Sam Patterson, Harlem, NY: Dec. 12, 1924

An accomplished ragtime pianist himself, Sam Patterson was quite close to Joplin throughout his Missouri days and on until his death in 1917. I interviewed Mr. Patterson in Manhattan at the Harlem YMCA, during one of his travels to New York.

Thank you for your time, Mr. Patterson. I understand you were rather close to Mr. Joplin.
Yes, you could say that. Knocked around together for years. But I am curious . . . what is it got you so bent on knowing Joplin's story?
Well sir, his tunes . . . they have given me great comfort in times of need. They saved me in times voracious grief. They help me remember who I am. Where I’m from. Who I was.
Yes. The music will do that—take pain and pour it someplace else for a while.
I believe that his story is higher . . . deeper than the sound of his music. If people knew the sheer will that was put into each note, they might know better how those tunes, that music, let this country talk itself through its own ugliness. I want to uncover the details of his process. I’ve been talking to the people who knew him most intimately, the ones best able to carry his memory forward. So here I am, putting his story together so I can better know . . . ours. I’m hoping you will help me, sir.
I see. (Laughs)
     You got high expectations, you know that? You don’t always get the story you want. It don’t always show the way to where you think you’re going to. And then too, it don’t change nothing if it’s the past. And ain’t nothing sound more like the past these days than some old ragtime tunes. Some things you just can’t get back.
I’m here for the story as it happened. That’s all I need, Mr. Patterson.
Well. You seem to know a thing or two about loss. How the world don’t slow itself one step. Whole world seems sold on racing away from whatever it’s ever been. Hooked on leaving its past behind without a trace. Especially after war.
That’s true, sir.
I see that you’ve seen your share.
I have, sir. With the 369th.
Took a chunk out of you, huh?
Yes sir. Belleau Wood.
Damn. You ain’t that one that won the Croix de Guerre, are you?
No, sir. Just one that got a bit . . . rearranged.
Well, then. Let me pour us a toast . . . Tell me. What story you want to hear? What you need to know?
I want to know about his unpublished work. You helped Mr. Joplin write his final scores?
Well, I was with him. I was in that room with him for days—weeks. He was pressing up on them keys like he was trying to look into a mirror and find his own face. Blood gone almost all the way bad by then.
Yeah. That bad blooded dog. It bit him up and spat him out—left nothing but dry bones and a crop of scattered nerves—just enough for him to try and stutter out some last scraps of sound. It was rough, boy. Rough.
Did he get much done?
Well, in a seeming sort of way. Problem was, he couldn’t hardly start one rag before he would get up and go to the next. Was all broiled up in each one—start one sounding like morning, get halfway through, and end up switching to some chords that left a midnight taste in your mouth. Start another that blew through your bones like a winter frost, then he’d take a break and come back burning up them keys like August in a cotton field.
Did he finish any of those compositions?
Can’t tell you. Might have—but most of what he did finish he ended up callin child’s play. But they weren’t any child’s play, I’ll tell you that. Not any child I ever met. I know ’cause I heard him play it all together one time, just before he lit that match.
You mean that he played the whole thing at once? As one piece?
The whole thing. Took all them raggedy pieces and tied ’em all together with a loose string of phrase all syncopated up like a gold pocket watch. A dozen dozen little song parts ticking away, all coiled up spitting and spinning. Times falling away and then coming together at the last minute . . . goodness.
Did it have a name?
Can’t say it did. Only saw him play it that one night. And everything he was working on was changing titles all the time, anyway. One hour it’d be the If Rag, then turn around and it’d be Lost Boy. Next hour it’d be the Magnetic Rag. Remember Me. Tremble Hand. Hallelujah. Bad Blood. Palms Down. Syncopated Glories. Morning Burl. Seem like they was all getting born up at once—everything he’d had me writing down for all those days and nights. I couldn’t rightly say that all of it was nice sounding. But some of it stuck to me so hard until I could never shake it off. Or maybe it was the way he was playing it—like he was staring down a well. And then sometimes he’d just stop and look at his palms, like he’d brung up a last drink of water. Then he’d just splash it all over that piano.
     But I can still hear parts of it in my head. (Plays)
That was some good stuff right there. ’Cept he’d played it all stiffed up, bar by bar, most the time.
Till that one last night.
Were you there that night?
I was there. Well, naw I wasn’t there. I was supposed to be. See, he had just played that thing. Had played it all out, till there wasn’t no more. He was sweating and heaving at the end like he’d been running for everything he’d ever lost. I remember once he looked up like he’d found some secret in the music, and then he did something he’d rarely do—he sang a little with the tune, like I’m in the wind,  baby. I’m in the wind, darling. He was just twirling them keys all around, you know. Just twinkling up those high notes with big bashes of bass. Then too, I remember there was this one part in the music where he sounded like he’d wandered somewhere deep in the notes and couldn’t find a way back. Well, he found his way back alright. But he just wasn’t the same no more.
What happened? How was he different?
Well, let me see . . . You ever have someone seem all never-beaten all their life, so never-beaten till it’s like they was never weak? So strong till the day you come to know how weak they are—that’s when you see how you never knew their strength? Well, I had been knowing him for days, weeks, years. All the time knowing ’bout his strength—knowing he would be hitting those keys to the end, even when he was out of it, he’d walk out with his head up. He’d seen worse. Lot worse.
     See, sometimes he’d be out on the road, playing his set—everything that had got his name on it, his bread and butter. He’d be up there playin it all grand and professor-like, kinda stilted up and slowed down so that the audience could hear every note shimmering in its own museum. He’d love each rag like it was the children he never got to see grow up—he’d be keepin them all orderly and polite, straining up their voices—not so much as they’d break, but enough to hear them bend up a little into hope, no matter how sad they might be. But never rushin nowhere. Folks was all okay with that back when he first started playin that Maple Leaf and such.
     But it changed. He thought putting those pieces on paper would help hold them the way he heard them—make them stay proper and well behaved.
I imagine he was quite eager to get his work published in order to get compensated.
Yeah, he was glad to see it out in the world. See, he wanted to leave his sound behind him . . . but see, it didn’t work out quite exactly like that. Once those rags were on paper, every ten-fingered bowler-wearing stud would put his hands all over those tunes. Walk them slow at first, till they learned all their ins and outs. They was polite with them tunes, till they figured out how to roll ’em out a little faster, and then make ’em strut and swagger more with each stride. Next thing you know, they was cakewalking them rags up and down that keyboard like a pimp in the tenderloin. Their fingers would work ’em more faster, more prettier than they was supposed to be—all slicked up and leaned back and sideways steppin—hustled up and tricked out like something illegal, ill tempered and ill-begotten gained.
     And started to be like every time he went to a new town, there’d be some light-fingered hustler out to bootstrap himself up, using Scott like a ladder. Come up onstage after Scott all friendly, then play his pieces all to pieces. I mean snapping those rags with a shoeshine boy’s spit and polish, trying to make the best tip of the week by showing the master how to work his own business. He’d say in his polite little professor tone, “Very nice, but too fast, friend!” and they’d just laugh. He would laugh with them a little through his frown, too—because what else could he do?
     And what’s make it worse is that Scott couldn’t keep up with ’em. That ol’ dog syphilis had him by the throat, and had gnawed up almost everything he could do with his hands . . . and every year it got worse, till he would come into town and some folks would think he must’ve been a faker, askin how could the great rag man be all dusted up and unpolished like that? This be Scott Joplin? This?
     But he never stopped, brother. Never stopped. Would always shake it off, even though you know he’d been shook. Always had a plan—an opera, a show . . . 
Like Treemonisha, right? Isn’t that what kept him going?
Yeah, trying to get that opera up and runnin kept him going for a long time. Years, maybe. But everybody got limits. And that night, he knew he’d just . . . run out of time. He’d played that patchwork blanket of rags for hours and hours that night, all up and down the fingerboard till the air was about beat out the room. And he was breathless. When he looked up you could see there weren’t that many breaths left for him here on this earth, and when I saw his face . . . boy, I just had to ...
     I had to walk away for a while. I went out that door. Got the night air. Cleaned myself off with wall beneath the streetlights.
So . . . you left the building ...
Yeah. Only left about twenty minutes or so, walking round the block. Came back and there was a glowing off the roof of the building. Ran up all them stairs, thinking the building was on fire, maybe one of them johns had dropped a cigar on the roof. Got there to see him standing next to this big old metal trash can, all blazed up with his songs. He must’ve put some kerosene on them ’cause they was blazed up pretty high and hot—I could feel the heat off those rags—damn, all them beautiful rags—could feel the heat from ten feet away. And I could see Scott on the other side. His face all lit up, his hands trembling and holding one last stash of scribbled up music.
     You can’t stop something you know is gonna happen anyway. And then, you still gotta try. And I did. I tried to fix my mouth to talk at him, talk him down from all that mischief the sickness had put up in his brain. But what could I say? All the things you would say in the same situation. Don’t do it, Scott—your voice on paper, your work, think of your bloodline of sound all burning up, man . . . Who gone show them, man? People need to know . . . 
You know what he said?
What did he say?
It was almost like he knew it was coming. This giant hand of wind came right over us from the river. And he threw them rags all up in the air and into the palm of that hand, and it made a fist and smeared his music all over New York. All them notes all scattered over Manhattan like so many raindrops. All them notes burning up in smoke.
     What’d he say? It’s all in the wind, Sam. It’s all in the wind.
Tyehimba Jess, "Sam Patterson, Harlem, NY: Dec. 12, 1924" from OLIO.  Copyright © 2016 by Tyehimba Jess.  Reprinted by permission of the author and Wave Books.
Source: OLIO (Wave Books, 2016)
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