Ragtime Talking Eddie Burroughs

July 18, 2008

Ragtime Talking Eddie Burroughs:

Another Look At Minidoka


R.E. Prindle

     While I was wandering through the pages of Minidoka one day looking for some firm dating device I came across what may very well be a key to explaining the method of reading the story.  When I first read the story I tried to read it straight which was a very unsatisfying experience.  The story seemed to be a clumsy first effort.  While a first effort, perhaps, the story is far from clumsy, indeed it is a well crafted and polished tale.

     The story isn’t written in plain English; it seems that our very hep ERB is ‘talking ragtime.’  First the proof and then an attempt to understand the concept of talking ragtime.

     On page 22 there is an exchange between Minidoka and the Hoobody:

     “Now, don’t be frightened,” said the Hoobody.  “I’m really very fond of young people, expecially hash browned.  But candidly, I have come to you as a friend, sent by the Little Horned Toad whom we all obey.  You are in terrible danger and if you don’t do just what I tell you, your name is Alkalai dust.”

     “I’m in the hand of my friends,:  replied Minidoka.  “But I glean that you are talking rag-time,”  he added to himself.

     The Hoobody’s speech can then be understood as an example of ragtime talking.  One can’t write what one doesn’t know so it is clear that ERB knows what ragtime talking is and knows it well enough to confidently reproduce it.  Hence ERB is a hep dude.  I’m not talking ragtime either.  It would seem that as in latter days ERB would have had an affinity to the Hipsters, the Beats, Beatniks and the Hippies.  He was cool.

     Now, what might talking ragtime be.

     Talking ragtime woud be based on the principles of ragtime music but independent of it.  Ragging a tune led to ragging the language.

     While ragtime is a distinct musical genre of original pieces any song can be converted into ragtime by changing the time values of melody notes.  This is known as ragging the piece.  (Wikipedia)  Thus ragtime talking distorts ordinary English into strange or outre phrasing and notions.  The Hoobody says he is fond of young people, especially hash browned.  The surprise effect of young people and an edible dish is clever or amusing if not outright funny.  Thus the language is being ‘ragged.’

     As ERB follows the technique throughout the book the story must be a ragtime story.  While my first thought was that ERB put the story aside because it’s quality wasn’t publishable I am now of the opinion that while within a ragtime genre the quality is fine perhaps there were no publications that accepted ragtime stories.  I may be wrong.

     That ERB may have been deep into the technique is evident from the transformation of Bodine into a Coyote.  I am not clear on the connection between the Coyote and ragtime talking and lyrics but the Coyote plays a central role.  Thus Bodine is a Coyote throughout most of the story.

     Ragtime music first surfaced as a genre at that place of all firsts the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893.  Thus from the age of seventeen on ERB would at least have known of Ragtime music.  The music was definitely popular from c. 1900-1918.  When Ragtime talking became a hipster dialect isn’t clear.

     In the story ERB has Smith driving a ‘horseless carriage.’  An anomaly of sorts as by the terms of the story it should have been a cowless carriage as ERB reverses nearly every conventional usage throughout the story.  The automobile wouldn’t have been that common in the first few years of the century while by 1907-08 when I believe the story was written, it would have been.  The electric car that Burroughs drove at the Expo wouldn’t have been called a ‘horseless carriage.’

     I can find no reference to ragtime talking on the internet so that if the method developed in the early years of the century until it was common amongst hipsters that would have to have been by 1907-08.  There would have been no way for ERB to learn the concept while he was in backward Idaho in 1903 and 04.  So that in my opinion the story written in ’07-’08 and possibly later.

     The story is definitely not a children’s story.  The story is meant for adults.  The use of the term ‘threw a couple Delsartes’ would very likely be incomprehensible to children.  The Delsarte method was a series of sterotypical emotional responses designed for stage actors.  I append a page in demonstration borrowed from the incomparable Our Times by the great Mark Sullivan.

 Lyrics:  Since Birdie Commenced Her Delsarte:

Her right hand goes this way, her left one goes that,

And she flings them high into the air,

To show her improvement she give the “wave” movement

And impersonates Hate and Despair…

There’s lots of sleep-walking, also dumb talking,

Since Birdie’s commenced her Delsarte.

     So, if one reads Minidoka as an example of ragged English not unlike Fractured Fairy Tales or a couple of verses from Phil Harris; That’s What I Like About The South it makes perfect sense:

Won’t you come with me to Alabammy

Let’s go see my dear old Mammy

She’s fryin’ eggs and boiling hammy

That’s what I like about the South.

Well it’s way down where the cane grows tall

Down where they say “Y’all

Walk on in with that Southern Drawl

‘Cause that’s what I like about the South.

Did I tell you ’bout the place called Doo Wah Diddy?

It ain’t a town and it ain’t a city

It’s just awful small, but awful pretty

That’s Do Wah Diddy.

     Rag, Mama, rag.

      So Mindoka is ERB in a light hearted effort to amuse while demonstrating his coolness.   Can’t get much hipper.  Viewed from that perspective we have an accomplished effort on a level with the best of his work.

 1893 Columbian Exposition At  Chicago

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