Today could be the birthday (1868) of Scott Joplin, the “King of Ragtime.” During his brief career, he wrote 44 original ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet, and two operas. One of his first, and most popular pieces, the “Maple Leaf Rag”, became ragtime’s first and most influential hit, and is often considered the archetypal rag. Here is a recording of Joplin himself playing “Maple Leaf Rag” from a piano roll:
Devotees of Joplin’s music and ragtime never forgot him when the ragtime era faded, but the general public did. He was restored to popularity in the 1970s when the movie, The Sting, featured “The Entertainer” as its theme tune.
According to author Edward A. Berlin, “One tenacious myth tells us that Joplin was born in Texarkana, Texas, on November 24, 1868. The location is easily dispensed with: Texarkana was not established until 1873.” But, based on a letter discovered by musicologist John Tennison in 2015 in the December 19, 1856 edition of the Times-Picayune, it is clear that Texarkana was established as a place-name at least as early as 1856. Consequently, it appears possible that Joplin, born 12 years later, could have been born in Texarkana. Despite evidence to support such a conclusion, some insist that Joplin was born in Linden, Texas, either in late 1867 or early 1868. He was the second of six children (the others being Monroe, Robert, William, Myrtle, and Ossie) born to Giles Joplin, an ex-slave from North Carolina, and Florence Givens, a freeborn African-American woman from Kentucky.
No matter the debate about Scott’s birthplace, the Joplins did live in Texarkana where Giles worked as a laborer for the railroad and Florence was a cleaner. Joplin’s father had played the violin for plantation parties in North Carolina, and his mother sang and played the banjo. Joplin was given a rudimentary musical education by his family and from the age of seven, he was allowed to play the piano while his mother cleaned. At some point in the early 1880s, Giles Joplin left the family for another woman.
According to a family friend, the young Joplin was serious and ambitious, studying music and playing the piano after school. While a few local teachers aided him, he received most of his music education from Julius Weiss, a German-born American Jewish music professor who had immigrated to Texas in the late 1860s and was employed as music tutor to a prominent local business family. Weiss, as described by San Diego Jewish World writer Eric George Tauber, “was no stranger to [receiving] race hatred… As a German Jew, he was often slapped and called a “Christ-killer.” Weiss had studied music at university in Germany and was listed in town records as a professor of music. Impressed by Joplin’s talent, and realizing his family’s dire straits, Weiss taught him free of charge. He tutored the 11-year-old Joplin until he was 16, during which time Weiss introduced him to folk and classical music, including opera. Weiss helped Joplin appreciate music as an “art as well as an entertainment,” and helped his mother buy a used piano. According to Weiss’ wife, Lottie, Joplin never forgot Weiss. In his later years, after achieving fame as a composer, Joplin sent his former teacher “gifts of money when he was old and ill,” until Weiss died. At the age of 16, Joplin performed in a vocal quartet with three other boys in and around Texarkana, also playing piano. In addition, he taught guitar and mandolin.
In the late 1880s, having performed at various local events as a teenager, Joplin chose to give up work as a laborer with the railroad and left Texarkana to become a traveling musician. Little is known about his movements at this time, although he is recorded in Texarkana in July 1891 as a member of the Texarkana Minstrels in a performance that happened to be raising money for a monument to Jefferson Davis, president of the Southern Confederacy. He soon discovered, however, that there were few opportunities for black pianists. Churches and brothels were among the few options for steady work. Joplin played pre-ragtime ‘jig-piano’ in various red-light districts throughout the mid-South, and some claim he was in Sedalia and St. Louis during this time.
In 1893 Joplin was in Chicago for the World’s Fair. While in Chicago, he formed his first band playing cornet and he also began arranging music for the group to perform. Although the World’s Fair minimized the involvement of African-Americans, black performers still came to the saloons, cafés and brothels that lined the fair. The exposition was attended by 27 million people from the US and had a profound effect on many areas of US cultural life, including ragtime. Although specific information is sparse, numerous sources have credited the Chicago World’s Fair with spreading the popularity of ragtime. Joplin found that his music, as well as that of other black performers, was popular with visitors. By 1897 ragtime had become a national craze in US cities, and was described by the St. Louis Dispatch as “…a veritable call of the wild, which mightily stirred the pulses of city bred people.”
In 1894 Joplin arrived in Sedalia, Missouri. At first, he stayed with the family of Arthur Marshall, at the time a 13-year-old boy but later one of Joplin’s students and a rag-time composer in his own right. There is, however, no record of Joplin having a permanent residence in the town until 1904, because he was making a living as a touring musician. There is little precise evidence known about Joplin’s activities at this time, although he performed as a solo musician at dances and at the major black clubs in Sedalia, the Black 400 club and the Maple Leaf Club. He performed in the Queen City Cornet Band, and his own six-piece dance orchestra. A tour with his own singing group, the Texas Medley Quartet, gave him his first opportunity to publish his own compositions and it is known that he went to Syracuse, New York and to Texas. Two businessmen from New York published Joplin’s first two works, the songs “Please Say You Will”, and “A Picture of her Face” in 1895. Joplin’s visit to Temple, Texas enabled him to have three pieces published there in 1896, including the “Great Crush Collision March”, which commemorated a planned train crash on the Missouri–Kansas–Texas Railroad on September 15 that he may have witnessed. The March was described by one of Joplin’s biographers as a “special… early essay in ragtime.” While in Sedalia he was teaching piano to students who included future ragtime composers Arthur Marshall, Brun Campbell, and Scott Hayden.
In 1899, Joplin married Belle, the sister-in-law of collaborator Scott Hayden. Although there were hundreds of rags in print by the time the “Maple Leaf Rag” was published, Joplin was in the thick of things very early on and quickly rose to dominance. His first published rag, “Original Rags”, had been completed in 1897, the same year as the first ragtime work in print, the “Mississippi Rag” by William Krell. The “Maple Leaf Rag” was likely to have been known in Sedalia before its publication in 1899; Brun Campbell claimed to have seen the manuscript of the work in around 1898. The exact circumstances that led to the Maple Leaf Rag’s publication are unknown, and a number of versions of the event contradict each other. After several unsuccessful approaches to publishers, Joplin signed a contract on August 10, 1899 with John Stillwell Stark, a retailer of musical instruments who later became his most important publisher. The contract stipulated that Joplin would receive a 1% royalty on all sales of the rag, with a minimum sales price of 25 cents. The “Maple Leaf Rag” served as a model for the hundreds of rags to come from future composers, especially in the development of classic ragtime. After the publication of the “Maple Leaf Rag”, Joplin was soon being described as “King of rag time writers”, not least by himself.
After the Joplins moved to St. Louis in early 1900, they had a baby daughter who died only a few months after birth. Joplin’s relationship with his wife was difficult, as she had no interest in music. They eventually separated and then divorced. About this time, Joplin collaborated with Scott Hayden in the composition of four rags. It was in St. Louis that Joplin produced some of his best-known works, including “The Entertainer”, “March Majestic”, and the short theatrical work “The Ragtime Dance”.
In June 1904, Joplin married Freddie Alexander of Little Rock, Arkansas, the young woman to whom he had dedicated “The Chrysanthemum”. She died on September 10, 1904, of complications resulting from a cold, ten weeks after their wedding. Joplin’s first work copyrighted after Freddie’s death, “Bethena”, was described by one biographer as “…an enchantingly beautiful piece that is among the greatest of ragtime waltzes.”
During this time, Joplin created an opera company of 30 people and produced his first opera A Guest of Honor for a national tour. It is not certain how many productions were staged, or even if this was an all-black show or a racially mixed production. During the tour, either in Springfield, Illinois, or Pittsburg, Kansas, someone associated with the company stole the box office receipts. Joplin could not meet the company’s payroll or pay for its lodgings at a theatrical boarding house. It is believed that the score for A Guest of Honor was lost and perhaps destroyed because of non-payment of the company’s boarding house bill.
In 1907, Joplin moved to New York City, which he believed was the best place to find a producer for a new opera. After his move to New York, Joplin met Lottie Stokes, whom he married in 1909. In 1911, unable to find a publisher, Joplin undertook the financial burden of publishing Treemonisha himself in piano-vocal format. In 1915, as a last-ditch effort to see it performed, he invited a small audience to hear it at a rehearsal hall in Harlem. Poorly staged and with only Joplin on piano accompaniment, it was “a miserable failure” to a public not ready for “crude” black musical forms—so different from the European grand opera of that time. The audience, including potential backers, was indifferent and walked out. Scott writes that “after a disastrous single performance … Joplin suffered a breakdown. He was bankrupt, discouraged, and worn out.” He concludes that few American artists of his generation faced such obstacles: “Treemonisha went unnoticed and unreviewed, largely because Joplin had abandoned commercial music in favor of art music, a field closed to African Americans.” In fact, it was not until the 1970s that the opera received a full theatrical staging.
In 1914, Joplin and Lottie self-published his “Magnetic Rag” as the Scott Joplin Music Company, which he had formed the previous December. Biographer Vera Brodsky Lawrence speculates that Joplin was aware of his advancing deterioration due to syphilis and was “…consciously racing against time.” In her sleeve notes on the 1992 Deutsche Grammophon release of Treemonisha she notes that he “…plunged feverishly into the task of orchestrating his opera, day and night, with his friend Sam Patterson standing by to copy out the parts, page by page, as each page of the full score was completed.”
By 1916, Joplin was suffering from tertiary syphilis and a resulting descent into insanity. In January 1917, he was admitted to Manhattan State Hospital, a mental institution. He died there on April 1 of syphilitic dementia at the age of 49 and was buried in a pauper’s grave that remained unmarked for 57 years. His grave at Saint Michaels Cemetery in East Elmhurst was finally given a marker in 1974, the year The Sting, which showcased his music, won for Best Picture at the Oscars.
Some years ago I promised to give my pumpkin pie recipe on a post about Thanksgiving that featured brined and smoked turkey: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/thanksgiving/ Well, I never did get around to publishing the recipe, but readers pushed me again this year, so I pulled it out of memory. It’s suitable for Joplin because it features maple syrup as a key ingredient, and maple and Joplin go together. This recipe makes a great pie which I have produced for friends and family numerous times. I’m not a fan of pumpkin, but I enjoy this pie. My main advice, though, is that it can easily be ruined by being sloppy with your ingredients. Use real pumpkin puree if you can. All this takes is cutting the meat out of a pumpkin (perhaps left over from Halloween) and using a food processor to make it into a puree. Remove all the stringy bits. If you have to use tinned pumpkin make sure it is REAL pumpkin. Processing plants often sell winter squash and call it pumpkin. Winter squash pie is fine, but it is not pumpkin pie. Use the best 100% pure maple syrup, not some cheap sugar syrup mix. I always used the finest maple syrup, darkest possible, which I bought in Vermont direct from local producers. Make the spices freshly ground if you can, or buy the best. Sri Lankan “true” cinnamon beats all others. Sweetness here comes from the condensed milk, not sugar.
© Tío Juan’s Pumpkin Pie
16 oz pumpkin puree
14 oz sweetened condensed milk
2 large eggs
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
½ tsp salt
9 inch unbaked pie crust
100% pure maple syrup
chopped filberts (hazel nuts)
Preheat the oven to 425˚F
Use a whisk or electric stand mixer to beat together the pumpkin, condensed milk, eggs, spices, and salt until you have a smooth creamy mixture. Pour the mixture into the pie crust. Bake for 15 minutes at 425˚F.
Reduce the oven temperature to 350˚F and continue baking for 20 minutes.
Very quickly drizzle the top of the pie with maple syrup, sprinkle with nuts, and return to the oven. Continue baking for an additional 15 to 20 minutes or until a toothpick pushed into the center comes out clean.
Serve hot or cold. Extra maple syrup and whipped cream won’t go amiss.