Old Professor Goodwin

Old Professor Goodwin

In Brief

In Calypso Bloom thinks of "poor old Professor Goodwin," and more recollections follow in Lestrygonians, Sirens, Circe, Ithaca, and Penelope. William Goodwin was an actual Dublin pianist, conductor, composer, and music teacher. Calling him "old" seems odd, since he died in 1892 at age 53, but alcoholism may have brought on premature antiquity. The name "Professor" is interesting too, given Goodwin's hallucinated performance of a popular song in Circe. Pianists in New Orleans whorehouses were often honored with that title.

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The real Goodwin, according to Vivien Igoe, worked as the organist at St. Peter's Church, a large Catholic church in Phibsborough built in the style of Gothic cathedrals. He also played piano, conducted concerts in various Dublin locations, taught music in several local schools, and composed sacred music. Igoe notes that his Discite a Me "was composed and arranged with organ accompaniment, and was advertised in the Nation in June 1890. His publications included Goodwin's Hand Book of Singing for the Use of Schools." John Stanislaus Joyce, the writer's father, was a friend of Goodwin and sang in at least one of his concerts.

The Blooms think of Professor Goodwin because he used to accompany Molly when she performed. In their recollections he cuts a pitiful figure. Bloom thinks in Calypso, “Poor old professor Goodwin. Dreadful old case. Still he was a courteous old chap. Oldfashioned way he used to bow Molly off the platform. And the little mirror in his silk hat. The night Milly brought it into the parlour. O, look what I found in professor Goodwin's hat!" The hat comes back in Lestrygonians, along with Bloom's memories of a windy night "after Goodwin's concert in the supperroom or oakroom of the Mansion house." On that night Bloom and Boylan were walking next to each other on the sidewalk, with "Professor Goodwin linking her in front. Shaky on his pins, poor old sot. His farewell concerts. Positively last appearance on any stage. May be for months and may be for never." When they got home Bloom fried some meat for his wife over the fire and made some "mulled rum." The details are important because they mark this as the same night that Molly recalls in Penelope: "the night after Goodwins botchup of a concert so cold and windy it was well we had that rum in the house to mull and the fire wasnt black out."

Goodwin's drinking has been interfering with his piano-playing, then, and after this night it prematurely ended his career and life. The men who gather around the piano in Sirens are probably recalling the same farewell concert: “Poor old Goodwin was the pianist that night, Father Cowley reminded them. There was a slight difference of opinion between himself and the Collard grand. There was.” Simon Dedalus affirms the cause: “The devil wouldn't stop him. He was a crotchety old fellow in the primary stage of drink.” Molly scorns the "Professor" moniker: "he was a patent professor of John Jameson." Still, she thinks, "he was a real old gent in his way it was impossible to be more respectful."

In Circe, as the action in the whorehouse approaches its climax Goodwin’s ghost suddenly appears and takes a spectacular turn at the piano: "Professor Goodwin, in a bowknotted periwig, in court dress, wearing a stained inverness cape, bent in two from incredible age, totters across the room, his hands fluttering. He sits tinily on the pianostool and lifts and beats handless sticks of arms on the keyboard, nodding with damsel's grace, his bowknot bobbing." This frantic, ghoulish performance emphasizes the old man's alcoholic debility, but it may also be a response to his sobriquet, since "professors" often played popular music on pianos in the bordellos of New Orleans. They included, among many others, the famous Jelly Roll Morton (Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, nicknamed after a product sold at the brothels where he began playing at the age of 14), Tony Jackson (even more famous locally), and Manuel "Fess" Manetta.

In the years around 1900 the whorehouse reached its institutional zenith in New Orleans. The city's red light district was called Storyville, much to the irritation of Sidney Story, the civic reformer who in 1897 proposed to sequester the vice trade in a single neighborhood to protect the sensibilities and property values of decent citizens. This counterpart to Dublin's Monto (New Orleans also had a flourishing community of roiling, Fenian-supporting Irish expats) featured poorer houses where uptight youths cooling their heels might feed a player piano with coins or turn the crank on a gramophone, as well as decidedly upscale establishments with Victorian music parlors where customers could listen to small string ensembles or to pianists playing grand pianos.

The Historic New Orleans Collection website confirms that pianists in these expensive brothels were commonly called “professors." They "played for tips against a guarantee put up by the madams. Playing at the most exclusive brothels meant access to an audience with deep pockets. With no band members to pay out, professors were the highest paid of the District’s musicians." Many had classical training, and they were essentially practicing musicologists: "Customers frequently wanted to hear popular tunes from Broadway shows and the Ziegfeld Follies, opera favorites, ragtime hits, and the latest releases from New York’s Tin Pan Alley. Musicians had to be prepared to play anything the customer wanted to hear. Bawdy lyrics sometimes replaced the actual words to the songs and were often sung by the piano player, the madam herself, or the sex workers in her employ." Late in the evening, given some heat and lubrication, the tunes often switched to the latest “funky” sounds borrowed from players like Buddy Bolden on the black side of Canal Street.

Working on Circe in 1920, Joyce may conceivably have heard some New Orleans-style piano music played in a Paris cafe and learned about the whorehouse music scene. It would explain his decision to take a classically trained musician out of the concert hall, move him into a whorehouse "musicroom," and have him bust out with My Girl’s a Yorkshire Girl. Perhaps the Professor plays this popular favorite in an up-tempo stride beat with a ghostly banjo and tuba for accompaniment!

Richard Scoville and John Hunt 2021
2010 photograph of the organ loft in St. Peter's Church, Phibsborough, by Harsiem. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, a.k.a. Jelly Roll Morton. Source: i2.wp.com.
Gelatin silver print of Tony Jackson as photographed ca. 1907-1916, held in the William Russell Jazz Collection of The Historic New Orleans Collection. Source:www.hnoc.org.