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  • Alexander’s Real Slow Drag*
  • Tyehimba Jess (bio)
Berlin v. Joplin
Two years or so ago, I heard my kidnapped tune
when Alexander’s Ragtime Band was ramblin’ drunk all through Tin Pan Alley.
a big hit, Then, I heard
someone started the report ‘bout the minstrel leer it wore
among the publishers smeared with burnt cork. I know
that I had paid ragtime’s cost—it’s
a bright
negro treasure . . .
ten dollars ain’t no price
for it I’d take . . .
and then
. . . I’d just
published it under my own name. had the chance to name it: Real Slow Drag.
When they told me about it, I ‘spected Berlin was the thief—
I asked them to tell me —and was right: I knew whom
from whom to blame.
I had bought my other successes— Straight from my gut, I’d made other hits,
twenty-five or thirty of them. but this one was my dusky gem.
And I wanted to know,
Why can’t some folk handle
if a negro could write tunes as good as my own
Alexander, —and not steal? Me?
why couldn’t I? I refuse to thieve.
Then I told them That thief thinks that
if they could produce the negro music, it’s slick as Black gold. . .
and he had another hit . . . from me. Wants my colored sound,
like Alexander in his system, his soul corked charcoal, skin stayed white.
I would choke it out of him If I could—I’d stain him brown,
and give him naps on top,
twenty-thousand dollars royalties damned to hell
in the bargain.
. . . then I’d ask him:
If the other fellow deserves the credit,
why doesn’t he just go get it?

[End Page 541-542]

Tyehimba Jess

Tyehimba Jess, a Detroit native who is both a poet and fiction writer, is author of leadbelly, which won for him the 2004 National Poetry Series. He is an assistant professor of English at the College of Staten Island in New York. His poetry has appeared in such anthologies and periodicals as Angles of Ascent, Beyond the Frontier, Roll Call, Bum Rush the Page, Complex Slam, American Poetry Review, Mosaic, Indiana Review, Ploughshares, and Callaloo. He has received a number of honors for his work—e. g., a Winter Fellow (2004–2005) at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, a 2004 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a 2006 Whiting Fellowship. A graduate of the University of Chicago, he received his MFA from New York University.


* Left side: Irving Berlin’s reply to rumors regarding theft of Scott Joplin’s Real Slow Drag from the ragtime opera Treemonisha, published in Green Book Magazine, April 1916.

Right side: Joplin’s imagined response.



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pp. 541-542
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