I got the most marvelous e-mail out of the blue from Max Morath, who has the uncanny ability to make my day.
Max read my post about his interview with Eubie Blake in 1970, and thought (correctly) I might appreciate knowing the real story behind the interview. My knowledge of ragtime’s history is studied but not encyclopedic, especially compared to many of the ragtime faithful, but when it comes to Eubie Blake I’m a thirsty sponge. The man was a national treasure, and his music has done more to shape my own than most any other.
As soon as I recovered from the shock that Max Morath reads my blog – which took a not-insignificant amount of time – I started a lovely correspondence with him that culminated in some fascinating insights into how the interview came about and why there are only 6 minutes left out of a five-hour interview.
Think about that. 98% of the interview was lost. 98%!!! That’s why I wanted to share this story, which you might think only appeals to ragtime nerds; it offers a profound case study in how ragtime is riddled – riddled! – with bullet holes from the double-barrels of ignorance and indifference.
Here’s what’s left of the interview again, in case you haven’t heard it:
[Note: I’ve made some edits to the original per Max’s request, and some layout changes for readability on a website, but the content below is 100% Max’s, and I extend my sincere gratitude for his allowing me to publish this account on the web. -M.S.]
The interview took place at the studios of WHYY-TV Philadelphia. I was living in NYC, had done some work with them, and had some PBS attention, as my two series on rag and turn-of-the-century history were still playing around the country. Eubie Blake was just emerging into renewed national attention, his classic 1969 Columbia double LP just released, and with the WHYY producers it was decided we’d video tape a lengthy oral history session with Blake — in their studios.
They did a remarkable job. They visited Mr. Blake’s handsome brownstone in Brooklyn and re-created it in the studio, Steinway grand and all! At the time, I was in a run of my show at Ford’s Theatre in DC, and on a Monday day off (must have been late in 1970) I went up to Philly. We spent the day — literally video-taped five hours of ad-libbed conversation and playing (all his, not mine). Looking back I have to say it was one of the best PBS efforts I ever had a part of, and must have cost them some big bucks.
Now the dumb part.
There was never a precise intention to broadcast these tapes. The effort was viewed as a valuable archive, but somebody — probably in NYC, not Philly — decided to edit out Mr. Blake’s piano solos, along with his brief introductions, and broadcast them as a one hour special — perhaps, as I recall, one of their fund-raising specials. Well, OK so far. I was not consulted, nor was Mr. Blake — and I’ve always wondered if the original WHYY producers were, either.
Now comes the real shocker.
Following the one-hour edit, the other four hours of video were lost. I have no idea where and how that limited audio portion was made available — the material you (and others) have quoted –but I can assure you that the original broad scope and intent of the project went on the editing floor.
Those original five hours captured all of Mr. Blake’s spontaneity; there was no intent to record complete, well-edited solos, and I’m sure the broadcast edits didn’t do him justice. Often, he’d just go over to the piano and lay down 16 bars of something as part of the conversation, then come back to the sofa. Remember, we’re sitting in a gracious living room, snacking on coffee and cakes, Mr. Blake smoking cigarettes (I had quit a few years before.) I think they used three cameras — lots of CU’s of the Man, his hands, his energy!
I’ve often puzzled how/why the original five hours of tape were allowed to disappear. It was 1970; video tape editing was electronic, but it’s tempting to think the edits were actually cut from the masters — which could still have been 2″ reel-to-reel, or possibly an early cassette format.
But whatever happened, I did hear later that the original tape(s) ended up as scrap, and were over-dubbed accidentally for re-use. It’s a good thing that portions of the session survived as audio. I don’t know how that occurred. And of course there were countless other interviews with Mr. Blake in the ensuing years, that covered much of the same ground. But the WHYY session was informal video in a perfect setting.
This may constitute more than you want or need to know about this episode, but I thought you’d be interested.
No story I’ve heard in the past 10 years captures quite so effectively why being into ragtime in 2011 requires one to be both purveyor and proselytizer. It gets really hard sometimes to have to keep advocating for the value of this music, and if Max’s tale is any indication of how people regarded Eubie and this music when we still had the original masters on this earth, it doesn’t give me a whole lot of hope that attitudes are going to change.
But I suppose that’s why I’m here, and where my friends and me come into play, literally and figuratively!