle “An Afro-Intermezzo” on the cover and “An Afro-American Intermezzo” on the first page of the music. This was at a time when the music of black Americans was genteelly referred to as “Ethiopian.”
There’s more to the story. Thanks to the indefatigable scholarship of Edward A. Berlin (whose King of Ragtime is the book on Joplin), we learn that The Chrysanthemum has a hidden history: When first issued, it was dedicated to the 19-year-old Freddie Alexander of Little Rock, with whom Joplin had fallen madly in love and whom he married shortly thereafter; she died after only ten weeks of marriage. To a composer who never wore his heart on his sleeve, but always hid it in the music, her death was devastating.
Here is Miss Freddie as Joplin first limned her in music: