Marching onward with the King of Ragtime, Scott Joplin
He was born in Texas, just six years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and three years after the passage of the 13th amendment to the Constitution. He grew up to be one of the most famous musicians in America as the 19th Century turned into the 20th … then died penniless and forgotten less than two decades after the height of his fame… only to be rediscovered and celebrated half a century later.
Scott Joplin was the King of Ragtime—a syncopated, march-like popular style of piano playing developed by Black musicians in the late 19th century. He also was a “classical” musician, who aspired to write opera, a symphony, and a piano concerto. But racism and a public that only saw him as a popular tunesmith stood in the way. For this special series of African American Voices on KPAC, we’re looking back at Scott Joplin’s life and music, with the help of pianist Lara Downes, whose new album of Joplin’s music, “Reflections,” reexamines his piano rags and melodies, some in fresh new arrangements, and Rick Benjamin, who reconstructed Joplin’s opera “Treemonisha” for a new generation.
[Click the audio link above to listen to all five episodes]
PART ONE: Texas to Chicago
By most accounts, Scott Joplin was born near Texarkana, in 1868. The Civil War may have ended, but it was still a dangerous time for Black families in the south. The Ku Klux Klan was active in northeast Texas, and Black laborers who worked in white family homes, such as Joplin’s mother, could be fined for leaving the home without permission, impudence, or swearing, among other “offenses” that could be deemed “disobedience.”
But Scott Joplin’s mother was determined to give her son an education, and by the age of 12, Joplin was living in Texarkana with his family, where he was in school, and learning music. He was the second of six children, and his parents had musical talent—his mother, Florence, played the banjo and was a singer, his father Giles played violin. Scott Joplin’s early music education also came from the Black musician Mag Washington and native American/Black J.C. Johnson, but his most extensive training came from a Jewish German American, Julius Weiss, who taught the young Joplin music theory, an appreciation of music as a formal art form, and he encouraged Joplin to set high goals for himself.
After leaving Texas, accounts place Joplin in Chicago in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition. Pianist Lara Downes says location is everything when it comes to Joplin’s musical development:
“Yes, where Joplin is... That's really impacting what he's hearing, right? What he's hearing and who he's meeting… and as we know, as human beings that determines everything about your life and the choices that you make and the paths that you take. For Joplin, it's his classical training, but it's also the parlor music of the time, and the American folk music that he's hearing. His father, who had been born enslaved, was a musician. His father's playing him plantation songs. He's hearing all these things and they're kind of forming this blend.”
At the World’s Fair in Chicago, Black people were mostly excluded from the White City, and were relegated to the Midway. And there, as Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass pointed out, they were showcased only as examples of a so-called “savage” race. While in Chicago, Joplin was exposed to early ragtime, led a band playing cornet, and met Otis Saunders, a fellow musician who traveled with Joplin back to Missouri, where Scott Joplin would set about to writing the music that would soon make him a household name.
PART TWO: The Maple Leaf Rag
Ragtime King Scott Joplin began his career in earnest while living in Sedalia, Missouri. The town is about three-quarters of the way across the state, toward Kansas City. And the population was booming in the 1880s and 1890s, thanks to several major railroad lines that crossed there. One such line divides the town in half. In the 1890s, the African American side of town was north of the tracks. The white side of town was on the south side. Running parallel to the tracks is Main Street, where within the span of three blocks or so, were three brothels, an Opera House, the Black 400 Club…. And a club that would come to define Scott Joplin’s fame through its name: the Maple Leaf.
Music was one of the primary diversions in the thriving town, and bands would frequently march up and down the street. Scott Joplin and the Queen City Cornet Band would play at dances in town, both Black and white. Joplin would also play solo piano at these events. Both Black and white locals (though presumed not together, as Sedalia was a segregated town) would take part in cakewalk contests, a dance that had its origins on plantations, when slaves would perform exaggerated dances that mocked white formal society dance.
Now, everyone was doing the cakewalk, and the march-like music that accompanied would merge with other styles to eventually form ragtime. Pianist Lara Downes’ new album “Reflections” looks back on Scott Joplin’s music with new ears.
“The rags themselves are being built upon a foundation of classical music," Downes explains. "[And] of all the influences that are kind of swirling around at that time at the turn of the century. And so just kind of listening, deeply thinking about what is actually here, what's in this music, allowed me to pull out a lot of aspects, colors, [and] traditions that are right there to be found.”
The hallmark features of Scott Joplin’s early ragtime music are the oompah sounds of the left hand...
And the syncopated melody in the right hand.
Joplin wasn’t the first to develop ragtime music. There were already over 100 rags in print by the time Joplin’s first rags were published in 1899. But Joplin was the most gifted at writing fantastic, hummable hooks that were also challenging to the average player. I mean, these things are hard to play.
The "Maple Leaf Rag," named for the Black social club off Main Street, was a landmark piece of music for Joplin, and he knew it. He told a pupil, Arthur Marshall, that this piece would make him the king of ragtime composers. And in a remarkable move, when Joplin had the piece published, his contract included a one cent royalty for each copy of the sheet music sold. As sales grew, so did Scott Joplin’s income. Ten years after it was written, the "Maple Leaf Rag" had sold half a million copies. And it would continue to sell. Joplin would invest those funds into a project that would never come to fruition in his lifetime—grand opera.
PART THREE: King of Ragtime
By the turn of the 20th Century, thanks in part to the "Maple Leaf Rag," Texas-born composer Scott Joplin was the King of Ragtime. He married his first wife, Belle, in 1899, and left small-town Sedalia, Missouri in 1901 for the big city, St. Louis. There, in a two-story brick house just two and a half miles west of the Mississippi River, Joplin wrote hits like "The Easy Winners," "Elite Syncopations," and "The Entertainer."
John Stark, who published many of Scott Joplin’s early rags, was a fervent believer in ragtime. He followed Joplin to St. Louis, opening an office there, and eventually in New York City as well. And unlike most publishers of the era, Stark highlighted Scott Joplin’s race, and he placed ragtime on the level as other so-called classical composers. “They are the perfection of type,” Stark said. “They have the genius of melody and the scholarship of harmonization. They are used in the drawing rooms and the parlors of culture.”
“Ragtime goes from being a Black art form to being a mainstream craze. And at the same time, I think what's really interesting for me as a pianist is that the piano is central to the economy of that," says Lara Downes.
"Because the way people are making money is by selling the sheet music, and they're selling a ton of sheet music. And who's playing the sheet music? People at home, probably mostly women at home. So that's how so quickly this music moves from the saloons and the brothels to the parlors of upper-class women—white women—all over America, which to me is fascinating. And so then Joplin is certainly digging into that. He becomes known as the King of Ragtime, and I think that the other places where he wants to exist, where his opera wants to exist, those are just doors that are closed to him at the time.”
As early as 1899, Joplin had formed a small drama collective to put on an African American ballet, set to the strains of music like "The Ragtime Dance."
The performance was narrated by Scott’s brother, Will, and demonstrated a dozen different walks, dances, and drags.
By 1903, Scott Joplin had written his first opera, "A Guest of Honor," which toured the Midwest for a short run. The music is lost to history, but the opera was about the 1901 White House dinner meeting of President Theodore Roosevelt and civil rights leader Booker T. Washington.
Joplin continued to write piano rags, and increasingly added gorgeous waltzes to his repertoire, such as "Bethena – A Concert Waltz," written after the untimely death of Joplin’s second wife, Freddie.
As popular was ragtime was, there were still those who rejected the music, based on its African American origins. One example: Walter Winston Kenilworth, writing in the Musical Courier as late as 1913, said, "America is falling prey to the collective soul of the negro (sic) through the influence of what is popularly known as `rag time' music." He warned that listening to ragtime would lead to loose women and low morals, and advised “extreme measures to inhibit the influence and avert the increasing danger.”
Racism, Joplin’s popularity as a ragtime composer, and the composer’s failing health all may have led to the failure of Joplin’s greatest ambition, "Treemonisha."
PART FOUR – Treemonisha
Scott Joplin was on top of the musical world in 1907. A steady income from sales of his ragtime music kept him going as he left St. Louis for New York City, then as now the cultural capital of the United States. He was setting out for something big.
As the New York Age reported on March 5, 1908:
“The surprise of musicians and publishers can be imagined when Joplin announced he was writing grand opera.”
Scott Joplin had two goals in mind in writing his magnum opus, “Treemonisha.” He wanted to bring ragtime music into the same world as so-called classical music, and he wanted to uplift the Black race.
“Treemonisha” celebrates education as the way forward for African Americans. It takes place in a small Arkansas community very near the Texas border. The heroine of the story was found as a baby at the base of a tree in 1866 by two former plantation slaves, Ned and Monisha. And so they name her Treemonisha. Joplin writes in the preface:
“The opera begins in September 1884. Treemonisha, being eighteen years old, now starts upon her career as a teacher and leader.”
Note those words. First: teacher. Treemonisha is one of the only educated members of her community. And leader. That Joplin chose a woman to lead the community is also remarkable, for the time.
The chief antagonists of the opera are three conjurers Zodzetrick, Luddud, and Simon, who all conspire to keep the people ignorant so they can keep selling their good luck charms. But Treemonisha steps in, and shoos them away. The conjurers kidnap Treemonisha and Remus, a friend of the family, sets out to rescue her. Just as she’s about to be thrown in a wasp’s nest by the conjurers, Remus pretends to be the devil and scares them away, where they’re captured by the townspeople. And while the town wants to severely punish the bad guys, Treemonisha convinces them to forgive the conjurers, one of whom changes his ways. They townspeople elect Treemonisha to lead them, and all close the opera with a beautiful number, “A Real Slow Drag,” with a familiar refrain and concept for Black America, “Marching onward….”
Scott Joplin knocked on door after door, but even the King of Ragtime couldn’t find anyone to publish his opera. Pianist Lara Downes, whose new album “Reflections” celebrates the music of Joplin, says then as now, crossover artists have a tough time of it.
“Historically, once you cross that line and you're doing something that is considered commercial and popular, and especially if you have success with it, you know there's a certain exclusion from the serious, the high art,” Downes says.
The music world wasn’t ready for a Black art form—ragtime—to enter the white halls of New York opera houses. No one would publish “Treemonisha.” So Scott Joplin sunk his own fortune into printing the piano-vocal score himself. A 1915 demonstration performance of the opera in Harlem backed by Joplin on piano was reportedly a disaster, exacerbated no doubt by Joplin’s worsening performance ability. He had been suffering from the physical effects of syphilis, and less than two years later, was committed to Manhattan State Hospital, where he died on April 1, 1917. "Treemonisha," and ragtime music, was promptly forgotten without its champion.
Until half a century later.
PART FIVE – Scott Joplin’s Legacy
Scott Joplin died in 1917, and with his death, the ragtime craze pretty much died as well. The first jazz recordings were made that same year, and it was soon all the rage. Scott Joplin’s third wife and widow, Lottie, kept a boarding house going where musicians like Jelly Roll Morton, Eubie Blake, and Willie “The Lion” Smith would stay and occasionally bang out tunes on the piano in the parlor. The "Maple Leaf Rag" kept Scott Joplin’s name in print, and Lottie kept a trunk of Scott’s music, much of which was never published. Supposedly, Joplin had the beginnings of a piano concerto, and a symphony, as well as other piano works. That music has all been lost.
Although a few Dixieland bands still beat the ragtime drum on occasion, the big revival in Scott Joplin’s music came not from jazz, but from classical music—and surprisingly, Hollywood.
Composer William Bolcolm was turned on to Joplin’s music by a colleague in the 1960s, and was inspired to write his own rags. And then the young classical pianist Joshua Rifkin’s album of Scott Joplin’s music placed the Black American composer on the front of the record jacket—and sold 100,000 copies in its first year of release, eventually going platinum.
One day in 1972, Hollywood director George Roy Hill, who had already had a hit with "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," was working on a film about two con men in Chicago. The movie was to reunite Paul Newman and Robert Redford, his two stars from "Butch Cassidy." After hearing his son playing Rifkin’s record one day, Hill decided to use Scott Joplin’s music as the soundtrack for "The Sting." The soundtrack album hit number one on the Billboard album chart and stayed there for five weeks. The movie won seven Oscars, including one for Marvin Hamlisch’s adaptation of Scott Joplin’s music. And so a white man won an Oscar for arranging a Black man’s music. Ain’t that a bitch? To his credit, Hamlisch thanked Joplin from the podium.
But perhaps nothing would have pleased Scott Joplin as much as the fact that "Treemonisha" was finally produced on stage—first in Atlanta in 1972, and then orchestrated and arranged by Gunther Schuller for the Houston Grand Opera, recorded and released on record by Deutsche Grammophon. The New York Times said of the final number, “A Real Slow Drag,” “it refuses to leave the mind.”
Years later, Rick Benjamin, founder of the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, released an updated version of “Treemonisha” that brought Joplin’s work into focus, as opera for the people.
“I determined to do a forensic reconstruction to find every single possible molecule of this opera, every anything that exists in any newspaper mention of it," Benjamin explained to TPR in 2018.
"I spent about 15 years working on that and came up with a new score, new orchestration. It became abundantly clear that Joplin wasn't intending this to storm the gates of the Metropolitan Opera or anything like that. He was trying to create a very small, intimate work that could be done in small neighborhood theaters, vaudeville houses to introduce everyday people to the format of operas.”
Joplin’s music was reexamined again in 1998 with "The Joy of Joplin," a tribute album by jazz pianist Marcus Roberts, whose improvisations on Joplin’s themes, he admitted, would have upset the exacting composer. “My position as an artist is just to provide different ways of looking at a situation,” he told the Chicago Tribune.
Lara Downes’ new album “Reflections,” on her own Rising Sun record label, also takes beautiful liberty with Scott Joplin’s music. She says that today, we’re in a great place to appreciate Joplin’s work.
“Right now, in 2022, we have this beautiful perspective that allows us to hear everything that's in the music," Downes says.
"So to sit in the studio with these musicians and just be really creative and fluid with a tune like 'Maple Leaf Rag,' it’s really a privilege. And I think that we're on the cusp of a new era that that really celebrates that breadth and that inclusion.”
For Texas Public Radio, I’m Nathan Cone.
- Berlin, Edward A., "King of Ragtime" Oxford University Press, 1994
- "Scott Joplin and Treemonisha," Vera Brodsky Lawrence, 1975
- William Appling, "The Complete Rags, Waltzes & Marches," 2017 Notes by Patricia Oldham
- Texas State Historical Marker 5037009490