Zealots are where you find them, and not all want to save the snail darter or civilization as we have known it. Paul Affeldt of Ventura has spent his adult life and what might have become his life savings tracking down and issuing on his Euphonic record label the work of ragtime pianists. His may be the most tightly focused label in the world.
Some of the players have been relatively well known in jazz circles, like Meade Lux Lewis and Art Hodes, who at last report was still playing fine stride piano in Chicago. Others were hardly known outside the speaks, saloons and rent parties where they did their playing. They had names like Speckled Red and Roosevelt Sykes, Euday Bowman and Stump Johnson. Affeldt tracked them down on piano rolls and home recordings and the very occasional commercial singles they recorded.
I encountered Affeldt and Euphonic through my admiration of a near-legendary West Coast ragtimer named Paul Lingle. Lingle evidently had an almost pathological aversion to being recorded professionally and only once, in the early 1950s, was he persuaded to come down to Los Angeles, where he cut 10 singles for the late Les Koenig's Good Time jazz label.
A young California reporter came to work at Life in New York and fetched his 10-inch Lingle record with him. We played it constantly on a low-fi rig I had in my office to ease the long Saturday nights when we put the magazine to press. Even Sam Goody didn't stock the record, so I wrote the label directly and bought two dozen copies, which I sold to the new Lingle enthusiasts in the office.
In 1960, in Hawaii on a story, I found Lingle in the Yellow Pages under Piano Instruction and called him. He offered to see me the next day, but I had to fly out that night, so we never met. I thought I'd heard all the Lingle there was to hear, until a few years ago when Affeldt sent me "The Legend of Lingle," made from bootleg tapes admirers had made without his knowledge at clubs where Lingle played in and around Oakland.
I thought that that had to be the last of the Lingle but a few days ago Affeldt sent me "Paul Lingle--Final Curtain: Encore, Coda & Rest," the last of the releasable Lingle material he could find. Some of it, despite the miracles of modern engineering, is just barely releasable, as Affeldt admits with regret. Flutters and wows and surface noise suggest you are hearing history over a bad connection from a very long distance, which in a sense we are.
There are 13 tunes, including Jelly Roll Morton's "Black Bottom Stomp" and "Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None o' My Jelly Roll." Poor quality and all (and some isn't bad), it's wonderful.
They're all from home tapes, and it's the musician, not the sound, which is high fidelity. Intriguingly, there are a couple of preliminary bars before one tune--you had the feeling Lingle was either dusting the keys or warming his hands--of blazing arpeggios that remind you that Lingle could play anything. He just preferred ragtime, which he executed with a graceful, lyrical, faintly melancholy sweetness that is as far from ricky-tick ragtime as you can get. I don't think anyone ever played ragtime any better.
Another Lingle admirer, Ed Sprankle of Oakland, sent me the transcript of a radio tribute organized by Philip Ellwood in San Francisco after Lingle died in 1962. Clancy Hayes and Lu Watters, leaders of the ragtime revival in San Francisco, talked about him fondly, and Ellwood remembered that it was Lingle who accompanied Al Jolson on "Sonny Boy" in the first talking picture and later on the film "Mammy" in 1930.
Sprankle also included a chronology of Lingle's 60 years. Born in Denver, he was playing piano on the Chautauqua circuit when he was 12, accompanying his cornetist father. He worked in several pioneering bands and now and again had his own. He was briefly a staff pianist at a San Francisco radio station and endured three years playing at a dime-a-dance palace. He settled in Honolulu in 1953, teaching stomps to the islanders, as a liner note once said.
Lingle fought his battles with demon rum, which seems to have won. But he lived for the music, not much aware of the larger world. On V-J Day, Lingle suddenly told his wife, "I'm glad the war is over."
"Why, Paul?" she asked, a little surprised that he knew.
" 'Cause now I can play 'Japanese Sandman' again," Paul Lingle said.