Features and Reviews
Bob Milne at Old Town Music Hall, 11/5/2000
By Bill Mitchell
Like Dick Zimmerman, Bob Milne is one of this country's foremost ragtime concertizers. Both men have unique styles that are immediately recognizable, and both are fountains of ragtime lore, which they enjoy sharing with their audiences.
Milne (pronounced as one syllable, by the way) opened his program with a few remarks about ragtime origins.
The style can be traced back as far as 1840 or so, according to Milne, whose first selection of the evening was a folk song from the 1880's, "Carrie's Gone to Kansas City," a charming little melody that Blind Boone used years later in one of his published rag medleys.
Milne took a few minutes to talk about Scott Joplin and the milieu where he performed as a pianist. He was in Chicago at the time of the 1893 World's Fair, but most of the ragtime pianists did not play on the fairgrounds but in the saloons of the city. Joplin met the great bandmaster John Philip Sousa in Chicago, according to Milne.
To illustrate the influence of banjo music on the development of ragtime Milne played "Plantation Echoes," written by Joseph Northrup at the age of 65, incorporating some of the banjo strains he heard in his youth, probably pre-Civil War days.
Milne then discussed the fabulous black pianist, Blind Boone, who concertized extensively during his career. This virtuoso with a phenomenal ear made one piano roll in 1901, consisting of variations of "When You and I Were Young, Maggie." Milne's own remarkable ear enabled him to reproduce this number as played by Blind Boone. So busy and intricate was the arrangement that it sounded as if the player had three or four hands instead of the standard two.
A sampling of barrelhouse piano came next, with a description of the seedy joints that gave the style its name. Milne illustrated the style by whipping out a powerful boogie.
My favorite performance of the evening was a gentle yet raggy rendition of Charles Hunter's "Queen of Love." Milne says he plays everything by ear to avoid boredom. Creativity and taste were particularly in evidence here.
"Maple Leaf Rag" was Scott Joplin's contribution to the evening. In discussing it, Milne mentioned that the immensely popular Black vaudevillian Bert Williams was on the cover of the original Sedalia edition of this historic number.
"How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm" in the manner of a player piano brought the first half of the program to a close.
After discussing his long and often amusing career as a "saloon pianist," Milne played an extended medley such as those with which he used to regale the customers: "If I Could Be with You One Hour Tonight," "Ragtime Nightingale," "Charmaine," "a slow blues, a fast boogie, then in a minor key came a tune I couldn't identify, capped with a rousing "12th Street Rag."
The popular rag song, "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee," was published in 1912. We were told how that famous steamboat was involved in a historic Mississippi River race with the Natchez back in 1870. Milne got steamed up playing this number.
James P. Johnson's ragtime waltz, "Eccentricity," was featured next, followed by a Bob Milne original, "Water Witch Rag." Bob Ault's "Flat Creek Rag" then brought a piquant Ozark flavor to the program.
Nearing the end of the evening, Milne invited the audience to participate in a question and answer period, as is his wont. This brought forth several good questions on ragtime and its performance that he fielded well.
Winding things up he played a tongue-in-cheek barn-burner which he called "Le Overture to Le Grande Rodent." Starting in a ponderous Beethoven manner, he took a vaguely familiar theme through several transformations, winding up in ragtime. As "Le Overture" unfolded, it revealed itself to be nothing more than the Mickey Mouse Club song.
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