I take issue with but one claim in Edward Berlin’s awesome biography of Scott Joplin, King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era. Joplin has not, it would seem, become “ingrained in the American cultural and musical landscape.” Rather, that assertion was valid for a brief shining moment in the 1970s when Joplin’s music, and ragtime music in general, became common coin in America in the wake of the use of the music on the soundtrack of The Sting.
King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era (2nd edition)
Oxford University Press, 2016, 456 pp., $35
Gone are the days when LPs of ragtime in endless permutations were legion in record stores, when the music pattern on the wrapping paper of a gift I was given was not Mozart or Beethoven but, in fact, staves from one of Joplin’s lesser-known rags, when anyone who went near a piano would at least attempt the first page of “The Entertainer.” Classical pianist Joshua Rifkin’s recordings in the early ’70s of Joplin’s rags, played accurately and majestically in a concert hall, helped establish Joplin as a composer to take seriously—but only one of those LPs was even transferred to CD.
Even by the early ’80s when I discovered ragtime through the abovementioned kinds of experiences, those LPs in the record bins were dusty and priced low. Before long, ragtime had gone back to what it had been since the 1940s and what it remains today: a hobby lovingly cultivated by a small, expert fan base.
This is not a surprise. The elegant ragtime pieces Joplin wrote better than anyone else are as difficult to play as they are lovely to hear. This had kept them a minority taste among pianists even in their prime, and today they are even less accessible given that ever fewer people play the piano. For the amateur instrumentalist, the 20th century became the age of the guitar, and in a music history class of 23 I recently taught, not a single one of the students had ever played the piano. Moreover, Joplin’s rags are gorgeous but not “hot,” and the rock sensibility dominant since the 1970s makes it hard for most to connect with music that has so little “swagger” as some might put it these days. Ragtime’s descendant, jazz, differs from it partly in having exactly that “jamming” essence and thus reaches the modern ear more easily; ragtime sounds like juice and cookies in contrast. The ’70s were the tail end of the time when pop music was often couched in melody and harmony elaborate enough that, for example, one could render it on a piano (Chicago; Earth, Wind & Fire; Billy Joel). I highly suspect that if used on the soundtrack of a hit movie today, Joplin’s music, even though largely unheard today, would barely occasion notice beyond a few musicians and musicologists.
In the end, the reason Joplin’s music burned brightly only for a spell forty years ago is the same reason Joplin never found true success in his lifetime. Certainly, his being black in an America most of whose citizens saw black people as barely human didn’t help. Yet a white Scott Joplin would have had little more success. Almost obsessed with fashioning ragtime as high art, Joplin was bested by two obstacles. First, high art is always a limited taste; second, even at its finest ragtime is an art of limited parameters, the musical equivalent of the miniature and the madeleine, incompatible with larger scale.
As such, Joplin’s life story is a poignantly gloomy one, starting with a humble beginning and wandering gradually into a tragic ending, and seeming even sadder in the dimness of the picture available to us. The modestly successful black musician born just after the Civil War and dying in 1917 could leave behind only flickers of a historical record. His only child died in infancy, and thus no direct descendants have been available to provide reminiscences. He made no recordings other than a few piano rolls. He was only photographed a few times, grainily. In the vocal quartet he led well into adulthood, we know that he sang second tenor, the part that usually carries the melody, and this report on his singing voice is by default the most immediate indication extant of what the man was actually like in a human sense. Larger personalities can break through to us from such a chronological distance through colorful anecdotes, but Joplin was a reserved fellow who inspired no such stories. He “liked a little beer,” a friend recalled, but there is no indication that he was one to exactly fill a room.
This makes Berlin’s achievement all the more astonishing. The volume is a second edition of a work first published in 1994, which itself instantly rendered all previous biographical treatments of Joplin obsolete. However, the internet has made it so much easier to comb ancient newspapers for data on the movements and activities of performers that Berlin has now been able to expand his chronicle of Joplin by a third.
In a sense, however, the volume of new information only highlights Joplin’s fundamental inaccessibility. Most of what is known of Joplin’s life is factoids, fragments, and snapshots. For example, Joplin was thirty by the time he published the piece that put him on the map, “Maple Leaf Rag,” in 1899, and just where he was living from year to year for especially the first twenty years of his life is largely a mystery. His date of birth, somewhere in late 1867 or early 1868, is lost. Of his childhood we know that he was not born in Texarkana, Texas, as often reported, but a small town nearby, that his family was musical, that his father was an ex-slave who eventually left the family, and that his mother was freeborn and a domestic who arranged piano lessons for him with a local German. Joplin went on to head up that vocal quartet while selling his first piano pieces, establishing himself as a valued musician in Sedalia, Missouri. It illustrates Joplin’s distance from us that we cannot even know why he moved there, although its status as a music-mad town in the era must have had something to do with it.
Just when we think we might have a handle on the man, Berlin reveals something else tantalizingly. In 1902 there is a report of Joplin working with a mysterious white man named Flanagan on a glitzy-sounding show involving “Cuban belles.” Later on Joplin seems to have cultivated a friendship with a white socialist, and then later in New York City this staid craftsman of elaborate ragtime compositions turns up ringside at a prize fight serving as one of the boxers’ assistants. Joplin is reported to have once claimed to have made a tour of Europe, but there is no evidence of it. Did he go to Europe or was he a fabulist—something for which there is no other indication?
St. Louis publisher John Stark published “Maple Leaf Rag” under unusually fair terms for the era in terms of how songwriters were treated, especially black ones, and evidenced a genuine respect for classic ragtime throughout his life. Yet Joplin constantly published many of his works with houses other than Stark and we have no idea why. Joplin’s warning that ragtime “should never be played fast” is well known, but for “Eugenia” in 1906 he gives a metronome tempo marking so slow that it would make the pianist sound somnolent. Was this a misprint, or was Joplin making some kind of point?
Joplin’s love life is especially enigmatic. Berlin’s greatest achievement is the discovery that Joplin had not two but three wives, through a feat of detective work which would possibly have earned Berlin a Pulitzer if the subject had been Schubert or Brahms. Taking a cue from a vague recollection by someone who lived in the same Sedalia building as Joplin that he had a wife who died, Berlin used census data to find out when Joplin lived in that building, and then combed every single issue of Sedalia’s black newspapers for that year—before the internet!—and found announcements of the death and funeral of Freddie Joplin née Alexander. Freddie caught tuberculosis immediately after their wedding, and died soon after they settled down in Sedalia.
There is evidence that Joplin never got over it—his magnum opus, the opera Treemonisha, was about her (something else Berlin masterfully reveals). Joplin’s marriages before and after this were, like so much of his life, downbeat stories. It isn’t clear that he was actually married to either woman, such that Freddie may have been technically Joplin’s only wife. He and his first wife (or more likely common-law companion) Belle went their separate ways after their first child died, but her lack of interest in music had apparently paved the way for the split long before. During the ’70s ragtime craze there was a television movie made about Joplin starring—wait for it—Billy Dee Williams. It conveyed the Belle story through a beautiful little scene without words, in which Joplin is trying to teach Margaret Avery’s Belle how to play the violin. She isn’t taking to it, and while sexual attraction will clearly get them through that afternoon, we know the relationship’s days are numbered.
The apartment Joplin and Belle occupied in St. Louis is still standing and has been fashioned into a museum exhibit. From the sheer stabbing heat of the space in midsummer (it was not air-conditioned when I visited), one can imagine how urgent the quest for success must have been for someone like Joplin. Just to have the money to escape those little rooms into a space with large windows on the ground floor would have spurred any amount of ambition.
Yet while Joplin is best known today for his rags, no one would have staked big-time ambition on such pieces. To people alive at the time, ragtime referred to sassy little pop songs with words, the masterpiece of which was considered to be Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” The appeal of “ragging” required nothing so baroque as Joplin’s refined masterworks, but simply syncopation—setting the beats of the melody in the right hand against, rather than upon, the regular tick-tock beat of the rhythm track played by the left hand. Tap your hand to a steady beat, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, on whatever is near, and then hum “The Entertainer.” Notice that on the second beat, the melody does not lay down a note on top of it, nor does it on the first beat of the second 1-2-3-4. That mismatch between the beats creates a little “catch” which, as ordinary as it seems today, had never been so fundamental to any music until ragtime was invented.
As such, to Mr. and Mrs. America circa 1908, ragtime was not “The Entertainer,” but peppy little songs with peppery little lyrics, that you could get up and dance to. Only through these could one make a living, and Joplin had other ideas. For most of his life Joplin was a man whose day-to-day life was as a vocal ensemble performer and pianist for hire who published a few rags a year, but whose ultimate career goal was crafting works for the theater.
Joplin was hardly alone in this goal among black musicians. Violinist Will Marion Cook dreamed of bringing ragtime to Broadway in the 1890s, and as we have been reminded of late by Broadway’s Shuffle Along: Or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle later had the same ambitions for the early jazz that ragtime had evolved into by the late teens.
The difference between these men and Joplin is that they found success. Cook’s Clorindy (1898) was essentially the first black Broadway musical and, especially after his next signature hit In Dahomey in 1903, baked ragtime into mainstream musical theater language. Shuffle Along’s smash hit status has been widely chronicled and was key in infusing Broadway music with a jazz feel (including a transformation in George Gershwin’s theater music, a line of influence grievously underacknowledged).
Joplin, however, seems to have had only glimmers of interest in what we would today term musical theater. The most frustrating loss in his oeuvre is the musical A Guest of Honor of 1903, a kickoff touring production of which was stranded after a backer mysteriously pulled out and vanished. The score disappeared and not even the show’s subject is known. Actually, there is a single other point on which I differ with Berlin: I’m not as certain as he is that A Guest of Honor would have been about Booker T. Washington’s dinner with Theodore Roosevelt at the White House. That scenario would seem to offer little by way of drama, comedy, or even enough dramatis personae to occupy a company of 32. More striking about this work is that Joplin never attempted to revive it and is not even on record as ever mentioning it again. Rather, Joplin’s heart was in something else: He moved to New York City and embarked upon transforming ragtime into grand opera.
One might wonder what a Scott Joplin would decide to write an opera about, and consonant with his focused and serious essence, he chose an allegorical tale of black uplift. Treemonisha is the name of a young woman in a rural black community who wards off evil conjurers fleecing the locals by selling them powders and other substances catering to their superstitions. The conjurers try to do Treemonisha in, but she is rescued by a noble male hero and anointed by her community as the one who will lead them out of superstition into education and advancement.
As thin as this plot sounds, opera has a stolid tread, and some of Wagner’s plots would need little more space to lay out. Besides, Treemonisha’s plot makes more sense when we realize that Joplin was writing just a generation past slavery, and that ridding uneducated black people of superstitious beliefs was an issue of urgency among progressive blacks of the period—Mark Twain’s depiction of Jim in Huckleberry Finn as harboring these kinds of beliefs, for example, was based as much in reality as stereotype. Moreover, Joplin has Treemonisha born in the year Berlin reconstructs as when Freddie was born, and the light-brown complexion Joplin specifies for Treemonisha, otherwise seeming either rather arbitrary or perhaps even tragically playing into the idea that light skin was preferable over dark, likely reflected Freddie’s complexion. No photo of Freddie survives, but Berlin has tracked down descendants with photos of older relatives, and Freddie’s siblings were indeed light brown in color.
The legend has long been that Joplin never saw Treemonisha performed except for a bare-bones backer’s audition that found no takers. Paragon Ragtime Orchestra conductor Rick Benjamin has confirmed, however, that Joplin actually assembled a troupe to perform the opera, or at least some form of it, in a small-scale production across the Hudson from New York City in Bayonne, New Jersey in 1913. Joplin’s instrumental markings in his score have long left clues that he envisioned, at least at first, modest productions accompanied only by the then-standard 12-instrument pick-up band—lines are marked for “violin” rather than “violins,” and so on, and there are no indications for symphonic instruments such as French horns or oboes. However, there are scattered notices in newspapers after this of preparations—but never performances—of larger-scale productions of the piece in bigger houses. Benjamin, I think, is mistaken in supposing that Joplin never harbored even expectations of a Treemonisha grander than Joplin’s “Merry Makers,” as the company was titled, executing it on a small stage in Bayonne. Joplin wrote, indeed, an opera.
No one was ever really interested, and one feels almost forbidden to consider that the reason may partly have been that in truth, Treemonisha is a tad dull. With its choral writing, lovely melodic craftsmanship, and earnestness of narrative in contrast to the minstrelesque hijinks still expected of black theater pieces, Treemonisha is indeed an “extraordinary achievement,” as Berlin puts it. However, Joplin had no gift for narrative: The characters are mere props, the dialogue is stiff, and the dramatization static. Despite a few catchy tunes and moments of great beauty—the Prelude to Act III makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up every time after three decades—there are about ten minutes total of ragtime in the whole score. Treemonisha does not jive; it declaims. Despite we moderns’ eager receptivity toward a figure like Joplin, Benjamin notes that after some revivals in the 1970s, including the best-known one by the Houston Opera which spiced up the material with costumes, characterizations, and over-orchestration often beyond Joplin’s specifications or intentions, Treemonisha has not become a staple in the opera repertory. “With a sigh, most realized that it was not the prequel to Porgy and Bess that they had long dreamed of,” Benjamin notes.
However, it is difficult to hear Treemonisha properly when waiting for the likes of “Summertime,” or the easy joys of “Maple Leaf Rag” or Joplin’s habanera “Solace” or his waltz “Bethena.” Joplin’s opera, so full of people standing still recounting and declaring at great length, is better heard as a take on Wagner, indeed. The superficially mawkish duet between Treemonisha’s parents “I Want To See My Baby Now” is hopeless listened to as a musical theater number, but acquires touching grandeur when listened to as if one were at a performance of Norma. Much of Treemonisha would indeed sound weightier if in a foreign language. One must suspend one’s expectations, fashioned by musical theater and even assumptions about authentically “black” theater, of snappy plotting and realistic speech, and open oneself to the more abstract and stylized sensibility of opera. Joplin did, and expected America to come with him and make him a star.
The first problem, though, was that opera was as much a minority taste a hundred years ago in America as it is now. Joplin surely did not expect that the white musical establishment was going to mount Treemonisha at the Metropolitan Opera House—sheer bigotry stood implacably at that door, not to mention the same people’s hostility towards American operas of any kind at the time. However, even aimed at black theaters, opera could never have made Joplin a star artist. The American culture of the early 20th century did urge people of middle and upper class status to at least pretend a certain commitment to opera, and people genuinely enjoyed it in excerpt, as opposed to in full, to an extent rarer today. Opera stars regularly sang arias on the radio in 1930s and 1940s, for example, whereas Anna Netrebko and Dmitri Hvorostovsky are much rarer sights today on the late night talk shows.
However, the popular culture of the period is replete with comments about people sleeping through operas: Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “The Lady is a Tramp” lyric in 1936 was “I go to opera and stay wide awake!” while Cole Porter in 1956 remarked upon sleeping through operas at the Met in “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” None of this was any different for black audiences of the period, regardless of social class. One of the venues Joplin hoped to mount Treemonisha at was the Lafayette in Harlem—but audiences lapping up the jazz and hot dancing typically featured there would have been less enthusiastic about Treemonisha’s mother trilling somberly and slowly for five straight minutes about “The Sacred Tree” that her daughter was found under. America has never, in fact, birthed a celebrity opera composer of any race. George Gershwin and Phillip Glass’s celebrity is not founded on their operas, and today John Adams is hardly a household name beyond a small circle.
Then Joplin was also up against the fact that ragtime itself is inherently unsuitable for the opera format. The standard idea is that in musicals the words are primary while in opera the music is. The jaunty, jagged contours of ragtime lend themselves easily to the rhythms and cadences of speech, but much less so to the longer musical line of opera, furnished to allow as much room as possible for the expansive, hall-filling voice.
This left Joplin handicapped in a way that Cook and Blake were not. Musicals are about real people communicating in ordinary ways. Ragtime and jazz tunes lent themselves to depicting such speech so easily one could forget they weren’t invented for the purpose. However, ragtime cannot express the feelings of a Tosca. In Treemonisha we can sense Joplin moving from what he knew into this new realm: Even the traditionally operatic-sounding vocal parts allow the singers rather less opportunity for longer notes and extended lines than one expects in opera; melodies and statements tend to cluster within two to four bars, just as they do in his rags. However, at points like these, unsyncopated and expressing large-scale rather than street-corner feelings, we have left ragtime behind, as Joplin was proud of, impatient in interviews with the idea that he writing a “ragtime opera.” The problem is that if this music isn’t ragtime, it is simply opera, which returns us to the masses’ ever-limited interest in the form.
It isn’t that Joplin fell somehow short in this regard. Ragtime, like tap dancing, has proven difficult to transmogrify. Jazz, based on improvisation and with a richer instrumental palette, lends itself to suites, ballets, fusions. Yet with the rag—essentially a late 19th-century march with a certain kind of skip in it—it’s less clear where it could go artistically. During the ’70s ragtime revival, some composers ventured modern rags. A few, by William Bolcom, are some of the most beautiful piano pieces I have ever known. But in seeking something beyond the toolkit of the classic rags, these pieces are even beastlier to master than the most advanced Joplin works, and harder on the untrained ear. Any direction such works went “further” in would qualify more as modern classical music than as ragtime in any real sense, and few have set themselves to the task.
In any case, by the mid-teens Joplin was having trouble speaking clearly and eventually could barely play the piano properly. For reasons unknown—as always seems to be the case with the flickers from Joplin’s existence—a piano roll company recorded him playing “Maple Leaf Rag” during this time. It is a chilling listen, with choppy rhythm and an awkward right hand that sound like someone very ill—and indeed Joplin was entering the dreaded tertiary stages of syphilis.
His story from here on, barely scraping together a living while seeking a hearing for his Treemonisha in a bustling and indifferent New York City, is heartbreaking. Classic rags went out of fashion as dancing styles changed. The syphilis meant he could no longer earn money playing the piano. A piano student of his later recalled visiting Joplin’s residence in Harlem and being pleased that his family were enough at ease with one another to be walking about wrapped only in towels. But Joplin lived only with his third “wife,” not a brood of kin. The gentleman was unaware that Joplin and his companion got by through using their boardinghouse as a bordello.
In April of 1917 Joplin passed away and was buried in an unmarked grave in Queens. His boxes of papers ended up with the lawyer of a friend of the widow’s daughter. In 1988, the now-aged man approached Rick Benjamin after a concert and sheepishly admitted that, unaware of the value of this material, he had in 1962 discarded the original manuscripts of Treemonisha, plus what anecdotes about these boxes tell us were unpublished rags and classical pieces. There exists a photo of Joplin’s piano late in his life, with a sheet of handwritten ragtime on it. Why this photo was taken without Joplin seated there we will, as always, never know. However, graphic novelist Chris Ware and fellow ragtime enthusiast Reginald Robinson enlarged and enhanced the photo, and the ragtime on the page has been recorded. It is a distinctly pleasant 30 seconds of a Joplin rag that likely went into a dumpster 54 years ago with many others.
To a Joplin fan, his farewell to the world is not Treemonisha but his last rag “Magnetic Rag,” that would make any fan’s top-five list. At the end, he steps outside of the ragtime format entirely and weaves a light, wandering passage in two-part harmony played mostly with only a single finger on each hand, closing quietly with a barbershop-style “Sweet Adeline” descending figure he had surely arranged for countless vocal quartet pieces in his younger days. It is impossible not to hear this as Scott Joplin saying goodbye.
Even if he didn’t achieve what he hoped, and will likely never again be as much a man of the moment as he was for a while during the Nixon and Ford Administrations, his work is now widely available, amply studied, and will always have the affection of a fervent coterie. “Nobody knew about Scott Joplin in 1962,” the old lawyer said. Ten years later everybody knew about him, and four decades on, enough people still know about him that we need never fear losing a scrap of the man’s surviving work again. For those interested in Joplin beyond “The Entertainer” and “Maple Leaf Rag,” Berlin’s book is the starting point. Then, one can simply listen. The world will dance; Joplin’s rags, never to be played fast, were for listening. In our image-saturated times, listening for long can be difficult. Yet a hundred years and more past their creation, Joplin’s ragtime pieces continue to merit the effort.