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Happy Birthday, Mr. Twain!

New York
Le Poisson Rouge, 162 Bleecker Street
11/28/2010 -  
Fritz Kraemer: Mazurka
Louis Moreau Gottschalk: The Banjo – The Savannah
Ossip Gabrilowitsch: Serenade
Blind Boone: Impromptu on “Nearer My God to Thee”
Franz Schubert: Impromptu
Blind Tom: Two pieces
etc etc

John Davis (Speaker, Writer and Pianist)

M. Twain

Revering both Mark Twain and his Connecticut neighbor Charles Ives, I always imagined them meeting for a drink. Who would be more inspiring? More scathing? Both of them might revile those “sissies” who didn’t go out on a limb. But what would Twain writer about Ives, or what boyhood song cycle might Charles Ives be invigorated to compose?

Last night, thanks to a splendid performer, historian, pianist and speaker, John Davis, I realized that such a meeting would go nowhere. Charles Ives, the stolid insurance executive whose musical head was centuries above the 1900’s, would have little use for this comical fellow from out west. Mark Twain, the riverboat captain, explorer, journalist, world traveler, the picture of American eccentricity to the world, had bourgeois tastes planted firmly in the late Victorian Age, perhaps with minimal understanding of Ives.

But thanks to Mr. Davis, we were carefully enlightened to Mark Twain’s real musical genius. The Hannibal rapscallion, transformed into America’s gift to the world, embraced music the way the Mississippi River embraces America.

J. Davis (© Herring Rollmop)

Last night at Le Poisson Rouge was the ideal way to spend the 175th Anniversary of Mark Twain’s birth, on November 30. I was never convinced of Mr. Davis’ artistry on the piano. While a fine technician, his music was for flash and show, for which he is more than adequate. More important is that he not only has dug out some of Twain’s favorite music, not only transcribed pieces heard previously only on piano rolls, but he has the most entertaining way of presenting it.

And this, for Mark Twain, would have been most important. Twain’s writing was not always at the top of his form (only mediocre people are always at their best), but he never gave a bad speech. Mr. Davis didn’t do a Hal Holbrook Mark Twain shamble or try to imitate Mark Twain’s peculiarly high-pitched voice. He does have a winning smile, he has grown his hair out like his subject (though it resembles Philip Glass more Mark Twain), and he tells stories amiably with all the right musical interludes.

The problem with Mark Twain wasn’t that you never knew when he was serious or being amusing. Twain, in his way, embraced the world. We think of him in Hannibal as Huck Finn. We see him on the rip-roaring Barbary Coast or gold-mining in Mormon Territory. But once he reached high society, married rich and became the toast of the East Coast, he relished that life as well.

Twain was not, as Mr. Davis describes him here, a “curmudgeon”, though he did have his bitter moments. But his musical tastes, like all others, were catholic and all-embracing.

Twain wrote, and was well quoted, that he preferred the banjo to the high-falutin’ Louis Moreau Gottschalk, but he loved both. In Germany, he made fun of Wagner but went into raptures when hearing Wagner operas. He played “darky” music on his piano, yet both daughters not only became piano prodigies, and one married the then second greatest pianist in the world, Ossip Gabrilowitsch.

Mr. Davis played the two showy Gottschalk pieces, both with southern origins, so both would have been appealing to Twain. He worked in a Schubert Impromptu and ended with an inconsequential work by son-in-law Ossip Gabrilowitsch.

But both Mr., Davis and Mr. Twain triumphed best in the work of two Afro-American composers, Blind Boone and Blind Tom.
First, all credit to Mr. Davis for not toning down the language of the time (I had been appalled that the Hannibal Missouri Bookstore had deleted the “N”-word from Jim in their Huckleberry Finn). But Mark Twain never shirked from using the right word at the right time. He had to wrestle with his own boyhood prejudices, but never–not in Tolstoy or Shakespeare or Conrad or Melville–was a greater character created than in Nigger Jim. And no writer had a greater appreciation for the challenges, guilts, promises and enigmas of race relations after the Civil War. Twain was not shy of using words which fit his purpose.

Blind Boone was the first Black pianist to record on piano roll, and Mr. Davis had meticulously transcribed those notes and played Blind Boone’s impromptu on Nearer My God To Thee. It was pyrotechnical in the best sense. , but musically was a downer. At best it sounded like the piano version from Tannhäuser, the theme interrupted by flights of notes going nowhere. But Mr. Davis, as usual, played with fire and joy.

Blind Tom
(© Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture/Photographs and Prints Division)

Blind Tom, though, was the ultimate triumph of the evening, musically and literarily.

Musically, Blind Tom was a Black, autistic, self-trained genius who Charles Ives himself would have admired. He could imitate on the piano any music he heard, could imitate instruments, and sounds galore. When John Davis sat down and played Battle of Manassas, I was afraid the Poisson Rouge piano would fall apart. It was filled with martial music on the top, with the more glorious drum music–which had to have been marked ffffff–in the bass.

I won’t even attempt to duplicate Mark Twain’s articles on Tom Wiggins, a.k.a. Blind Tom, but did Google the complete opus of his writings (see below). Davis, at his lectern, read the stories seriously, stolidly and to the fascination of everybody in Poisson Rouge, including myself.

While I thought I had read most of Twain, I had never come across this story, which was both serious and funny, appreciative and questioning. Most of all, it was the descriptions of Mark Twain, the kind of journalism which, in some ways was more fascinating than his novels.

In a way, Mark Twain’s musical writings reminded me of George Bernard Shaw’s music crits, also done at the beginning of the 20th Century. Shaw was better schooled, but neither writer took music for granted, neither writer suffered fools gladly, and both writers understood the mysteries of their art and the joys of attempting to solve such mysteries.

So on November 30, we celebrate Mark Twain, not raising a cocktail or a beer (though I suppose he drank both), but a bottle of whiskey, which Twain felt was part of America.

“Westward the Jug of Empire takes its way,” he said.

Like cigars, rivers, history and, yes, Schubert and the banjo, Mark Twain encompassed them all.

Twain’s stories on Blind Tom can be found at http://www.twainquotes.com/archangels.html.

Mr. Davis’ new recording of the music from Mark Twain’s era is “Halley's Comet: Around the Piano with Mark Twain & John Davis” (Audio CD - 2010) He has also recorded the music of Blind Tom.

CODA: An attentive reader has informed me that Twain and Ives did meet, when the writer’s friend, about to marry the composer, took him to New York. As related by Henry Cowell, "Miss Twitchell took Ives to call on the Clemenses at their New York house on lower Fifth Avenue. Mark Twain took it that the prospective bridegroom was being submitted for his approval and said genially, looking him over: ‘"Well, the fore seems to be all right; turn him around and let’s see about the aft’" a remark that Ives still enjoys repeating."

Harry Rolnick



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