King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era

The following book review by Jeffrey Chappell appeared in Piano & Keyboard Magazine, November/December 1994 issue.

Scott Joplin was a quiet, serious man who composed some of the liveliest, happiest music ever written. The unprecedented standard of excellence that he set and maintained earned ragtime world-wide renown. After the publication of “Maple Leaf Rag” he became known for the rest of his life as “The King of Ragtime.”

Ragtime fell into obscurity with the advent of World War I and with new developments in jazz forms. Its revival commenced in the 1940’s and gathered a momentum that peaked in the 1970’s, establishing its solid place in the repertoire. Contributing to this momentum was the 1950 publication of Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis’ book, “They All Played Ragtime.” This was the first biography of Joplin, and was accepted as the definitive text on its subject.

In his preface to “King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era”, author Edward A. Berlin makes clear the necessity of producing a new biography of Joplin. He honors the accomplishments of Blesh and Janis but points out that they were untrained in formal historical research. Much has been added to what was known about Joplin since their book appeared, but Berlin’s own investigations have yielded a significant wealth of new material. As such, “King of Ragtime” represents the best available current knowledge of this subject.

Some know Joplin only as the composer of “The Entertainer” and “Maple Leaf Rag”; they may even have heard his opera “Treemonisha.” These readers will be fascinated to learn about Irving Berlin’s alleged plagiarism of a tune from “Treemonisha” in his “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”; about Joplin’s first opera, “A Guest of Honor”; and about the origin of the terms “ragtime” and “Tin Pan Alley.” The chapter called “The Maple Leaf Rag, 1899-1900” will engross them with its step-by-step recounting of the creation, publication, and sensational reception of Joplin’s signature piece. They may be surprised to find that, in spite of the advanced level of difficulty of his piano pieces, Joplin himself was not always highly regarded as a pianist.

The specialists will be richly rewarded as well. The origins of titles of pieces are ascertained; attributions of collaborative compositions are sorted out; and the chapter called “Freddie, 1904” tells of the existence of a previously unknown second wife. An entire page is devoted to the conflicting information about Joplin’s date and place of birth. Minute details of all kinds are provided, from the price of admission to a Fancy Dress Calico Ball in Sedalia, Missouri in 1898 to the address of Barron Wilkins’ older brother’s cabaret in Harlem in 1914.

Enhancing the author’s clear writing style and organization are numerous illustrations, including photographs of Joplin and other ragtime writers, street maps of places that he lived, musical examples, and newspaper advertisements. These appear throughout the book as their subject is mentioned in the text, which is satisfyingly convenient for the reader.

All but one of the musical examples were typeset for the book. The exception is a photocopy of one page of the printed score of “Treemonisha”, and it is startling. To indicate the sound of women crying, Joplin invented a graphic notation that one would expect of avant-garde composers decades later.

The one known existing letter written by Joplin, an application for copyright for “A Guest of Honor,” is among the illustrations in the book. As interesting as it is to see his actual handwriting, one would wish that a page or two of his music manuscript had been shown. The author relates hearsay reports of a trunk of manuscripts being lost during the “A Guest of Honor” tour; and in his final chapter traces the hair-raising saga of the manuscripts left by Joplin after his death as they shifted hands again and again before being lost. But is every one of them lost? Where are the ones that he sold to publishers? Do any exist in the Library of Congress? The author does not say.

The book also has a sub-text which appears periodically as inserts in a typeface different from that of the main text. This provides background information about side issues such as prostitution in Sedalia, minstrelsy, and theater segregation. One ongoing series compares passages in Joplin’s piano rags to nearly-identical passages in the works of his imitators.

In the main text, the author finds that Joplin himself recycled some musical material. Analysis shows that “The Cascades,” “Gladiolus Rag,” “Leola,” and “Sugar Cane” were based on the “Maple Leaf Rag” model. In each case, however, new elements were developed, giving every rag its own appealing identity.

He spoke seldom and softly, but with a refined pronunciation and vocabulary that impressed those whom he met. He was regarded as a kind, pleasant, modest, and inspiring man. Nonetheless, he knew that what he produced was of excellent quality, and in an enterprising way sought the acceptance that he believed was deserved by him and his music.

Berlin’s methods of detection and deduction are impressive: no statement or source goes without rigorous cross-referencing and confirmation. Previously accepted “facts” are brought into question and reinterpreted. In his quest to present all the available information, the author at times produces material worthy of a reference book. An early chapter describes Sedalia, Missouri in 1883 as “a good-sized, thriving town.” The ensuing paragraph lists the exact number of public schools, private schools, churches, secret and benevolent societies, paramilitary organizations, newspapers, banks and loan associations, and saloons; as well as the number, names, and racial makeup of baseball teams that formed later on. This is much more than most people would ever want to know about Sedalia, Missouri. Curiously, the other main Joplin residences, St. Louis and New York, are not afforded the same exhaustive treatment.

As painstakingly complete as is this volume of research, one finishes the book feeling strangely out of touch with Joplin’s interior life. We know his addresses and what pieces he composed when he lived at each of them with some degree of certainty. But his attitudes about life and his own experience of living it can only be deduced from what others said about him. This is no fault of the author: there are no known surviving diaries or personal correspondence. Joplin’s own words occupy a total of half a page in this book, and most of those are excerpts from his music instruction pamphlet, “School of Ragtime.”

Blesh’s writings provided earthier, if perhaps apocryphal, anecdotes. He relates that a friend of Joplin complained at lunch that having to wait for a phone call allowed his fried eggs to get cold. Joplin said, “Look, Sam, if they’re good hot, they’re good cold.” This shows a man with a sense of humor as well as a sense of practicality.

From other reports we can tell that Joplin had a reticent manner. He spoke seldom and softly, but with a refined pronunciation and vocabulary that impressed those whom he met. He was regarded as a kind, pleasant, modest, and inspiring man. Nonetheless, he knew that what he produced was of excellent quality, and in an enterprising way sought the acceptance that he believed was deserved by him and his music.

The excerpts from “School of Ragtime” present Joplin’s defence of ragtime as a music with staying power and high class. He responds to the scurrilous perception of ragtime as being light and trashy by distinguishing it from lesser kinds of music, and by asserting that genuine ragtime was endorsed by cultured musicians. He goes on to admonish players of ragtime to be scrupulously exact with rhythm and tempo when playing “Joplin ragtime.”

This shows a man who was meticulous about his work, who knew how good he was at it, and who took pride in it. It also shows how he struggled to gain respect. Joplin met with opposition to his chosen art form throughout his life. The fact that Joplin was black does not account for all of this opposition, since the black clergy crusaded against his music. Ragtime was seen as degenerate and even dangerous to the moral health of the nation. It was, in fact, music that was performed frequently in brothels. Joplin’s reaction to all of this was an apparent rejection of organized religion, although he was not an atheist, and he seems never to have been married in a religious ceremony. He believed that education was the key to the advancement of Afro-Americans.

Joplin died of syphilis in 1917 at the age of 49. At the time, he was at work on his “Symphony No. 1.” Among the lost manuscripts supposedly was a piano concerto. Blesh and Janis saw some of the manuscripts; one was “Pretty Pansy Rag”, which Blesh said was unfinished, although Berlin reports that a pupil of Joplin had studied it with him. Will we ever get to hear “Pretty Pansy Rag”? Only time and future research will tell. As Berlin notes more than once, many questions remain unanswered. Until they are answered, we can safely say that “King of Ragtime” is the benchmark in Joplin research.