“Nonpareil” (Scott Joplin)

It can be difficult to figure ragtime. On the one hand, it’s considered a gesture to classical music—especially marches—due to its fairly orthodox approach to form and rules of harmony. (Some, like Ann Charters, have even recorded the trax in question in a more “classical” style.) Another: it’s a more “refined,” hence more respectable, version of cakewalk and coon songs. It’s also positioned as a bridge music, conduit to jazz (or “African American classical music” in more aspirational nomenclature). The same problem surrounds this trax’s title. Does it mean unequaled? Not in a genealogical narrative. Unparalleled? Perhaps, though that would completely minimize how syncretic musics are. Incomparable may be the best translation, even though we can always hone a developmental narrative of Joplin’s works and American music more generally. Things may work best this way: racialized and admired, from the gutter and the opera house, out of a respectable tradition and emanating from brothels. African American expression as both a historical index of an unequaled and evolving white supremacy while also a singular sonic node that bleeds into others.


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