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Article Sit Down, Shut Up, and Listen to Ragtime: Bob Milne and the Occupational Folklore of the Traveling Piano Player

Image: Bob Milne at the piano
[Bob Milne at the piano]. Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.

Note: Minute and second markers in this essay refer to the companion oral history with one of this article's authors, Jennifer Cutting, interviewing ragtime pianist Bob Milne at the Library of Congress. [link to oral history]

Every group, from the smallest family to the largest ethnicity, has a repertoire of informally learned stories, sayings, customs, techniques, and expressive traditions. This material is called folklore. Folklore allows group members to recognize one another as members of a specialized community, to express group solidarity, and to interact in ways that they find especially useful, satisfying, or meaningful. Occupational groups are no exception, and all such communities, from firefighters to film directors, and from meat-cutters to medical doctors, have their own occupational folklore.

Professional musicians are just such an occupational community, and have an extremely rich and creative body of lore based on the realities of their lives. Generally, people's work helps define the conditions of their daily lives. In the case of full-time traveling musicians, these conditions include driving long distances from gig to gig, playing several different kinds of gigs in the same day, not finishing a typical "day's work" until 2:00 a.m., and getting to bed at 3:00 a.m. or 4:00 a.m. These situations set musicians apart from the mainstream world and make them "outsiders" to others who work during the daytime.

Ragtime pianist Bob Milne embodies the independent spirit necessary for this lifestyle. Milne visited the Library of Congress in October 2004, where he performed a concert and gave several oral history interviews. At the time, Milne had logged forty years of work as a professional piano player in saloons, nightclubs, bars, restaurants, private parties, and concert halls, starting out in Detroit, Michigan, and branching out to perform all over the country. He describes his choice of a musical career as "my way of not having to get a job.... As long as I could keep playing piano, I didn't have to buy a suit and tie and go sit in an office...doing what they wanted me to do, which I was totally unprepared to do anyway."

The stories and expressions voiced by Milne during a one-hour oral history interview are excellent illustrations of the creativity exhibited by musicians who travel and work in a wide range of venues. Milne's very definition of what he does is expressed as folklore. He calls himself a "journeyman piano player," which he defines as "anyone who will drive any place today, to play any piano tonight, so they can eat some place tomorrow." The three-part structure of this definition, its repetition of verbal elements ("any place" and "any piano", "any place" and "some place"), and its conceptual progression through time, marked with alliterative and structurally similar words (today, tonight, tomorrow) mark it as a folk saying, similar to familiar proverbs and proverbial expressions such as "here today, gone tomorrow" or "another day, another dollar."

Milne's self-definition also expresses the tough realities of life for a musician: drive all day and play all night, just so you can eat for another day. Driving and eating are the subjects of another expression invented by Milne. The "five-mile lunch" is a meal eaten hastily at the wheel between jobs, during the few minutes it takes to drive five miles. Workers often create such specialized terms and vocabularies to describe their work and the realities of their lives on the job.

Another frequent topic of occupational folklore is the relationship of workers to their tools. In the case of musicians, this often means their instruments. Among musicians who carry their own instruments from place to place and thus play the same ones every night, nostalgic stories about finding, buying, or building a first or favorite instrument are common. So too are affectionate names for favorite instruments. Among professional piano players, who must use whatever piano a venue provides, this operates differently--stories and names revolve around instruments they encounter on their circuit.

One term that Milne and other piano players use is "PSO," a folk acronym for "piano-shaped object." This humorous put-down is used to show disdain for the dilapidated and semi-functional instruments musicians like Milne are sometimes forced to work with.

Musicians have also created a rich vein of stories about difficult conditions in the performance venue, including hecklers and other troublesome audience members. Called "war stories" or "gig from Hell stories," these help create feelings of solidarity with other "survivors" of such jobs, and elicit empathy or sympathy from fellow musicians. These stories also allow performers to exhibit pride in the ways that they rose to the occasion, handled the situation, and performed successfully despite the obstacles.

The funniest or most compelling of these tales are even retold by other performers with the introduction: "this really happened to a friend of mine." Sometimes such a tale is recounted when the musician who created it comes up in conversation. Thus, a process that begins with a personal experience creates a body of stories that folklorists call legends, and builds a kind of immortality for the performers about whom such legends are told.

Milne relates another musician's story of the sad consequences of an inebriated audience member who lost his footing [49:15]. He also tells his own stories about the following sticky situations: a noisy little girl in the concert hall [54:30]; a mother who insists on changing her baby's diaper on the edge of the stage in the middle of his concert [55:45]; a ham in the audience who overestimates his singing abilities [57:38]; and a pair of very talkative women [59:50].

One story [51:38] stands out from the rest, in which Milne relates how he dealt with some oblivious and inconsiderate audience members at a formal occasion. With particular pride he notes:

I recently -- well, three years ago or something -- played in Billings, Montana for the installation of the Shriners' Grand Potentate. And the Shriners were all out there sitting at round tables; it was all black tie and tuxedo and gowns, and I'm up on the stage playing. Well, there's this one table of Shriners that must have stopped somewhere else on their way to the dinner, because they were a little bit out of control; they were laughing and joking and slapping each other on the back...and I'm playing the piano, and these guys are a distraction.

So...I could see the Grand Potentate sitting there, and he was obviously concerned with these guys, so I decided, well.... See, something in the piano business is that, whenever someone like this appears on the scene, all the customers want...they want to see someone handle the situation. They don't want to themselves; they're too timid. So I realized a long time ago, it's the job of the piano player -- deal with it! So I have never been afraid to deal with these people on any level.

So what I did was, I was up on a stage, and they were over there, and I had a cordless mic. So, I stood up after playing this tune, and they're all over here, "Wah-ha-ha, Ha haw haw...," going on like this; they're standing up.

So I took the mike, and I said, "Ladies and gentlemen, the next tune that I'm going to play for you is the "St. Louis Rag." It was written by Tom Turpin, who owned the Rosebud Bar in St. Louis; from 1900 to 1908, Scott Joplin hung out in the bar."

And as I was saying this, I was walking over to this corner of the stage -- there are little stairs going down -- and I said, "The Rosebud Bar was an institution in St. Louis, because people would come up the rivers, down the rivers... people would all go to the Rosebud" -- and by now I was standing next to these guys -- and I said, "They would go to the Rosebud, where they would all [getting louder on each word until he is shouting] SIT DOWN, SHUT UP, AND LISTEN TO RAGTIME!

They sat down and shut up. The Potentate almost fell over backward in his chair laughing, and I just went back up on the stage and continued. But to me, that's just business as normal!

About this Item


  • Sit Down, Shut Up, and Listen to Ragtime: Bob Milne and the Occupational Folklore of the Traveling Piano Player


  • -  Ragtime music -- History and criticism
  • -  Popular Songs of the Day
  • -  Songs and Music
  • -  Progressive Era to New Era (1900-1929)
  • -  Articles

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