ON THE VERY FAMILIAR, AND VERY MYSTERIOUS, SCOTT JOPLIN
[This is the sixth in a series of posts of “blogified” short entries from the forthcoming second, enlarged edition of my Historical Dictionary of Romantic Music [Lanham, Maryland] — i.e., entries whose style is lightly adapted to make them more blog-friendly. For an explanation of where this little series of posts comes from and why I’m doing it, see here . Let me reiterate here that because of the size/space restrictions of the book — it’s a one-volume dictionary, not an encyclopedia, or even book chapter — every entry is brief. My hope is that the entries will be “appetizers,” jumping-off points for further exploration by interested readers. If the entry leaves you wanting more, that is by design.
(Boldface text will be cross-referenced in the book itself.)]
[FIRST, A PRELUDE: everybody knows Scott Joplin’s name by his most famous work, the “maple leaf rag.” You wouldn’t be able to concentrate on the many other facets of his creative imagination discussed here until you had heard that one. So here it is: go ahead and listen to this classic performance by Joshua Rifkin: ]
JOPLIN, SCOTT (1867 or 1868–1917). American composer, pianist, singer, multi-instrumentalist, and teacher; a leading figure in the proliferation of ragtime at the turn of the twentieth century and composer of the Treemonisha, the first indigenous folk opera produced in the U.S. He was born in or near Linden, Texas, to Florence Givens, a freeborn Black American woman from Kentucky, and Giles (or Jiles) Joplin, a former slave from North Carolina. His father played violin and his mother sang and played the banjo, and his own talent was noticed by the time he was seven. After his family moved to Texarkana, on the border between Texas and Arkansas, in the mid- or late 1870s he had access to a piano in a home where his mother worked as a domestic. By the 1890s he was well known as a performer of piano rags, also touring widely with his brothers in the eight-voice Texas Medley Quartette, and in 1893 he and other Black performers played on the periphery of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (the White management of the Exposition did not allow Blacks to be included in the official program).
While attending courses at the George R. Smith College for Negroes in Sedalia, Missouri (1895–96), Joplin began to promote his music seriously, both in performance and in print. His first two publications (both songs) were published in 1895 (Syracuse: M.L. Mantell). Around the time of the infamous (this is the nicest adjective I can think of) publicity stunt known as the “ Crush Locomotive Collision” or “The Crash at Crush” near West, Texas (15 September 1896), he published the Harmony Club March, and Combination March, and the programmatic Great Crush Collision March (Temple, Texas: John R. Fuller).
[INTERLUDE 1: Here is the Great Crush Collision March. Did you know this piece previously? Watch how Joplin labels the musical events starting at around 3'22":]
In 1898–99 Joplin worked as pianist at Sedalia’s newly incorporated Maple Leaf Club and Black 400 Club, also forming a relationship with White businessman John Stark. In 1899 he sold The Maple Leaf Rag to Stark, who published it and profited immensely from its sales (it was an immediate success and sold more than 500,000 copies in its first decade). (The initial cover price was $0.50 per copy, of which Joplin got $0.01.) Stark aggressively promoted Joplin as “The King of Ragtime” and published many more of his works (including The Entertainer, 1902), but also used brand tags that commercialized Joplin’s status as Black outsider to White-dominated by society (e.g. “the skill of a Beethoven with the sentiment of a Black Mamma’s croon”) (see RACISM).
[INTERLUDE 2: Here’s a video montage of The Entertainer, as it’s well known from the classic 1973 movie The Sting, which contributed to the ragtime revival of the ‘70s:]
The late 1890s also saw larger, multi-movement works take hold on Joplin’s creative imagination. On 8 October 1899 Stark announced that Joplin was preparing a ballet for piano and caller (singer/narrator) titled A Black American Cake Walk. This was a series of African American dances featuring the novelty dance known as the cake walk), and the ballet was given at the Woods Opera House in Sedalia the following month; it would be published under the title The Ragtime Dance: Words and Music by Scott Joplin in 1902 (St. Louis: John Stark). In 1903 he composed his first opera, A Guest of Honor, which Joplin copyrighted and took on tour with a company of thirty in August of that year — but the score and parts were stolen (possibly confiscated because Joplin could not pay his bills at the theatrical boarding house) and never recovered; it remains lost today.
Other professional and personal difficulties made the first decade of the twentieth century an exceptionally difficult one for Joplin: among other things, the market for piano sheet music suffered a dramatic setback because of the advent of player pianos and the phonograph. In 1901 he had married Belle Jones and had a child with her, but the child died in infancy and the marriage to Jones (which may have been common-law) ended by 1903. He married again in June 1904, this time to Freddie Alexander (to whom he had dedicated the “Afro-American intermezzo” The Chrysanthemum), but she died at the age of nineteen just eighty-eight days after their marriage. By 1907 he had about forty published works. Hard at work on Treemonisha, he moved to New York, looking for a publisher for the new work — part of the leading edge of the Great Migration of some six million Southern Black folk to the urban north in the mid-twentieth century. He settled on the firm of Seminary Music and published several rags with them, but when the 250-page score was complete the firm declined to publish it; Joplin thus published it himself. He had in the meantime remarried (perhaps not formally), now to Lottie Stokes, who ran a boarding house and would collaborate with him in managing his financial affairs.
[INTERLUDE 3: I can’t leave this post without sharing The Chrystanthemum. This “Afro-American Intermezzo,” performed here by Lara Downes, gives voice to yet another side of Joplin’s wonderful creative imagination:]
Joplin composed and published several more rags in New York, but most of his energies were devoted much to trying to have Treemonisha performed, to no avail. The difficult circumstances of his life were wearing him down — as was the syphilis he had contracted along the way. By the time of the solo-piano unstaged performance of Treemonisha he gave in Harlem in 1911, he was barely able to perform. His reputation as a performer was in tatters, and he continued to compose but was unable to publish his music because his money was gone. His last published work was Magnetic Rag (New York: Scott Joplin, 1914). By 1916, at age forty-eight, he was diagnosed with dementia from his advancing syphilis, and he was admitted to a psychiatric ward in January 1917. He died six weeks later. The compositions he composed in his last two years — including a “music comedy drama” titled If, a symphony, and a piano concerto — have not survived.
[INTERLUDE 4:] Tremonisha (a separate entry in my Historical Dictionary) is a truly remarkable and beautiful work, and one that is still in serious need of a source-critical edition. The best known part — one of the only two ragtime elements in the opera, is the Finale, titled “A Real Slow Drag.” I hope you’ll enjoy this!]
(From the Houston Grand Opera’s production, realized by Gunther Schuller:)
Here is a video — with poor audio — of that staged production:
Or here’s the same number from Performed by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra & Singers, with Anita Johnson in the title role and Rick Benjamin conductor — a completely different take on the same music:
Most of Joplin’s music — with a few notable exceptions such as The Entertainer and The Maple Leaf Rag — was forgotten for decades; a popular revival of the ragtime works began in the 1940s with the advent of a national (soon international) ragtime movement. Although this movement had the salutary effect of reviving public awareness of Joplin’s genius in ragtime, that awareness also eclipsed all his other diverse compositional contributions. Although his latter-day fame rests primarily on his forty surviving ragsand Treemonisha, he also composed marches, tangos, two steps, and waltzes, as well as fifteen songs, some lively and some possessed of great beauty and tenderness (e.g., The Crysanthemum, the waltz-song A Picture of Her Face, or When Your Hair Is Like Snow). Public and scholarly awareness of his achievements has continued to grow in recent decades, however, and there is hope that a fuller appreciation of his more than eighty surviving works and their significance will be achieved.
[CODA: Here is the deliciously tender, but still rarely done, song “When Your Hair Is Like Snow.” As you listen, you might imagine a small theater; but songs of this sort are really meant for parlor use — shared among people who know each other well enough to share in the sentimentality of the words and the music. I love this song! ]
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT SCOTT JOPLIN:
- Here is an important video conversation/concert on “Scott Joplin’s New York,” with John McWhorter and Lara Downes:
- The two classic book-length biographies:
- Edward A. Berlin, King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)
- Susan Curtis, Dancing to a Black Man’s Tune: A Life of Scott Joplin, Vol. 1 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996)
- And finally, the Library of Congress page for Joplin.
Originally published at https://cooperm55.wixsite.com on June 20, 2022.