John McWhorter's Broad View of American Music



by NOUMAN RASOOL

John McWhorter's Broad View of American Music

John McWhorter, a well-known linguist and commentator, is no stranger to articulating strong opinions. Most readers are first introduced to his fearless perspective through his Opinion column in The New York Times, where he doesn't hesitate to delve into often controversial and divisive topics in our increasingly polarized society.

My connection with John, however, began on far more harmonious grounds. We found common ground in our appreciation for the music of Scott Joplin, an artist not typically associated with controversy. Ragtime, with its boater hats, suspenders, and lemonade-on-the-porch imagery, seems distant and innocent.

Yet, as John and I both recognized, beneath this sepia-toned facade lies a complex, multi-dimensional American narrative.

Joplin's Dream: A Contrasted Legacy

The life and times of Scott Joplin are a remarkable study in contrasts.

A Black composer born just five years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Joplin's early life was one of liberation and transformation, filled with what must have seemed like limitless opportunity.

However, his American Dream eventually withered away, overshadowed by the constraints of racial and cultural bias. History has come to remember him as the King of Ragtime, forgetting that he was a classically-trained composer who aspired to leave grand operas as his true legacy.

This realization led John and me to reflect upon how history is often shaped and distorted by the prejudices and biases of those who write it. Our conversations over Joplin's music grew into a broader discussion about how such historical lessons can urge us to reassess the past with a wider perspective.

It challenges us to reevaluate our understanding of the present, refocus our aims for the future, and even modify our views of the world we inhabit. The story of Scott Joplin is not just a tale of ragtime and unfulfilled dreams.

It's an allegory that extends beyond the notes, resonating with the cultural dynamics of his era and even echoing in our contemporary times. By examining the multi-layered intricacies of Joplin's life, John McWhorter encourages us to see beyond the superficialities of our historical narratives.

It's an invitation to embrace a more nuanced understanding, to recognize the biases that shape our perspectives, and to strive for a more authentic and thoughtful engagement with the world around us. In a world of black and white opinions, McWhorter's exploration of Joplin’s life presents a symphony of shades, offering fresh insights into American history and culture.

It's a melody that continues to inspire, reverberating with timeless truths about ambition, identity, and the power of art to transcend barriers and broaden our horizons.