Linguist John McWhorter views American music through a wide lens
John McWhorter has strong opinions. In fact, most people first encounter him via his Opinion column in The New York Times, in which he opines freely and fearlessly on subjects that are often controversial, even polarizing in today's polarized world.
I first connected with John over the music of Scott Joplin, hardly a controversial topic. Ragtime often evokes an old-timey image of boater hats, suspenders and lemonade on the porch. But look under that sepia-toned surface and you'll find a complex, multi-layered American story.
Consider the life and times of a Black composer born just five years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, coming of age in an era of liberation, transformation and what must have seemed like boundless promise. But in the end, Joplin's American Dream evaporated, leaving him defined by the constraints of racial and cultural bias. History remembers him as the King of Ragtime, but not as a classically-trained composer who hoped that his grand operas would be his legacy.
History, as we're realizing in our own swiftly-changing times, is often distorted by the biases of its writers. My conversation with John began over our shared love of Joplin's music and quickly developed into a discussion about how his story can teach us to reconsider the past through a wider lens, reevaluate our experience of the present, refocus our intentions for the future and even revise our opinions about the world we live in.
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