Rags and Riches

Scott Joplin’s Wall Street Rag sheet music. (Wikipedia)

A parallel survey of the historical soundtrack and stock market crashes reveals that musicians are not deaf to the beat of the financial markets, the euphoric crescendo and inevitable diminuendo of boom and bust, the ecstatic coloratura of good times and the gloomy introits to bad. Financial indices can reflect, even if in inverse proportion, the universal demand for healing song when things go bad.

How else to explain the fact that the resounding collapse of 1929 led seamlessly into one of the great years of American popular song: 1930 yielded Hoagy Carmichael’s Georgia on Mind, Johnny Green’s “Body and Soul,” George Gershwin’s “Embraceable You,” and Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale,” to name just a few. There’s also Harold’s Arlen’s “Get Happy.” Composed in 1929 and published the following year, the song might be heard to respond, if indirectly, to economic depression. Coupled with Ted Koehler’s bouncy lyric, the music is almost ridiculously optimistic, though it is not the Secretary of the Treasury (then the tax-evading tycoon Andrew Mellon), but rather the Holy Ghost who provides the necessary stimulus package:

Forget your troubles c’mon get happy,
you better chase all your cares away.
Shout hallelujah c’mon get happy
get ready for the judgment day.

Good humor mixes with apocalyptic menace to produce a much-needed palliative for those newly dark times: the music and lyrics are all about diverting the listener from the cruel realities of the present.

Music has buoyed markets for as long as they have existed. The greatest musician of the Dutch Golden Age, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck had already been dead fifteen years by the time the tulip craze imploded in 1637, but his music remained popular at the time of the crash. Sweelinck had made himself famous in part by playing organ concerts featuring variations on secular dance tunes in the Old Church in Amsterdam as traders strolled below, making deals which included rampant speculation on tulips. That’s why I’ve always heard in the insouciant charm of his variations something of the effervescent thrill of high-risk stock trading. In the Calvinist Reformed Church, religious buildings became sacred only when The Word was present-a convenient theological principle that allowed the enterprising Dutch to make multi-purpose use of ecclesiastical edifices.

The Old Church was then, as now, in the heart of Amsterdam’s red-light district, so that these schemes were forged with sex for sale just outside the unconsecrated walls. That the secular songs treated by Sweelinck often had lascivious texts confirms that his performances were energized by the same magnetic field that binds sex and money. Stock-jobbing and prostitution offer kindred, and sometimes conjoined, forms of arousal, as that one-time Sheriff of Wall Street, Eliot Spitzer, clearly knew but didn’t let on about until the spectacular tumble of his own share price a dozen years ago just before the last financial crisis.

Before the advent of the Euro, Sweelinck’s proud portrait graced the ten guilder note on what was then Europe’s most colorful currency. This was an apt commemoration for the Orpheus of Amsterdam’s vital contribution to culture and commerce—inextricably linked domains, not just for the entrepreneurial Dutch.

Similarly, I like to think that Handel penned the music for the South Bubble Sea, which burst in August of 1720, puncturing a host of similarly corrupt stock schemes across Europe.

The bubble was born with The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, a curiously far-reaching document that concluded the European-wide War of the Spanish Succession. One of the terms of the agreement granted the British South Sea Company exclusive control of the Atlantic slave trade from West Africa to the Spanish colonies in the Americas. The scheme was set up by the Lord Treasurer, Robert Harley, to help service the massive deficits run up during the war; holders of short-term government debt were convinced to take shares in the new company.

Having only come to live in London two years earlier, Handel was called upon to produce the necessary commemorative music for the religious service to mark the end of the war and the signing of the treaty; his so-called Utrecht Te Deum was duly performed in St. Paul’s Cathedral in July of 1713 in all its triumphal splendor. But the work’s sublime pronouncements of righteousness and chaste welcome of manifest destiny masked the dark secret that a brutal enterprise carried out “beyond the seas” propped up the military-commercial complex at home.

Thus Handel launched the South Sea Bubble with his trademark trumpet blasts and racing strings that never stopped accompanying the work of Empire, from his own time and into the twentieth century. The sincere expressions of individual thanks delivered by the soloists, and the collective rapture of mighty choruses borne aloft on wings of magisterial counterpoint up towards St. Paul’s famous dome—these were the eternal sounds of peace and prosperity for a chosen people. And these sublime reverberations only confirmed for the numerous South Sea speculators attending the service that God, too, was a shareholder.

In its all-consuming reach, the South Sea craze resembled the heady days of the winter of 1636-7 when tulip futures were available in virtually every Dutch tavern in the land, and the early fall of 1929 when taxi drivers and maids watched the ticker tape as eagerly as company presidents.

It would have been surprising if Handel hadn’t gotten into the act, too. He invested relatively early in South Sea stock, around 1716, and fortuitously sold in 1718, well ahead of the crash of August 1720, though also before the ten-fold increase that inflated the bubble over the first half of that year, when the frenzy swept across the entire nation and all its classes.

While Handel escaped the financial carnage, his patron during the 1710s, James Brydges, Marquess of Carnarvon and later Duke of Chandos, did not. Brydges had accumulated his vast wealth as paymaster-general in the War of the Spanish Succession, and then became a significant investor in the South Sea Company. Confidently treading the well-worn insiders’ path that leads from a killing in war to an even bigger killing in peace, Brydges now turned to exploiting the very war debt he had helped balloon.

It was at Cannons, Brydge’s princely house in Edgware, then on the outskirts of London, that Handel’s lovely pastoral entertainment Acis and Galatea was performed in 1718 at the height of good times. The music smiles with much that is tranquil and pleasant, but trouble soon strides into the story in the form of a monocular giant, who, spurned by Galatea, kills her lover, the shepherd Acis. I like to hear in this evocation of death lurking in arcadia a portent of the crash to come: the mascot of shattered share prices should not be the brute bear, but the one-eyed, two-legged, skull-smashing phallus, Polyphemus bellowing Handel’s “I rage, I melt, I burn.”

When the South Sea bubble burst Brydges was ruined, hanging tenuously on to his house and status by marrying into a dowry of 40,000 pounds sterling. But Brydge’s heir inherited only debt, and soon after the Duke’s death in 1744 from smallpox, the magnificent Cannons was demolished.

It is fitting that the Harvard Business School is houses the most important South Sea Bubble archive. The riot of engravings and hilarious songs spawned by the crisis can be trawled through on-line at great length. The home-page greets visitors with the words “Sunk in Lucre’s Sordid Charms”—a motto which could just as well apply to the up-and-coming schemers of Harvard Business School as to the South Sea speculators of yore.

At the time of the 1720 crash the great lords of England were organizing another stock company: the Royal Academy of Music, which was to bring Italian opera back to London after a short hiatus. In spite of the financial difficulties faced by many of its aristocratic shareholders, the enterprise went ahead, with Handel at its artistic helm. Opera was expensive, star singers most of all. Yet the Italian greats were imported at vast cost, and the aftermath of the bubble proved to be opera’s greatest period in London. The retrenchments pursued by the Metropolitan Opera House after the 1929 crash, when outraged singers were asked to take a ten percent pay cut, were never inflicted on Handel’s post-bubble casts.

Opera was a kind of madness, too. The great leading man Senesino, the castrato who premiered the title role of Handel’s Giulio Cesare, among many other important parts, returned to Italy after his long London sojourn and built a lavish mansion with his takings. Over the doorway he had inscribed: “this house was built on the folly of the English.”

Though the movie musical fed a mass market far different than that of Italian opera in early eighteenth-century London, the appeal of opulent entertainment even, or perhaps especially, during economic downturns unites Handel and Busby Berkeley, whose career was born with the Great Depression and flourished over its course.

While the relationship between music and markets is a complicated one, the correspondences between them are far from random. It is not only the fortuitous eruption of the zeitgeist that accounts, for example, for the appearance of John Philip Sousa’s most famous march “Stars and Stripes Forever” in the same year as the Panic of 1896, which brought with it an acute Depression. On the same day that William Jennings Bryan delivered his Cross of Gold speech at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in July of 1896, a spontaneous display of flag-waving broke out in the New York stock exchange. The long-time broker, H. R. Halsted, who later died of food poisoning, procured what the New York Times account called “a large American flag.” As Halsted began marching around the boardroom, “instantly cheers for the flag arose, and fully 150 brokers fell into line behind the standard bearer and marched around the room three times. Mingled with frequent cheering there were cries of ‘Give us sound money!’ ‘Down with populism!’ “The American flag against the red!’ Down with the Anarchists!’ &c.” How different is the present-day attitude seen when, as in recent days, interest rates are cut and soft money comes sluicing into buoy markets.

An alliance of monied Democrats and Republicans still familiar to us formed quickly on the floor of the exchange during that 1896 spontaneous demonstration of wealth and power: “Members of the Bankers and Brokers’ Republican Campaign Club had a large supply of McKinley buttons, and they found plenty of Democratic brokers willing to wear them.” Even trading was halted for the enactment of this outpouring of fiscal responsibility and patriotic sentiment.

Is not Sousa’s celebrated march the proper music for these nineteenth-century brokers in lock-step, just as it could well have been for the draping of the huge stars-and-stripes across the Exchange after September 11th, the brightly colored, super-thin, anti-terror prophylactic that still sheathes the erect columns of the building’s neo-classical facade? Composed in a year of financial disaster, Sousa’s greatest hit is the patriotic hymn of American capitalism. Whether urged on by macho trombones or cheery piccolos, this Grand Army of the Republic strides towards a brighter future, if not brighter for everyone, then certainly for the captains of industry and their faithful lieutenants.

In contrast to musicologists and festival organizers, who habitually capitalize on anniversaries, market watchers steer a wide course around such possible historical observances, since these inevitably direct thoughts towards the cyclic nature of capitalism and the unavoidable crash that always comes. Thus the Panic of 1907, when stock prices dropped by 50 per cent, received hardly a nod during its turbulent hundredth anniversary year. It was left to the cyclic boom and bust of the market to supply the inevitable sub-prime commemoration.

But there is a bright orange musical pylon marking that 1907 pothole in America’s golden pavements. Composed in the wake of the Panic, Scott Joplin’s “Wall Street Rag” appeared in 1909 when confidence in the markets had been largely restore. The unbridled, if not unblinkered, gung-ho of Sousa gives way to a good deal of doubt. But Joplin was also adept at playing the patriotic card; the cover of his “Nonpareil Rag” of 1907 shows Uncle Sam unfurling an American flag. But “Wall Street” registers a much wider range of emotion, even fears, though it, too, ultimately seeks to assure, not to unsettle.

The epigrammatic opening of Joplin’s “Wall Street” is cast, according to the composer’s tempo directives, in “Very Slow March Time” rather than the “Slow March Time” of so many of the composer’s other two-steps and rags. The poised confidence of these other pieces has been transformed into a dirge; indeed the cover of “Wall Street” looks down towards Trinity Church, and the dark-suited mob assembled in front of the Stock Exchange looks as if it has gathered for a funeral. (The brisk tempo of the allegedly original Joplin piano roll, recorded on a modern instrument and released in 2007 by Editions Milan Music, must be wrong; as he did on many of his printed scores, Joplin enjoined the buyers of his music in the starkest terms not to rush: “Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast!”)

The rag’s opening section, “Panic in Wall Street” depicts the “Brokers feeling melancholy.” Nowadays, no one would think to ascribe such an introspective, contemplative state to momentarily impoverished Wall Streeters forlornly nursing their small-batch martinis and patting their suit pocket to check for the reserves of THC vape-pen and/or packet of cocaine. But it is precisely Joplin’s elegant handling of this rarefied sentiment that sends a classy strain of tubercular European salon music wafting over the manic, money hungry stone and asphalt caverns of New York’s financial district. There is a subtlety here that Sousa had no time or talent for.

The next section of the rag moves from these shapely Chopinesque chromatic inflections and gracefully sliding parallel figures to the rollicking right-hand chords and thundering bass octaves of “Good times coming.” I’ll bet Joplin had Sousa in his ears for this. And soon enough “Good times have come,” and Joplin focuses his musical material in the middle-range of the piano, where the breathless repetitions gather a locomotive’s momentum, the market gathering unstoppable force—at least until the next derailment.

The rag closes with financial worries chased away. Now even the greedy have time for entertainment. Re-enriched, Wall Street can let itself have fun again: “Listening to the strains of genuine negro ragtime, brokers forget their cares.” The left hand romps along as the right hand ascends to the top of the piano’s compass, like the surging Dow. The carefree and poor, as if unaffected by the cycles of the market, and never burdened by the heavy responsibilities of steering the economy, offer up their gratis song for the celebration of the financiers. Thus Joplin feeds the myth: what’s good for Wall Street is good for America.

In spite of the sheen of cheer, ambiguity hovers over this final section. The rag does not embrace the system without some qualms. “Genuine negro ragtime” invokes a notion of authenticity—of noble savagery—that the high-collared brokers can never attain: music’s pleasure yield the only dividences that are untaxable.

Joplin wanted to make a buck, too. In 1899 he had negotiated a royalty of a cent per copy of “Maple Leaf Rag,” a deal that brought him some $360 a year for the rest of his life. His publisher made a lot more money, but Joplin did all right himself. The outburst of negro joy after a black period in the markets wants to make us believe that way down at the bottom of the economic heap someone will always be singing and dancing.

“Wall Street” does what Wall Street wants: it consoles in bad times and rejoices in good. In spite of the superficial attempt to convey social unity across class and race, however, the surreal concluding tableau of Joplin’s rag, with its wealthy whites dancing in front of the stock exchange to joyful black music, cannot fully divert our ears and eyes from the more fundamental, and still operative, truth conveyed by this final image: the negroes have the rags, the brokers the riches.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com