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The Old Man and Scott Joplin’s Third Hand

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Estimated reading time: 9 minute(s)

The old man was singled out by the crowd at a family get together. He was dressed in bib overalls, worn T-shirt and a past prime denim cap.  A hard-working farmer. It showed. The crowd urged him on.

“Come on old man, play!”

I was young and didn’t understand what they wanted him to do. Play … play what?


“Do it old man, Bring out the third hand.”

The man had a small farm – 125 acres – worked it hard. But farming wasn’t doing well so he also worked at the General Motors auto plant in Norwood, Ohio.

It was a small farm. But he was a big man. To me a giant. Powerful, mean-looking, grizzled, crusty and always dusty.

“Come on old man! What’s it been? Thirty years?


The old farming autoworker was into his 3rd drink now. Three more than he usually permitted himself. Why? Because he worked 18-20 hours a day, six days a week.  Drink to him, he explained once to me, “was like crossing the river Lethe.”

I had no idea what he meant, I was only 7-years-old. The creek next to my house was a river to me.


People liked to watch him walk.  He didn’t really walk though. It was more like a lurch, followed by a shuffle. Later, when he’d crossed the “Great Divide,” the family would chuckle about his lurchuffle.

The old man lurchuffled forward and the gathering quieted. I couldn’t see much because I was so small, but I could see that he had sat down.


The next thing I heard was music. Ethereal, rhythmic, syncopated. An orchestral-like piano started slowly, then swelled like an archetypal story, a Heroes Journey of musical resonance. Powerful. A force you could feel.

The people roared approval.

I felt a loving hand grasp my arm and whisper in my ear. “Your grandpa has the magic. When he used to play people called him The Third Hand because no one person could match him – could sound like there were three hands playing. It’s an aural effect where two sounds combine – in harmony – and create a third,but different sound.”

“I never knew Grandpa could play. How did he…”

“He was a traveling roadshow piano player. Played at Coney Island and the likes – throughout the country. That song is called the Maple Leaf Rag by some fellow named Scott Joplin. Tawdry, bacchanalian music, but people liked it back then.  In fact, people would come from miles around to try to outplay your Grandpa on that song. It always took two of them to match him. Was said he could play The Maple better than Joplin himself.“

“You don’t even have a piano in the house Grandma,” I said, not understanding how it was possible that this full-time farmer and autoworker – crusty, dusty and grizzled – could create the sounds I was hearing.

“He quit playing years ago. Not sure why. Work.  Family.  Farm.  All three. He never really said. The Third Hand hasn’t tickled the ivories nary a long time.”

I fought my little-butt way through the crowd to watch. When I got there it seemed like he was in another world. His eyes were smoky, unfocused … but his fingers were on fire. His left hand came up at least a foot in the air and bounced like a superball. His right hand roared like an out-of-control river, up and down the keys.  It was happening so fast his hands seemed disconnected in time, from time.

Then I heard it … The Third Hand.

Some combination of notes, syncopation, harmony and rapidity of prestidigitation created another voice – an invisible third hand playing with him.

I wasn’t the only one that heard it.

People crowded around him and stared. The raucous yapping and yammering prior to his start was replaced by awestruck stares. A hushed moment of amazement at the mystery and magic of a passion musically personified by this most unlikely looking piano player.

My grandpa went from a supraluminal performance of the Maple Leaf Rag to what I later learned was a song called the Heliotrope Bouquet.  A melodious, mellifluous jazz tune, completely different in tone, context and texture.

Then it was over. He stopped, got up, lurchuffled outside. He wanted to be alone. But I was a kid … so I followed. He sat at a picnic table. Eyes were misty, far off. He never really spoke much. Three words were two more than he usually used in any conversation. I stared at his hands – where had the magic came from? They were rough, callused, wrinkled. He saw me stare and smiled. Shook his head no.

“It’s not the hands, it’s…“ his big old grandpa hands reached up and patted his heart. “And if it’s there deeply enough it never goes away.” Then he roughed my nappy head up and told me to beat it.


Later, long after he passed, I began to understand what he meant. It’s never a mechanical rote practice or technical application of whatever profession or interest you have. It’s a pure passion imbued in the heart that leads to prestidigitation. A heat in your heart that creates soul-moving magic. The Third Hand is not possible without it.

I also realized this, Nothing is ever as it seems. Grandpa was the most unlikely-looking piano player in the universe, more suited to play the Grandpa in John Mellankamp’s “Rain on the Scarecrow, Blood on the Plow.


Years later I started playing the piano. Couldn’t do it the easy way and get a teacher – had to do it the stupid way and teach myself. Learned how to read music (barely) and play. After I got cocky enough (which wasn’t long), I went to an old friend, Willie Marshall, who owned a  music store, and bought the collected works of Scott Joplin in sheet music from him. Willie assured me the sheet music was an accurate, note-for-note transcription. Better yet, there was a music CD with all the songs on it  so I could play along to teach myself.


It was an exquisite moment. Moving. A spiritual-like high that lasted until…


… I got home.

I opened the book to the sheet music of the Maple Leaf Rag. It looked like Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. Not the General Theory – The Special Theory – unfortunately, I know the difference. I spent the next six months practicing the damn song and just couldn’t get it right. I couldn’t get my rendition to match the music on the CD. Occasionally I’d get close, get a whiff of magic, of pixie dust – but it was like someone had physically dubbed the Third Hand into the music.

Finally I got frustrated and went back to Willie for advice. Took the book and music CD with me. Willie was a long-time rock-n-roller, super-talented, could play any instrument (I hated the guy) and was a master sight-reader. My music reading was more like braille with a jackhammer.

“Willie, I’ve tried and tried to play this song and just can’t get it. I can’t get the sheet music to sound like the CD. It’s like somebody dubbed a third hand onto the music”

Willie looked at the sheet music, then the back of the CD, and then looked at me.

“I said the sheet music was a note-for-note transcription. It is. You never got close to making it sound like the CD  version?”

“No. A couple times I almost did. Thought I nailed it. Actually sounded like three hands were playing.  But really, only for a couple brief moments.  I couldn’t  do it consistently. It really does sound like there are three hands playing.”


Willie took a deep breath and let out what might be called a belly-wrenching guffaw.

“There are three hands you big dummie! They dubbed a third hand in on the CD. Didn’t you read the liner notes? I never said the CD was note-for note with the sheet music.


Nothing makes you feel stupider than realizing you’ve been trying to play 3-hand music with 2-hands … for six months. It did make me feel a little better about my progress. But stupider. So, taking the high road I said, “Why would they do that? Don’t you think that should have bolded the text so I would’ve known three hands were playing?”

“Bold what you didn’t read so you wouldn’t read it?”

Willie had a point. Another reason I hated the guy. Besides being a musical savant he was annoyingly logical.

“Why would they dub a third hand in,” I said, trying to extract my stupidity gracefully with a musical theory inquiry.


“They were trying to recreate a sound from some old-timers tale about when they used to have traveling piano shows around the country. There was a legend that some long- forgotten piano player could play that song better than Scott Joplin himself. He’d get on stage and it would always take two piano players to match him. Said he played Joplin better than Joplin himself. They called the guy The Third Hand.  Just a myth though. A legend.”

Things are never as they seem.

2 Responses to "The Old Man and Scott Joplin’s Third Hand"
  1. J.D. Meier says:

    > if it’s there deeply enough it never goes away
    Powerful stuff.  And so true.

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