100 Years of the Maple Leaf Rag
THE EXPLOSIVE POPULARITY of the Maple Leaf Rag, like so many other seminal events in American history, was founded on fortuitous circumstance. The club that inspired the song functioned for only a year and a half. Scott Joplin, the composer, spent only a few years of his life in Sedalia before he moved on to St. Louis and New York. The music publisher met Joplin only by chance; one story has it that he liked the music he heard one day when he stopped off for a beer.
It was in all ways an unlikely combination. And yet it happened - with the result that later this month, Sedalia, Missouri, will be throwing a party to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its most famous export: Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag.
Joplin wasn't the only composer of ragtime in the 1890s, or even the first one. The new music, which blended march tempos, minstrel-show songs, and the "ragged" or syncopated rhythms, was percolating throughout the Midwest wherever African-American musicians gathered. St. Louis and Chicago, with its World's Fair, were magnets for musicians experimenting with new styles.
But Joplin was the decisive ragtime composer, the one whose musical imagination gave ragtime its finest expression. And in the Maple Leaf Rag (named for a short-lived Sedalia social club), he gave the genre its iconic masterpiece. It was also ragtime's biggest hit. The phenomenal success of the Maple Leaf Rag sparked a nationwide ragtime craze. Hundreds and hundreds of rags were published. One entrepreneur even opened a chain of ragtime instruction schools, including a branch in Honolulu. Just as with jazz, rock 'n' roll, and rap, there were those who fulminated against the new trend ("The counters of the music stores are loaded with this virulent poison"). But the tide turned quickly. By 1905 even the President's daughter could be a ragtime fan:
And ragtime could have been like other fads in popular culture: famous for 15 minutes. But instead, Joplin's goal of creating works that would be both popular and "art" music seems to echo through American music: in the careers of Gershwin, Ellington, Bernstein, Mingus, Sondheim, and many others. And 100 years later, as some of the following suggests, ragtime continues to revive and reappear, not only in the musical world, but in literature, film, and theater.
The Ragtime Timeline
1868 Scott Joplin is born in North Texas, the son of a former slave.
As a young man, he takes up piano and several other instruments and plays for dances and shows. His formal musical education seems to have been brief; all the same, he forms the goal of creating popular music that would have the prestige and cultivating force of "art" music. In the 1890s, he settles in Sedalia and meets John Stark, a music-store owner who will become his publisher. In one version, Stark is in a club having a beer when he first hears Joplin's music. (As with much of Joplin's biography, the real facts are hard to ascertain.)
1899 Publication of the Maple Leaf Rag. Sales are slow at first, but then it becomes a nationwide best-seller. Music publishers churn out hundreds of rags to capitalize on the trend. A typical one will feature crude stereotypes of African-Americans on the cover and forgettable formulaic music on the inside.
In the midst of all this, Joplin will insist on the excellence and restraint of what will become known as "classic ragtime" - as Stark's advertisements put it, "as high-class as Chopin."
1903 The first recording of Maple Leaf Rag is made, in Minneapolis. No copies are known to survive.
1907 Joplin moves to New York. He composes pieces such as Solace, Pineapple Rag, and Wall Street Rag, and his most ambitious work, the opera Treemonisha.
1907 In Paris, Claude Debussy writes his rag-inflected Golliwog's Cakewalk. (The cakewalk was one of the ancestors of the rag.) Other modernists who will help themselves to ragged rhythms are Erik Satie, Igor Stravinsky, and Paul Hindemith.
1911 Irving Berlin writes "Alexander's Ragtime Band." Did he steal the melody from Joplin? According to one tradition, yes; but ragtime scholars are unable to verify it.
1917 Joplin's last years are not happy ones. He continues to grow as a composer, but is dogged by the symptoms of the syphilis that will kill him, and frustrated by his inability to secure a production of Treemonisha. A year before his death. Joplin makes a piano roll of Maple Leaf Rag. A unique document, but his health is failing and the playing is full of mistakes. Joplin dies in 1917, at 49.
1918 Young pianists like James P. Johnson and Jelly Roll Morton are studying and performing Joplin's works, but introduce elements of rhythmic drive, showmanship, and improvisation. New styles are being created: stride piano, and jazz, which will eclipse ragtime as a popular trend.
1950 Authors Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis interview surviving veterans of the golden age of ragtime, including Joplin's widow Lottie, and write an important book, They All Played Ragtime.
1970s In the '50s and '60s, ragtime leads a fringe existence. It spawns the occasional novelty hit. It can be heard in Gay '90s-style saloons, and for some reason, Shakey's pizza parlors. But quietly, here and there, change is stirring. In small numbers, musicians - many of them classical composers and academics by day - are beginning to look at ragtime in fresh ways. Composers like William Bolcom and William Albright write new rags. Joshua Rifkin, a musicologist and expert on baroque music, makes a recording of Joplin rags for the Nonesuch label. In contrast to the "honky-tonk" style that most people associate with ragtime, Rifkin's performances are elegant, wistful, slow. The record becomes a best-seller. Gunther Schuller rediscovers the arrangements used by bandsmen in Joplin's day (the "Red Back Book"): it too is a best-seller. Joplin becomes the dominant composer on the classical charts. The great ragtime revival of the 1970s is underway. Soon, ragtime shows up everywhere, from recitals to TV commercials.
1975 E. L. Doctorow publishes his novel, "Ragtime," which investigates themes of race, class, and injustice. It melds historical characters like Houdini and Stanford White with fictional ones, including a Joplin-like musician named Coalhouse Walker. In the same year, Treemonisha is produced on Broadway.
1976 Joplin, now more widely recognized than he ever was in his life, is awarded a special Pulitzer Prize in music.
1981 The movie version of Doctorow's
Ragtime appears, with a score by Randy Newman and a cameo appearance by James
1999 Ragtime continues to suggest possibilities to composers.The newest offshoot, the Terra Verde style, uses abundant Latin rhythm (as did Joplin's Solace). Some composers: Brian Keenan, Hal Isbitz, David Thomas Roberts.
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