"One day the Maple Leaf will make me King of Ragtime Composers."
Around the turn of the century, ragtime music was all the rage, and the most popular ragtime melody was Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag." Ragtime evolved among the black community of the American South toward the end of the nineteenth century, and by the early twentieth century it was being played throughout the world. With its sprightly melodies and heavily syncopated rhythms, it was music that set one's feet tapping—the perfect dance music.
More than any other musician, Joplin shaped and popularized ragtime. He composed mainly for the piano, producing intricately crafted compositions that were beautifully melodic. Yet because he wrote popular music, he was not regarded as a serious musician, and when he attempted to break into the world of opera he met with no success.
After Joplin's death, as other forms of popular music replaced ragtime, Joplin was forgotten by all except jazz enthusiasts. But his music made a comeback in the 1970s, and during this revival it at last fulfilled his dreams of being appreciated by classical as well as popular music lovers.
Scott Joplin was born on November 24, 1868, in Texarkana, Arkansas, into a musical family. His mother, Florence (Givens) Joplin played the banjo, and his father, Giles Joplin, played the fiddle. All six of the Joplin children learned at least one instrument. Scott started on the guitar, but the piano soon became his favorite. This was partly his mother's doing. She took him along to the houses where she worked as a domestic and asked her employers if they would let him practice on their piano. The small boy showed such an instinct for improvising that he became the talk of Texarkana, and a number of music teachers offered to give him free lessons. The most helpful was a German musician, who taught Joplin harmony and composition as well as piano playing.
By the time Joplin was a teenager, he was making a modest living by playing at black churches and in honky-tonk saloons and bars. Although his father had long since deserted the family, he disapproved of the teenager's choice of career and tried to make him work for the railroad like himself. Their resulting quarrel caused Joplin to leave Texarkana, and he became a roving piano player, performing in the black clubs and bars throughout the Mississippi valley. By 1885 he was in St. Louis, Missouri, where he was employed as a pianist at the Silver Dollar Saloon, and in 1893 he was one of the many who flocked to Chicago to perform at the World's Columbian Exposition. Throughout these years, Joplin was constantly mixing with other musicians and absorbing their music as he evolved his own personal style.
In 1894, with the exposition over, Joplin settled in Sedalia, Missouri, which later became known as the "Cradle of Classic Ragtime." Here he took the opportunity to get further training by attending music classes at the George R. Smith College for Negroes. At the same time, he led a full life as a performer. As well as being the pianist at the Maple Leaf Club, he played the cornet in the Queen City Concert Band, which is thought to have been the first band to play ragtime. He also did the occasional tour with the Texas Medley Quartette, a vaudeville group he had organized some years earlier (and which consisted of eight people, though it was still called a quartet).
King of Ragtime
In 1895, while touring with his Quartette, Joplin published two songs he had composed, "Please Say You Will" and "A Picture of Her Face." Both were sentimental and conventional pieces, a far cry from his ragtime style. Like the three piano pieces he published the following year, they were probably written for the vaudeville repertory of his group.
Joplin had already written some ragtime tunes, but he did not publish any until 1899, when he brought out Original Rags. Unlike his conventional vaudeville pieces, these were lively, beautifully crafted melodies that were clearly the creation of a master. That same year also saw the appearance of the sheet music of "Maple Leaf Rag," which Joplin had written two years earlier but had difficulty getting published. The rag was considered so difficult to play that it was rejected by two publishers before being accepted by the white Sedalia music dealer John Stark. To popularize a song in the 1890s one needed a music publisher, just as today one needs a record company. Although the phonograph had recently been invented, it was not yet a common feature in American homes.
"Maple Leaf Rag" was such a hit that four hundred copies of the sheet music were sold in the first year, and by 1909 sales had reached half a million. Since Stark's contract with Joplin gave him one cent on every copy sold, Joplin was soon affluent enough to give up playing in the clubs and concentrate on writing music.
As "ragtime madness" swept the world, Joplin remained one of its leading exponents, turning out such pieces as "Peacherine Rage," "A Breeze from Alabama," "Elite Synco-pations," and "The Entertainer." On his marriage to Belle Hayden in 1900, he moved to St. Louis, and during his five years there he produced nineteen superb piano pieces: rags, marches, and waltzes.
Meanwhile, Joplin was attempting longer, more ambitious works. Some years earlier he had written a ragtime ballet, The Ragtime Dance, which he at length persuaded Stark to publish in 1902. Stark was unhappy about risking his money on such experimental ventures, and Joplin could not persuade him to publish the ragtime opera, A Guest of Honor, which he completed in 1903. Although Joplin staged performances of both the ballet and the opera, neither was a commercial success.
Joplin's marriage broke up in 1905, and four years later he married Lottie Stokes, who staunchly stood by him as his health gradually failed and his attempts to get accepted as a "serious" musician were consistently rejected. Joplin spent most of the last ten years of his life in New York, desperately trying to break into the world of grand opera. He had written the opera Treemonisha, which he hoped to get published or performed, or at least taken seriously by classical musicians. As a black musician and a ragtime celebrity, he did not stand a chance. Not until much later in the century did African Americans at last break through the all-white barriers surrounding opera.
Treemonisha is not a ragtime opera. It is a complex work that includes arias and ensembles as well as an overture and instrumental preludes. Its plot centers on an educated orphan girl called Treemonisha who becomes the leader of recently freed slaves. The overall message is that African Americans should strive to get educated because by doing so they will find true freedom. With such a theme, the opera was far ahead of its time, and no publisher would take it. Joplin eventually published it at his own expense, and in 1915 he staged it in a small hall in Harlem. But it was a threadbare performance without any scenery and with a piano standing in for the full orchestra.
Music is reborn
Joplin died on April 1, 1917, in New York City believing his great opera had failed, but in 1972 it was given a full-scale performance by the Afro-American Music Workshop in Atlanta, and it has since been staged by major opera companies. The revival of interest in Joplin began in 1970 when Nonesuch Records released a recording of some of his best pieces. Three years later his rags were included in the movie The Sting. So began a new "ragtime madness," which saw Joplin records and tapes selling by the millions. Meanwhile, the music world had at last recognized Joplin's genius. He is now ranked as a major American composer of great talent whose influence has been felt around the world.
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- Blesh, Rudi, and Harriet Janis, They All Played Ragtime, Oak Publications, 1971.
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- Preston, Katherine, Scott Joplin, Chelsea House, 1988.
- Rublowsky, John, Black Music in America, Basic Books, 1971.
- Schafer, William J., and Johannes Riedel, The Art of Ragtime: Form and Meaning of an Original Black American Art, Louisiana State University Pres, 1973.