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Dancing to a Black Man's Tune:
A Life of Scott Joplin
University of Missouri Press (2004)
Scott Joplin Piano Rags
Joshua Rifkin, piano
Nonesuch 79159 (1990)
Scott Joplin's Treemonisha
Original Cast Recording
Polygram 435709 (1992)
Joplin: Easy Winners
Itzhak Perlman & André Previn
EMI Classics 47170 (1990)
Composers -> Joplin, Scott
The specifics of Scott Joplin's date and place of birth are not
entirely clear, but it is now thought that he was born in East
Texas about 1867. An authoritative biography is Dancing
to a Black Man's Tune: A Life of Scott Joplin, written by
Susan Curtis and published in 2004 by the University of Missouri
Press. Susan Curtis is Professor of History and American
Studies at Purdue University.
His father was a former slave who worked as a laborer. His
mother was born free in Kentucky. Both played musical
instruments, and Scott and his five siblings were raised in a
musical environment in which singing, fiddles and banjos were
common. Africana Encyclopedia describes Scott's early musical
When the family moved to Texarkana, Arkansas, in
the mid-1870s, the city environment benefited
Joplin's musical development. His mother worked
as a domestic servant, and her white employers
allowed her son to play their piano. Joplin's father,
who had come to Texarkana for the good wages of
railroad work, bought his son a used piano as soon
as he could afford one.
At the age of 11 the boy learned the basics of music theory from
a local musician with classical training. Joplin left home while
still a teenager, and it is thought that he then supported
himself as an itinerant pianist working at bars and brothels in
such places as St. Louis, Memphis and Dallas.
2 Midway Pianist
Africana Encyclopedia recounts that in 1893 Joplin was in
Chicago during an exposition which was comparable to a World's
In 1893 Joplin emerged as a well-practiced
musician at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, where he probably played along
the Midway Plaisance. Although white
management excluded African Americans from
the official program of concerts, black pianists
entertained fairgoers along the exposition's
Joplin attended performances of well-known pianists at the
event, where he also met his friend and partner Otis Saunders. For the next two years they were part of a traveling quartet
which performed pieces composed by Joplin.
Joplin and Saunders found a favorable environment for African
American musicians in Sedalia, Missouri, where they took up
residence in 1894. They concluded that a market existed for
sheet music of Joplin's compositions. Africana Encyclopedia
In Sedalia, Joplin married Belle Jones, wrote
pieces for the Queen City Band, took a course in
music composition at the George R. Smith College
for Negroes, and, most importantly, began to
peddle his music.
Maple Leaf Rag
At first Joplin encountered rejections, and was unable to make
any substantial sales, but then he sold Maple Leaf Rag to a
white businessman, John Stark. The piece was an instant success,
and its first printing of 10,000 copies sold out quickly. More
than half a million copies were sold by 1909. Stark and Joplin
signed a contract and both moved to St. Louis, Missouri. There
Stark promoted his client vigorously, giving him the nickname
King of Ragtime. Subsequent hits included Peacherine Rag
and The Entertainer in 1902. Joplin attempted to establish
himself as a composer of larger-scale works, with a folk ballet
called The Ragtime Dance in 1902 and a 1903 opera
A Guest of
Honor, but neither work was performed widely.
Susan Curtis writes on page 94
that Scott Joplin's Weeping Willow was published in 1903.
We read on Page 147 that it was among the songs of which Joplin
cut piano rolls. W", eeping Willow: A Ragtime Two-Step
(2:51) has been recorded by clarinetist Marcus Eley and
pianist Lucerne DeSa in an arrangement by Eley on the CD But
Not Forgotten: Music by African-American Composers for Clarinet
& Piano; Sono Luminus DSL-92156 (2012). Marcus Eley
writes in the liner notes:
title, "Weeping Willow", gives one the impression of a
swaying weeping willow tree in a calm breeze. In
this arrangement, the clarinet and piano alternate
equally between the playful syncopated melodies.
Throughout this "Rag" the tempo is not hurried as Joplin
instructs NOT FAST. The stately opening melody is
majetic but no pompous. One can feel the inner
pulse of each section. Like two well-suited
partners, the clarinet and piano are mindful of each
step through the dance.
6 Piano Rags
Some of Joplin's most famous ragtime pieces are performed by
pianist Roy Eaton on the CD Piano Rags, Sony SBK 62 833
(1995). Eaton writes in the liner notes:
Joy - no other word better describes the feeling
that the music of Scott Joplin evokes from the
listener and the performer. This joy, however, is
tinged with irony, for these pieces were composed
by a man whose life was in many respects one of
frustration and tragedy. An African American who
sought both legitimacy and recognition for ragtime
as an art form, Joplin was doubly cursed by his
dream. As a black, he lived at a time when the legal system not only left so many people of color
without civil liberty, but denigrated every aspect of
their culture, too.
Joplin became a fixture in the ragtime craze with
the publication of his Maple Leaf Rag in 1899, and
his name became synonymous with ragtime. Still, he dreamed of the legitimization of his music as
an art form, and even went so far as to compose
three operas, the best known of which, Treemonisha, was ignored in his own lifetime.
When Joplin died in 1917 from an advanced case
of syphilis, both he and his ragtime had been
forgotten in favor of another new rage, jazz. It
would not be for another half-century, when
Joplin's The Entertainer was used as the theme
music for the film The Sting, that Joplin's
extraordinary contribution to American musical life
was finally acknowledged.
New inventions such as phonographs and player pianos caused the
market for sheet music to decline markedly by 1906. Personal
tragedies also struck. Joplin's first child died when only a few
months old, and his wife Belle Joplin also died a short time
later. Joplin soon moved to New York City, where he published a
study guide for ragtime pianists, School of Ragtime, in 1908. In
the following year he produced Wall Street Rag
and Paragon Rag. Africana Encyclopedia relates the
final tragedy in Joplin's life:
In 1916 Joplin began to exhibit advanced signs of
syphilis, and in 1917 he died in a psychiatric ward,
diagnosed with dementia.
Upon his death on April 1, 1917, Joplin was survived by his
second wife, Lottie Stokes Joplin. His creative output was large
and noteworthy, but it was neglected for decades.
In 1911 Joplin published the
The work was said to contain some of his best music. One theater
agreed to produce it, but later reneged.
was first staged in a concert performance in Atlanta, Georgia by
the Afro-American Music Workshop of Morehouse College and the
Atlanta Symphony under Robert Shaw, conductor. Dr.
Dominique-René de Lerma recalls:
The Atlanta production
ran for two consecutive nights to full (and mixed)
houses in late January 1972. This was the original
version via T.J. Anderson.
The choreographer and stage
director was the famed African American dancer Katherine Dunham.
Uzee Brown, Jr. made his operatic debut in the role of Parson
On January 30, 1972
The New York Times
published a review by Harold C. Schonberg:
“Treemonisha” - the libretto was his own – Joplin
clearly intended to author a social as well as musical
document. He set up the forces of ignorance and
superstition against liberalism and education
represented by a young lady named Treemonisha.”
“Morehouse College, aided by a Rockefeller grant, gave
“Treemonisha” an ambitious performance. Thomas J.
Anderson, a visiting professor at the college,
orchestrated the opera in a style that follows the one
example of Joplin's orchestration that has come down to
The opera concludes with “A
Real Slow Drag.” Schonberg writes:
This slow drag is
amazing. Harmonically enchanting, full of the tensions
of an entire race, rhythmically catching, it refuses to
leave the mind. Talk about soul music!
The opera's professional
premiere is generally considered to have been the 1975
production of the Houston Grand Opera, for which Gunther
Schuller produced the orchestration. The music can be heard on
an original cast recording, Polygram 435709 (1992).
The Treemonisha Overture (9:37) has been recorded by the Italian
pianist Marco Fumo on Dynamic CDS 351 (2000). The CD includes
works for piano by four other composers, including Duke
Ellington, James Price Johnson and William Grant Still.
The author of the liner notes is Marcello Piras, a Black Music
The first piece is the Overture from the opera
Treemonisha, which Scott Joplin completed in 1911.
The composers's orchestration has been lost: the
one used nowadays was written with fond
commitment by Gunther Schuller. Joplin
published the score for piano and voice at his own
expense, where the Overture and the Prelude to
Act III appear as perfectly idiomatic piano pieces.
Following the traditional rules of operatic writing,
in the Overture Joplin patches together the main
themes of Treemonisha; each of them has a
symbolic meaning and/or is associated with a
character, an environment or an episode. Those
who ignore the opera libretto can therefore miss
out on the hidden meaning of the Overture: it
foreshadows the fight between good and evil,
between the light of reason and the darkness of
superstition, which is at the core of the opera. It
was a question that obsessed Joplin in the last
years of his life.
11 The Entertainer
The revival of interest in the life and music of Scott Joplin
began with a book by Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, They All
Played Ragtime: The True Story of an American Music. It was
published in 1950 by Alfred Knopf. It has since been revised
twice and issued in paperback. Another milestone came in 1970
with the release of recordings of the composer's piano rags by
the renowned pianist Joshua Rifkin. What made Joplin's ragtime
music the rage again was the 1973 movie The Sting. The use of
The Entertainer in the film score made the tune a hit on the pop
music charts. Even Treemonisha won belated
recognition, with three productions in the 1970s. In 1976
the Pulitzer Board announced:
special award is bestowed posthumously on Scott Joplin,
in this Bicentennial Year, for his contributions to
Hundreds of additional recordings have made the music of Scott
Joplin available on CD. The sound track of the film
The Sting includes arrangements and compositions of
Marvin Hamlisch on MCA 11836 (1998). Pianist Alexander Peskanov
has recorded a disc entitled Scott Joplin Piano Rags,
Naxos 8.559114. On Jean-Pierre Rampal Plays
Joplin, Rampal and four accompanists interpret Joplin
rags on flute, piccolo, whistle, harpsichord, drums and other
instruments. The CD is CBS Masterworks 37818 (1990).
www.mfiles.co.uk/composers/scott-joplin.htm (MIDI) - Brief illustrated biography with links to
downloadable sheet music and sound files.
www.scottjoplin.org/biography.htm - Article by Edward Berlin for The Scott Joplin
International Ragtime foundation.
The Rag-Time Collection
- The Kunst Der
Fuge / OnClassical Historical Piano Rolls Collection.
http://www.trachtman.org/ragtime/index.htm (MIDI) - Ragtime Piano MIDI files by Warren Trachtman.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_Joplin - Biography and extensive list of musical works. Excerpt: "In mid-January 1917 Joplin was hospitalized at
Manhattan State Hospital in New York City, and friends recounted
that he would have bursts of lucidity in
which he would jot down lines of music hurriedly before
This page was last updated
July 30, 2012