Because tomorrow’s Canada Day, I thought we’d have a look at the maple leaf — or, rather, a listen. It just so happens that Slawyer Ted Tjaden has been “absent with leave” to work on his truly comprehensive site on classic ragtime piano music. And of course one of the songs he deals with is Scott Joplin’s first and biggest hit, the Maple Leaf Rag.
Now, before we get any further with this, it’s important for me to let you know that I know (thanks to Ted’s website) that the title of the Joplin rag almost certainly doesn’t have anything to do with our fair land. But I don’t care. The myth is more interesting than the reality and the myth is that Joplin gave it a Canadian name because of Canada’s role in the Underground Railroad. Still another Canadian connection, also unlikely, has to do with the fact that in Sedalia, the town where Joplin lived when this rag was published in 1899, there was a Maple Leaf Club owned by two men from London, Ontario. But it seems that they didn’t name their club after the Canadian symbol, either; and the likely source of both names was the actual trees that linked the streets of Sedalia.
On myth and the leaf in question: When my older daughter was in primary school, her teacher would from time to time read to them from a book that she and others understood to be called “Magic and Maple Leaf,” but which was in fact named “Magic and Make-believe.” Because of this “mondegreen” I’m licensed to press ahead with the magical belief that the rag is connected to our red rag
And when it comes to the true magic of ragtime piano music, especially by Joplin, you simply must listen to it. Here are three versions of the Maple Leaf Rag:
- The first is from our own Ted Tjaden, who kindly agreed to do an experimental recording just for us and Canada Day even though he hasn’t finished setting up his recording system properly. Thanks Ted! And keep checking his site for updates to his recordings.
- The second, by another Canadian, Vera Guilaroff, dates from 1926. It’s full of interesting improvisations and, as Ted says, played at breathtaking speed perhaps as the result of a speeding up in the recording process. The recording, by the way is made available by the marvelous Canadian Historical Sound Recordings’ Virtual Grammaphone.
- And the third is different again. It’s a Maple Leaf Stomp , a Jelley Roll Morton interpretation of the rag, played by one “Perfessor Bill”.
Listen to them proudly.
Of course, you can’t leave the topic of the maple leaf and music without adverting to the Maple Leaf Forever, the song that for a long while was Canada’s unofficial anthem. Here’s Alan Mills singing it. Not quite as… catchy as the rag, is it? And in need of a modern re-write where the lily joins the rose, thistle and shamrock in that bouquet. For a more upbeat instrumental version try this Virtual Grammaphone recording, though: it’s a 1902 release of the Kilties’ Band from Belleville, Ontario, a group that styled itself Canada’s greatest concert band.
Because I neglected la Fête Nationale last week, and because our country has always done the two solitudes dance one way or another, I thought I’d close with a rag written by a Quèbecois, Jéan-Baptiste LaFrenière (“Strauss of Canada”), in 1907, “ and called, perfectly appropriately, Silly-Ass: Two Step.” To round things off nicely, the player is our Ted Tjaden.