At 163 W. 131st St., just west of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, there is a plaque indicating the last residence of the great ragtime pioneer Scott Joplin. He lived there with Lottie Stokes when he died on April 1, 1917.
It may seem strange that someone from Sedalia, Mo., would spend his final days in Harlem, but such a migration and final destination is not that unusual when you consider that such luminaries as A. Philip Randolph, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman and Langston Hughes, who was born in Joplin, Mo., all made their way to and made their mark in Harlem.
Joplin, according to his biographer Edward Berlin, arrived in Harlem in 1907, well in advance of the Harlem Renaissance and four years before Randolph, who arrived in 1911 and began studying at City College. Like most of the African-Americans who came to New York City before Harlem became a haven for them, Joplin worked his way up the island, beginning in Lower Manhattan and then settling in Harlem in 1912. By this time, he had already established his place in the pantheon of American music.
We are more assured where Joplin died than where or when he was born. Somewhere in Texas and somewhere between 1867 and 1868 are the locations often cited and the years most recorded. This uncertain start of life will gather more layers of mystery and myth as his musical prowess and reputation gains wider and wider notoriety.
The first solid geographical sighting of Joplin is in Texarkana, a city that borders Texas and Arkansas. In fact, unlike many of the soldiers stationed at Fort Polk, La., who used to straddle the state line with a bottle of whiskey, knowing that one side was wet and the other side dry because alcohol was prohibited, Joplin’s family lived on both sides of the border.
Joplin’s father was a former slave and his mother a domestic worker in white homes, where reputedly Joplin first got a chance to touch a piano. His nascent talent was soon discovered by a classical pianist who gave him his first music lessons. By his teen years, Joplin’s musical progress was quite impressive, so much so that there are notices—some anecdotal—about his ability as a performer.
After attending Sedalia High School, the ever intrepid Joplin traveled to St. Louis, which at that time was a bustling cauldron of ragtime music. He returned to Sedalia after a short visit there, and then by 1893, he was in Chicago just in time for the World’s Fair. But Joplin was more than a mere visitor. He had his own small band, and with him as leader on the cornet, they performed for listeners outside the fair grounds. Back home, he would continue to front a band and began his ventures in the territory as a wandering troubadour. In 1895, he had wandered as far away as Syracuse, N.Y., where he was a member of the Texas Medley Quartette, a vocal group. It was here that Joplin stood out among the members, impressing several businessmen who put up money to publish two of his compositions—“Please Say You Will” and “A Picture of Her Face,” according to the official Scott Joplin website.
Traveling had its benefits, but Joplin was far more secure at home in Sedalia, sometimes performing as a pianist at top social clubs and mentoring a number of talented musicians, including Scott Hayden and Arthur Marshall, both of whom he would later collaborate with on ragtime compositions.
In addition to his early classical training, Joplin took classes at George R. Smith College in Sedalia, an institution founded by a group of Methodists. The college was destroyed in a fire in 1925 and thus there is no record of Joplin’s achievements there as a student.
Whatever lessons he acquired there—and the notation of music may have been the biggest asset—they may have been inconsequential for his emerging genius, which became increasingly evident by 1898 with the publication of several rags, none more lucrative than “Original Rags.” This venture was not without controversy, because Joplin had to share the composition with another arranger.
This experience was not wasted on Joplin, who retained a lawyer when he approached noted music publisher John Stark with his famous “The Maple Leaf Rag,” which, despite a one-cent royalty, was popular enough to earn Joplin a steady income for years.
“Sales in the first year were slight, only about 400,” according to the official website. “This is probably because Stark was at the time only a small-town publisher, and the ‘Maple Leaf’ is a difficult piece to play. But as ‘Maple Leaf’ became known, sales increased substantially. By 1909, approximately a half-million copies had been sold, and that rate was to continue for the next two decades.”
“The Maple Leaf Rag” put Joplin on the charts, so to speak, and it wasn’t long before he was once again on tour, only this time with much more celebrity and revenue. All of this was enhanced by the relocation of his publisher to the more populous St. Louis. During the succeeding years, Joplin was a prolific composer with rags spilling from his pen with a pace that even astounded his publisher and the various orchestras clamoring for his latest production.
While the proliferation of rags was the main breadwinner for Joplin, this did not replace his desire to write an opera, which he completed and submitted to a publisher without any success. The opera was “Treemonisha,” largely a tribute to his mother that was based her experiences as well as some of the encounters endured by his future wife, Freddie Alexander. The narrative of the opera focuses on the travails of Treemonisha and how she, as the only educated member of her community, leads her townspeople out of bondage. Clearly, the underlying proposition here is the influential role of education as a factor toward liberation.
For all of its promise and prospects, Joplin was to never see the opera fully staged and performed. He apparently spent so much time and energy on getting the opera mounted that his output of rags was severely diminished, which, of course, had a negative effect on income for him and his new wife, Lottie. At some point, Joplin contracted tertiary syphilis and had to be hospitalized in the winter of 1917. By the spring, he was dead.
His musical legacy was revived in 1974 when one of his compositions, “The Entertainer,” was the theme song for the film “The Sting.” It was during this same period that “Treemonisha” was finally given a full staging.
Those of you interested in hearing Joplin at the keyboard, captured on a piano roll, can go to YouTube. Several other performances are also available on the site.
If you are among those of greater interest and with a bit more capital, there is the annual Scott Joplin Music Festival in Sedalia each June. For more information, visit www.scottjoplin.org/foundation.htm.
FIND OUT MORE
Ragtime is the music associated with Scott Joplin, but what is it and does it differ from other music? To get an understanding of this genre of music is not that difficult; it’s just a matter of giving it a close listen and researching what is meant by syncopation.
Joplin was born out West but migrated to the East. What do you believe was his motivation and why was New York City his destination? He never lived to see his opera performed. What may have been some reasons why it was not staged during his lifetime?
PLACE IN CONTEXT
Joplin arrived in Harlem in 1912, and this was just after the community began to blossom into what it is today. Who were some of the other early pioneers of this era and what might have been their connection to Joplin?