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A James Ellroy Playlist: Rags to Riches

May 1, 2022

Scott Joplin: Piano Rags was released in 1970. Featuring Rags composed by Joplin and performed by Joshua Rifkin, the record was a critical and commercial success, leading to a revival of interest in Ragtime and a glowing reassessment of Joplin’s role as the ‘King of Ragtime’.

In the mid-1970s, while working at the Hillcrest Country Club in Los Angeles, a young caddy by the name of Lee Earle Ellroy gives a copy of Piano Rags to a close friend. His favourite track, Ellroy tells his friend, is ‘Magnetic Rag’.

Magnetic Rag

The Ragtime revival of the 70s continued apace. The Sting won Best Picture at the 1974 Academy Awards. The soundtrack featured Joplin compositions, adapted by Marvin Hamlisch. Joplin was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1976, and his life was adapted into a 1977 film starring Billy Dee Williams. It all amounts to an extraordinary, albeit bittersweet, legacy for a composer who died of syphilis, penniless, at the age of 48 in 1917. Ragtime abruptly died with him, although it lived on as an influence in Swing, Jazz and the Blues.

EL Doctorow’s novel Ragtime was published in 1975. Set at the height of the Ragtime era from 1902 to 1912, the narrative focuses on a wealthy white family who live in New Rochelle, NY. Lee Ellroy loved the novel. He had writing ambitions of his own and was working on a manuscript at home in the afternoons, after caddying in the morning. In 1981, Ellroy’s first novel Brown’s Requiem was published under his new name James Ellroy. Ellroy moved to Eastchester, close to the New Rochelle setting of Ragtime, and pursued his new writing career with burning ambition and boundless enthusiasm. Although his debut had been a crime novel, Ellroy ultimately wanted to write historical fiction. As an influence, Doctorow’s Ragtime was a work Ellroy admired but also struggled with. There is no dialogue in the text. Instead, the reader discerns the characters motivations through interior monologue as they react to the great events around them. Real-life historical figures are presented in an irreverent, sometimes unflattering, fashion. Their actions are not always logical or rational. Sometimes it feels like they have given themselves to the rhythm of their times. Ellroy himself would write about romantic dreamers who ‘dance to the music in their own heads’. Every time I listen to a rag it sounds like a short story told through musical mannerisms. It’s perfect music to accompany a flirtatious glance across a room or a happy walk on a Summer’s day.

The film adaptation of Ragtime hit the big screens in November 1981 while Ellroy was settling in at his new home in Eastchester. Directed by Milos Forman, Ragtime is a lavish spectacle which sadly died at the box office. The film does a good job of fleshing out the characters through dialogue and action. The narration to the trailer ends ‘Bad Time … Good Time … Ragtime’. The production of the film was caught in its own turmoil that, for better or worse, captured the spirit of Ragtime. A footballer turned actor lobbied hard for the role of Coalhouse Walker Jr. He felt the role of Walker (a well-mannered Ragtime pianist who ingratiates himself with a white family but is radicalised after experiencing racism), would have been the perfect part to make people take him more seriously as an actor.

Fortunately, OJ Simpson did not get the part. The role of Colehouse Walker went to the excellent Howard Rollins.

By the late 1980s, Ellroy’s reputation as a historical novelist was starting to grow. Today he is considered one of the greatest writers of historical crime fiction, although recent works have tended to be overblown. Perhaps that is the point. Ellroy described the WWII Los Angeles setting of Perfidia as a “time of fabulous fistfights, brief and passionate love affairs, populated by great real-life characters interacting with great fictional characters. It is the secret human infrastructure of enormous public events. It’s Ellroy’s Ragtime.”

NB: This post came about through conversations I’ve had with Ellroy about his musical tastes and how they have changed over time. His interest in Ragtime has waned over the years. The Ragtime revival, like the Swing revival of the 90s, has come and gone. We absorb our cultural environment and then we move on, sometimes not realising until years later the influence it had on us. Ellroy has always maintained that he ‘lives in the past’ and while he spurns the internet for that reason, the web has made these cultural gems of bygone days so much easier to rediscover. Doctorow’s Ragtime is a fine introduction to the era and its music. In one scene, Colehouse performs several rags to the unnamed New Rochelle family, and the description of his playing is as beautiful as the music itself:

The musician turned again to the keyboard. ‘Wall Street Rag,’ he said. Composed by the great Scott Joplin. He began to play. Ill-tuned or not the Aeolian had never made such sounds. Small clear chords hung in the air like flowers. The melodies were like bouquets. There seemed to be no other possibilities for life than those delineated by the music.

Wall Street Rag

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan permalink
    May 1, 2022 1:20 pm

    Very interesting- I had read Ellroy was a Doctorow fan but didn’t realize it included Ragtime. I have been meaning for years to watch the film, in large part to see a much older Cagney at the very end of his career.

    Some great articles the last few months about very particular aspects of Ellroy’s life and interests.

    • May 1, 2022 1:30 pm

      The film is well worth tracking down. The period detail is immaculate and all of the performances, including of course Cagney in his swansong role, are great. The novel is a surprisingly breezy read and not too long. Doctorow’s style is hard to imitate but not difficult to enjoy. An intriguing mix. Thanks for your kind words Dan. There are more articles to come in a similar vein, so I hope you will enjoy them just as much.

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