Ian Frazier on Scott Joplin and William Appling

William Appling had a gift for making things new. Often he accomplished this by acts of restoration, as when he took old, classic American hymns and brushed away anything corny that might have accumulated over time. He re-vivified old compositions by listening for their original intention and conveying it in his playing and conducting, simply and beautifully. When he decided, late in his life, to re-listen to the music of Scott Joplin—a big decision, because the familiar fast honky-tonk versions of it had never appealed to him—he tried to hear it the way Joplin heard it, and then to play it in that original style. This recording of Joplin’s forty-six rags, marches, and waltzes shows Appling’s impeccable skill and his understanding of the music’s essence. Presented for the first time, his interpretation of Joplin gives the seminal American composer his due in a masterwork that’s both definitive and for the ages.

To say that Joplin revolutionized American music understates the fact. The ragtime rhythm, that almost-mysterious syncopation that brought music into the industrial age, shook up the world. People who heard ragtime went so wild with it—found it so spine-grabbingly irresistible—that the genius of Joplin’s first intention became blurred. Listeners couldn’t keep their seats, and when they stood up the music got faster and happier and more danceable and frenetic. Over and over, Joplin had to write, “Do not play this piece fast” at the top of his sheet music. The admonition was ignored. Ragtime sped unstoppably along, taking Joplin’s rags with it, obscuring them under its rush.

The achievement of returning Joplin’s music to its original and brilliant simplicity was the last high-striving effort of Appling’s art, the musical calling to which he had dedicated his life. Produced and edited by his student and close friend, William McClelland, this recording puts Joplin in the larger context to which he belongs, the global history of music, which he forever changed. The recording is a testament to two great artists, Scott Joplin and William Appling. Listening to it is a revelation and a joy.

- Ian Frazier

Ian Frazier has been a writer for The New Yorker magazine since 1974.  He is the
author of eleven books including the New York Times best-seller “Great Plains,”
and is the only two-time winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor.
The Los Angeles Times has called him “America’s greatest essayist.”