Volume V, No. 2, Winter 1977
Missouri's contribution to the Music World
Story by Rebecca Baldwin, Photography by Mike Doolin
"Joplin always wrote with a touch of melancholy. It's what makes his music so meaningful-so bittersweet."
The word bittersweet literally means bitterness and sweetness combined, pleasure mixed with overtones of sadness. Trebor Tichenor, who is an accomplished ragtime pianist and a professor of its history at Washington University in St. Louis used this fitting description of Scott Joplin's music.
Professor Tichenor was not the first person to use bittersweet in such a context. Many other people found that one word sufficiently expressed the meaning and feeling of the music written by the King of Ragtime Composers. The haunting, meaningful melodies of this unique music lived on to affect not only the many other succeeding forms of popular music up to rock and roll but also the people who were touched by its bittersweet message.
Scott Joplin is the important figure in Missouri ragtime history. Born in Texarkana, Texas, in 1869, Joplin grew up in the musical atmosphere of his musically talented family. A German professor gave him formal piano lessons at no charge when his parents provided him with a piano to practice on. The classical influence from these lessons is evident in the technical difficulty of Joplin's later compositions.
Joplin's family moved to St. Louis in 1885 where he began playing ragtime at bars and saloons--the only places a black man could find a job as a musician. When he was not performing, he was usually passing the time in a back room because the racially prejudiced owners did not want a black man mingling with white patrons. During the 80's Joplin wandered around in southern Missouri, absorbing Missouri folk music and making musical contact with others experimenting with this new musical form.
In 1896 he moved to Sedalia where he seriously began his work which would enrich Missouri history and contribute to musical heritage everywhere.
There were two almost contradictory reasons Joplin chose to live in Sedalia. In the first place Sedalia's economy was based on railroading which brought in many travelers and businessmen waiting for train connections, as well as being headquarters for many railroad employees. This situation caused Sedalia to have one of the largest bawdyhouse districts in the Midwest. The accompanying saloons in these houses of ill repute were the places ragtime was allowed to be played. While working at the Maple Leaf Club in this red light or sporting district, Joplin was instrumental in bringing ragtime out of these places to the more respectable side of the tracks.
The second reason Joplin moved to Sedalia was to enroll in the George R. Smith College. This college was one of the first colleges for Blacks north of the Mason-Dixon line and the only place in the Midwest where a black man could get a college education. Joplin came to Sedalia with many musical ideas drumming in the back of his head that he did not quite know how to express. He studied music composition and theory at the college to learn how to express these ideas on paper.
Joplin's dream of making people realize the respectability and originality of ragtime music proved to be a difficult task indeed. Ragtime existed in a vicious cycle of racial prejudice. If a black man wished to make his living as a musician, he was forced to perform in brothels and saloons. Consequently, respectable people shunned this music as sinful and evil and would not allow it to be played. Ministers preached against it as instruments of the devil. Joplin's task was indeed difficult.
While Joplin was entertaining in the saloon and studying in college, he was also composing. In 1897 his first ragtime composition, "Original Rags," was published in Kansas City and became a mild success. Then a break-through came to Joplin that was a significant help to his career. He met John Stark, the owner of a small piano and sheet music store in Sedalia, who became impressed with Joplin's music. They formed a partner ship--Joplin composed, Stark published. Their friendship and partnership was one of the first examples of the blurring of racial color lines in the American music world.
Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" published by Stark in 1899 became a tremendous success in that time, selling a half million copies of sheet music by 1909, the first piece to ever become so popular. This was the beginning of the era of popular music. No other single piece of popular music has ever been so influential. Though selling a half million copies of sheet music in ten years does not seem like very much compared to the smash hits and gold records of today, in the early twentieth century when there had never been a musical business hit and selling of sheet music its only measure of popularity, it was quite an accomplishment. "Maple Leaf Rag's" immense popularity imediately set the style for other ragtime compositions. When a new rag (as these compositions were called) was published, it was naturally compared with the "Maple Leaf Rag" for quality.
Joplin's dream for ragtime music was at least partially fulfilled when the general public accepted ragtime and made it popular. But although the success and popularity of "Maple Leaf" and other rags was assured, many people doubted it would last in the music world. In 1901 the American Federation of Musicians prohibited its members from playing ragtime. An article from Metronome Magazine in that year states, "Ragtime's days are numbered. We are sorry to think that anyone should imagine that ragtime is of the least musical importance. It was a popular wave in the wrong direction."
Joplin's ambition for ragtime was the exact opposite. It was his dream that ragtime be more than just a fad. He was determined to make ragtime permanently remembered in the musical world just as were the well known and revered works of Mozart, Bach and other classical musicians.
For this reason Joplin was unhappy with the trend of popular rags. He thought that some performers in the saloons and other honky tonks cheapened its image by playing it extremely fast and showy and adding their own improvisations. This cheap flashy ragtime which was fostered by Tin Pan Alley, the New York Publishers and composers of popular music, was in no way connected with the classic ragtime that Scott Joplin played and made popular. In Joplin's classic ragtime the music has a formally structured format. His music is more demanding, having heavier textures and chords with the harmony resembling that of classical European music.
Two years after the success of "Maple Leaf" Joplin and Stark moved to St. Louis and set up a publishing business that remained in full swing from Joplin's continuous string of rags. St. Louis was making plans for the World's Fair to be held in 1904, bringing in thousands of visitors. The completion of Eads Bridge, the only bridge across the Mississippi River, made St. Louis the railroad crossroads of America and as a result, the Union Station became one of the busiest railroad stations in the country. The area surrounding the station developed into one of the biggest red light districts in the country and also made St. Louis the ragtime capital.
Surprisingly, railroading played a significant role in ragtime's early history. Railroading was the economic basis for the three cities important in the early development of ragtime, Sedalia, Kansas city and St. Louis. Besides the economic value of moving freight and all the commerce and people associated with it, railroads provided the principal mode of transportation, linking together the ragtime centers. Saloons, brothels and gambling joints mushroomed around the train stations serving the traffic of people, including traveling salesmen and drummers of different kinds, who would take with them memories of the rags they heard performed.
Like Joplin and Stark, ragtime musicians flocked to St. Louis which was teeming with hopeful ragtimers and their music trying to meet the right people and be in the right place at the right time. Not only simpler, improvised rags, but also classic ragtime compositions were performed in the saloons. The Rosebud Club was at one time the ragtime mecca of St. Louis. Anyone visiting this building on the corner of 22nd and Market Streets around 1900 would hear the best of classic ragtime.
Joplin's success with popular rags fostered his interest in writing serious pieces of music that would be remembered. In 1902 Stark published his first such work, a ragtime opera entitled "A Guest of Honor." Its actual plot is still a mystery because it was never recorded in the Library of Congress and is lost today. "A Guest of Honor" was a total failure.
Joplin attempted another serious project in 1903 with a ragtime ballet entitled "A Ragtime Dance," which also failed, but instead of putting a damper on his spirit, this failure left him with more incentive to produce a success.
In between his serious attempts Joplin composed several successful popular rags from 1903 to 1910. He had grown and expanded within the formal structure he himself had created, so that as the years progressed, Joplin's music became still more difficult and complex. Trebor Tichenor said of Joplin's style, "Joplin is really the only ragtime composer who evolved through the years. He got into something for about one or two years, then his style started evolving. He'd change and start doing different things and different rags."
"The Entertainer," published in 1903, was one example of Joplin's changing style and flowing, lyrical genius. His style and difficult music were a challenge to piano players of the day and he challenged them again and again with a series of gentle and reflective rags named after flowers. "The Chrysanthemum Rag," "Rose Leaf Rag," Gladiolus Rag" and others are still remembered today.
Joplin's constant striving to mold ragtime into the European classical tradition led to his final serious work. His previous failures had inspired him to put forth his best effort, so for five years he worked on another ragtime opera entitled "Treemonisha." Joplin experienced tremendous emotional and financial strain during the long years of "Treemonisha's" formation because Stark refused to sponsor another possible failure. As a result, Joplin drained his life savings for financial backing of his pet project. He finally had something to show for his diligent efforts in 1911. "Treemonisha" was performed only once before his death. Joplin rented an auditorium in New York and hired some black singers who performed in street clothes because costumes were too expensive. Since he did not have enough money to hire an orchestra either, he used a piano as the only musical accompaniment. The critics were extremely harsh and censorious leaving Joplin terribly hurt and embittered at the total failure of his most cherished project.
Had "Treemonisha" been performed today, the idea of an all-black contemporary folk opera would probably be well received by modern critics. Since the public and critics at that time were used to lavish productions and mostly entertaining plots, the simple stage and complicated plot of "Treemonisha" had no appeal in 1911.
After "Treemonisha's" failure, Joplin's mental health deteriorated. His subsequent rags reflected his bitterness and disenchantment. He composed no more rags after 1915 as his health continued to decline. By March of 1917 he was a patient in a mental hospital and the following April the King of Ragtime Composers died penniless and embittered.
Joplin's death was a result of many different things. His insanity was caused in part by the syphillis he contracted as a young man--syphillis being a fact of life where Joplin and his music began. His personal life was another failure--a baby daughter died from genetically infected syphillis and his marriage broke up shortly after her death. The failures of the works that meant so much to him--"A Guest of Honor, A Ragtime Dance" and "Treemonisha"--only added to his troubled state of mind.
John Stark wrote, "Scott Joplin is dead. A homeless itinerant, he left his mark on American
music." Joplin died a troubled man, years ahead of his time in technical brilliance and genius. He
was oblivious to the fact that his dream would be completely fulfilled some sixty years later with
the music world's acceptance of ragtime as an established and recognized form of music.
THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
The bittersweet music of Missouri has an unusual name and an unusual origin.
There are many different opinions as to the origins of the name ragtime. No one can quite decide on one particular viewpoint, but there are some interesting theories. It was originally called jig piano as it was closely related to the jig bands that played music to which people jigged. There was no known reason for the change in names, but somehow or other it became known as ragged-time around 1896. This name was then shortened to ragtime which was easier to say. The "ragged" is probably a description of the broken, jagged, uneven rhythm in the melodic line of the right hand. Although ragtime was a catchy name (and names and titles were very important in the public appeal of rags) Scott Joplin did not like the name and called it "scurrilous."
The actual musical history of this music is just as interesting and original as the name. Many different African, European and American influences were jumbled together to create this first truly original American music. The two main elements that influenced ragtime were on completely opposite ends of the scale both musically and socially, because Joplin incorporated the snycopations of African tribal dances, songs and slave rhythms with the harmony and march style common to European music.
Ragtime's African influence showed itself in the melody and syncopation played by the right hand. These rhythms, originating in Africa's native tribes and brought to the United States by the slaves, were kept alive on the Southern plantations through spirituals and work songs. Although the Negro spirituals and folk tunes of the plantations were usually accompanied with a banjo, some of their main elements and principles were used to help create the polished piano music of Scott Joplin. The banjo was easily made from available materials on the plantations where the slaves worked.
Gary Ellison, the official Missouri ragtime pianist, explained how slaves sometime made a banjo. "Just kill the neighborhood cat and cut a round circle out of a stump and stretch the innards of a cat over that thing, and string out some more guts to make the strings, and you've got a banjo on Your hands." A banjo in the hands of Blacks made light, syncopated, rhythmic music and inspired Scott Joplin and others to adapt it to help create a new form of music performed mostly on the piano.
Ragtime's African influence was only part of the story. The other--ragtime's European influence--was in the harmony of ragtime and its traditional European march form. The steady beat of the march gave some order to the sporadic African rhythms, and the European harmony and chords refined the bold snycopations. The European aspect of ragtime was important to Joplin because he wanted ragtime to compare with the music of the European masters--not waved aside as a fad or popular craze of an era.
Other European influences on ragtime came from the Anglo-Celtic and French and Spanish folk hymns, jigs, reels and ballads. As he moved about in the !880's Joplin absorbed the religious and secular folk music influence from both the Negro and Caucassian races and added it to the polish and sophistocation derived from his knowledge and love of European classical music.
Back in 1897 when ragtime first came out, it was extremely risqué and daring in comparison to popular music like Stephen Foster's directly preceding ragtime. The music of Foster and earlier composers was played with the hands very close together on the piano. The only place where that type of arrangement is found today is in old Methodist and Baptist hymnals. Ragtime separated the hands and using the whole key board gave different rhythms to each hand. The left hand emphasized the 1-2-3-4 rhythm of the European march and the right the snycopations of the African music.
Even before ragtime people had taken different folk tunes and melodies and had lumped them all together to form a medley or a string of different songs, one added to another. Although ragtime incorporated some of the same principles--borrowing different rhythms and music--these jumbled tunes were still just a predecessor of ragtime. Ragtime incorporated these various medleys and rhythms all together at the same time into a completely different and original music.
Although no accurate documents exist because of the lack of recordings at that time to show ragtime's development, some sheet music that has survived points to the fact that the whole background--the slightly uncivilized African music, the incorporation of many types of local folk music and the refined European music--all had an influence on ragtime. Ragtime, brought to its perfection by Scott Joplin, gave Missouri and the nation the first original music of the United States.
"IT'S A DOOZY"
Because ragtime is a completely original music there is much more to it than meets the ear. The basic fundamentals do not seem quite so simple when they are analyzed. The rhythms and the structure of a rag are pretty complicated and the style of playing is extremely challenging. All that can be said for ragtime in general is, "It's a doozy."
Basically ragtime consists of a steady, even march beat played by the left hand and a syncopated melody played by the right hand. This may not seem too difficult when printed in words on a piece of paper, but when actually played, two totally different rhythms with a different hand for each takes a lot of coordination to play correctly. The time signature is usually 1/2 or ~ which means four beats in a measure and two beats in a measure, respectively. The bass line (played by the left hand) is steady and precise with regularly accented beats on counts 1-2, etc. The syncopation enters in the melody line which is played by the right hand. The syncopated notes are played in between the beats of the bass line--on the off-beats--so the hands do not play at the same time.
Besides requiring a technical efficiency and command of the keyboard, ragtime also requires a good reach of the hands and long fingers, because the rhythms and harmonies of a rag demand a wide range on the keys. In most rags there is at least an octave (eight note) reach with other more demanding ones requiring a ten note reach.
The technical precision and difficulty of ragtime is matched by the complexity of the structure and form of a rag itself. Any rag is composed and put together like a formula. Even though the formula is the same for most rags, the contents that are put into the form identify each rag much like a fingerprint. Because of the strict structure of the formula, each rag is as precisely put together as a fine Swiss watch.
The general form that most rags follow is called the Maple Leaf form, the one used by Joplin in the very popular "Maple Leaf Rag." This formula is AABBACCDD with each letter telling how many times and in what order each particular strain or theme is played. A, the first theme, is played once and then repeated. The B, or second theme, is played once and repeated also. Then the A theme is played again, but only once. At C the key changes and this theme is played and repeated too. The final theme, D, is also played and repeated either in the original key or the same key as C.
Ragtime usually has three to five different themes or strains with sixteen measures in each strain. A theme or strain is a musical phrase used throughout the piece with variations on the same general melody and changes in key signature. These patterns and variations make a rag complex.
Because of this complicated pattern, the composer intends for the pianist to adhere strictly to the written music. Joplin formulated the pattern because he did not want any improvisational liberties taken, just as no one would think of taking liberites with Chopin. Ironically, however, ragtime first began as an improvised art, but by formulating this pattern and writing specific directions on the sheet music, Joplin tried (in vain) to prevent the variety which led to the brittle rinky-tink sameness that eventually killed ragtime.
Joplin censored ragtime's tempo (playing speed) as well as its structure and variations. The flashy, showy performers of early ragtime would play just as fast as they could to exhibit their technical ability, though the rags with which they demonstrated this were not meant to be played in that manner. Joplin advised, "Play slowly until you catch the swing, and never play ragtime fast at any time."
Trebor Tichenor agreed. "If you play Joplin's music really fast you ruin it. Joplin said in his rags that you should achieve the intoxicating effect--sort of a beautiful flowing style. The only rag of his you can play fast and still sound good is "Maple Leaf."
The technical brilliance and originality of ragtime music is still with us today because of Joplin's insistence on structual patterns, formulas and instructions printed directly on the sheet music.
FLARE AND FEELING
The style in which ragtime is played is just as important as all the patterns and formulas and syncopations. Ragtime music would be lacking greatly if played with only practiced accuracy with no style or feeling whatsoever.
The dance feeling was the single most vital impulse behind the creation of ragtime and cannot be over-emphasized today. A performer who plays only correct notes and rhythms cannot compel feet to tap and hands to clap as can a performer that possesses the true feeling and swinging rhythm. Although classic ragtime was and is written mostly for listening pleasure, it still has an intoxicating effect on its audience. There were many rags written solely for dancing pleasure and many people enjoyed dancing to a syncopated melody.
The feeling for playing the original ragtime style has to be developed and learned just as do the technique and playing accuracy of the notes and syncopation. Professor Tichenor explained, "Music is just a matter of plugging away at it--practicing and practicing--kicking the piano a few times--cussing until you get it right."
The music of James Scott, Joplin's pupil and friend, evolved and became much more daring, difficult and complex, partially because of the wide rage of notes he used. He would jump up and down the keys playing a phrase with an even larger octave spread than was written. The difficulty of these and other rags became more and more above the average person's playability, thus lessening their popularity. If people could not play the sheet music, they would not buy.
Since the music of Joplin and those he influenced was so difficult, other composers wrote rags that were easier for the average person to play. One man who was responsible for this more popular style was Charles Johnson of Kansas City. In 1906 Johnson wrote a rag entitled "Dill Pickles" that established a new pattern which was so popular it set the style like "Maple Leaf" had done seven years earlier. More and more rags after 1906 used the "Dill Pickles" pattern--a repeated three-note melody against a four note bass, appropriately called three over four.
Besides having easier sheet music, another way in which ragtime became more popular was the transformation tradition, a method by which any piece of music could be transformed into a ragtime tune. At one time there was a whole chain of schools that published instruction books that taught people to transform songs like "Home Sweet Home" into rags. Even though it was completely separate from the idea of composing original music, transformed rag tunes became a big part of the ragtime era, about equal in popularity with original ragtime compositions.
Many times a hymn or spiritual or something far away from ragtime would be transformed. Tichenor illustrates this on the soundsheet in this issue by playing "By and By" first as an example of a regular hymn, then as a ragged tune. Though the tune is still recognizable, there is a noticeable difference.
The classical rags of Scott Joplin, James Scott and classic rags in general are not usually improvised upon today, nor were they in the past. They are detailed and complex and meant to be played as they are written. The simpler rags played by the common preformers in the saloons had room for improvisation, usually in the left hand. Most of these earlier performers played ragtime using not only straight imprOVisation, but even further embellishments and flares of their own. As most of these performers were employed to provide atmosphere and background music, they did not totally disregard the music and play anything they wanted, although they did improvise upon the written music. The saloons in places like St. Louis, Sedalia and Kansas City fostered the change in ragtime from a loud, conspicuous dancing music to the more subtle but still improvised background music that the patrons seemed to want.
RAGTIME'S INFLUENCE ON THE MUSIC WORLD
Scott Joplin's dream of ragtime having a lasting effect on the musical world was slowly but surely taking place. Ragtime had an immediate effect on the contemporary music already published with the transformation tradition.
Ragtime also delivered an impact abroad. Scott Joplin, especially, had quite an influence on European classical music. While Joplin was trying to conform ragtime to European classical structure, form and legitimacy, European composers were producing works that tried to capture ragtime's originality and freshness. Claude Debussy wrote "Golliwog's Cakewalk" in the 1910's which was a slightly syncopated psuedo-American composition, and in the 1920's Stravinsky composed "Ragtime." Joplin's music also influenced German Paul Hindemith and American Charles Ives, contemporary classical composers.
Besides affecting the popular music of the day and classical music abroad, ragtime also had a direct impact on new original forms of popular American music. Once the idea of syncopation was accepted, new forms of music--blues, jazz, swing and rock and roll used it too. Though there are conflicting opinions as to what degree of impact ragtime had, there is general agreement that ragtime did have a direct correlation with the rhythms and harmonies used in these new forms of music. All other music before ragtime consisted of steady even beats on counts one, two, three, etc. Ragtime was the first western music to incorporate syncopated rhythms in its measures, opening the doors to its use in other new forms of music.
Possibly the first musician that ragtime influenced in this manner was W. D. Candy from Memphis, Tennessee, in 1906. Candy was a trumpet player with a ragtime marching brass band. He took the left hand rhythm and right hand syncopation common to Missouri ragtime and aPplied it to a style of music called Negro Laments. The African people had hummed these songs as they were stacked like cordwood in the holds of ships transporting them to America to be sold as slaves. The only way these people could communicate was to hum tunes because they came from different geographical areas and spoke different languages. Interestingly enough, none of the 300 Negro languages has a word for music, though music was a big part of their lives. The rhythm of these songs originated from the back and forth rocking of the ship. They hummed mostly in a minor key which best expressed their despair and depression. Candy had the idea to play these melodies in ragtime. This type of music was called Blues.
There is some controversy as to the degree of influence ragtime had on the next new form of music--Dixieland Jazz--which began in New Orleans in 1915. A group of white musicians--the most famous group probably being the Original Dixieland Band--also used the "piano ragtime" from St. Louis. Instead of writing a score for the whole band, they would improvise since many of their members could not read music. In actuality Dixieland jazz was a whole band improvising on the basic piano ragtime.
Symphonic jazz entered the picture in 1920 with the help of Paul Whitfield. He added a string section to a five-piece Dixieland band with piano player George Gershwin.
Some people think that these two types of jazz were heavily influenced by ragtime. Others do not credit ragtime with as much influence, although most do acknowledge that jazz started with ragtime. Professor Tichenor's opinion expresses the general consensus of those who think that ragtime's influence on jazz is limited. "Ragtime was played by string bands and everything else, but it was originally written for the piano. Jazz is all centered around horns and reeds. Jazz did start here, but it's two different things. Rags went down the Mississippi River and, later on, jazz came up the river. Rags helped the early jazz pioneers in their structures and tunes, but rags were an already structured music."
Significant differences existed between jazz and ragtime which substantiated the belief that many elements of jazz were undoubtedly original. Tichenor explained, "The piano has a fixed tonality. One of the characteristics of jazz is being able to bend the tones--like a voice. You can't do that on a piano. You can only suggest it. The piano has a fixed literature, all written on published pieces. You can't write jazz down."
Jazz evolved and took over in popularity about 1920. But even after ragtime went into obscurity, it still continued to affect different forms of music. Pinecoff Smith borrowed the blues from Memphis and used syncopation in both hands at the same time. Smith called his version of the blues Boogie-woogie.
Ragtime exerted its influence indirectly again in 1935. Bennie Goodman, beginning with a five-piece Dixieland band, added twenty-five horn players who could read music. The music was written down in parts and was called Swing.
All of the well-known swing musicians had gotten their start as Dixieland players like Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey and Bennie Goodman. The swing piano players were well-grounded in ragtime. Duke Ellington was an accomplished ragtime player and Count Basie had played ragtime in Kansas City.
This wave of influence comes all the way up to the present. The instruments of country music were borrowed and added to the blues, eventually becoming Rock and and Roll.
Although all these types of music are original and different from one another and from ragtime, the rhythms and harmonies date back to the original Missouri ragtime. Thus Scott Joplin is reflected in one way or another--directly or indirectly--in just about every form of American popular music since the beginning of ragtime.
RAGTIME'S SUCCESS STORY
When looking back from today's standards, ragtime's popularity seemed to start at a slow crawl and continue at the same speed. However, that comparison is true only if measured against the popularity and success standards of today. Now it is possible for a new type of music or personality to become an overnight success with our mass publicity and right acquaintances or a single exposure on national television. Eighty years ago it just was not that easy. A success was made patiently and slowly with little help from newspapers. Other mass media like radio, television and movies did not exist. It would possibly take five years to make a hit, instead of one week on the top forty. Since it might take a year in New York and three or four years on the road before it got to St. Louis, hits then lasted quite a while longer than at the present. People waited years for a hit and when it came they latched on to it. There were various methods to promote a tune and possibly make it a hit--the selling of sheet music, the selling of piano rolls, performing the music in theaters, night clubs and other places of entertainment and by word of mouth.
Trebor Tichenor explained another method. "When Tin Pan Alley in New York (the music scene in the East) became established in the 1890's they set about various methods to push the tunes. One of the methods was sending around music to all the saloons, cabarets, anywhere there was a popular singer or any group or place where they would push the tune. They sent what was called a professional edition of the music to the musicians. It didn't have a cover or anything. It was just the music itself printed on very thin paper."
A good example of the hard work it took to make a hit in those days--ragtime or otherwise--was Sophie Tucker. Tichenor explained, "She was a singer who starred in the ragtime era. She went from town to town and got a list of names of all the people she had contacted. Before she went back to a town she'd send a postcard to everybody. That's how you had to build yourself up in those days. Now you get two minutes on national TV and that's it!"
SHEETS, KEYBOARDS AND ROLLS
Ragtime fans who chose not to frequent the places where ragtime was performed could purchase sheet music and piano rolls. Beginning with "Maple Leaf Rag" John Stark became successful publishing the sheet music of Scott Joplin and Joplin became known for the ragtime that Stark published first in Sedalia and later in St. Louis. People readily purchased the music, creating a cycle all revolving around sheet music. Today collectors pay at least ten dollars a copy for the original sheet music.
The piano itself played a very large part in the story of ragtime. Classical ragtime is basically written for and best suited to the piano. Since the piano had such a wide range, variations and different ideas could develop, contributing to the evolution of originality and technical difficulty of classic ragtime over the years.
The best ragtime is usually played as a solo on the piano although occasionally a band arrangement is played. String groups were especially popular at the turn of the century. Mandolins, guitars, banjos and harp-guitars (a guitar like instrument with a chromatic series of bass strings) played the easier rags which lent themselves to band arrangements. The classic rags were too difficult for bands and were generally more effective played solo on the piano.
Ragtime was played on two types of pianos, square grands and uprights. Surprisingly the square grands were used a lot. The piano looked flat, similar to a melodian. Joplin used this type of piano in Sedalia in the '90's when he was a guest at the home of fellow rag composer, Arthur Marshall. They both worked tunes out on Marshall's old square grand.
Uprights were played in the saloons. They were cheaper, easier to move and they did not take up as much precious floor space as a grand. The uprights in the saloons had no fronts. Gary Ellison explained, "The reason there wasn't a front on the ragtime piano was the poor old piano player didn't have any amplifier and he needed all the help he could get. By taking off all that excess wood, he had just that much more sound coming out, a more brilliant sound."
The piano not only provided the instrument for ragtime players, but before the phonograph it also offered a way of introducing ragtime into an average household by using piano rolls. It has been estimated that between 1900 and 1930 at least two and a half million American homes boasted a player piano. Almost anyone could afford piano rolls available at dime stores for thirty-five cents. A major issue label like Joplin's rolls would cost anywhere from seventy-five cents to a dollar. Piano rolls around the turn of the century were well made with wooden ends and spools.
Piano rolls are rolls of durable paper (a little thinner than brown wrapping paper) on a spool made out of wood or cardboard. It is placed on the playing mechanism in the top of the piano in front of the strings and fastened to another spool already there. When the mechanism is working, the spools rotate and the paper from the one spool is wound around the other.
There are holes punched in the paper positioned as the keys on the piano. The length of the hole determines how long the note is held. The paper is pumped over the mechanism by foot pedals. The machinery pulls air into the piano, creating a vacuum. When the underlying pouch is filled with air, it causes the hammers to push against the keys, thus playing the notes.
There are no phonograph recordings of Scott Joplin's playing, however he did cut seven hand-played rolls, including "Maple Leaf Rag." The sound sheet in this issue includes an original Joplin piano roll of "Maple Leaf" from Trebor Tichenor's collection.
GROUND FLOOR IVORY TICKLERS
Although mostly Scott Joplin's influence on ragtime has been discussed, he obviously was not the only person responsible for its development. It would be impossible to name every Missourian who had something to do with ragtime, but there are several important people that affected ragtime on more than a local level. Only a very few composers and performers actually made the big-time in comparison with the over-abundance of ragtimers who remained backstage. Most Joplin protégé's who left Joplin and Missouri in hopes of making it on their own remained unknown, although the majority of ragtime composers who did succeed were in some way associated with Joplin and Missouri.
James Scott was the best known of the fledgling ragtime artists under Joplin's wing. He was second only to Joplin in the hierarchy of classic ragtime. Scott was born in Neosho, Missouri, in 1886, living in Carthage, Sedalia, Kansas City and later, St. Louis. He developed a distinct rag style which often posed even greater technical difficulties than did Joplin. His rags were published and given names by John Stark because Scott, like Joplin, did not title his tunes. Stark possessed a great flair for titles, and catchy titles were certainly an important part of a rag. "Great Scott Rag" and "Hilarity Rag" are only two examples of Scott's talent and Stark' s titles. Scott' s beautiful style was almost classical in nature and he was fittingly called "Ragtime' s Chopin. "
The first person to play ragtime in the St. Louis area was a black man named Tom Turpin. His "Harlem Rag" was published in 1897, the first ragtime composition published. He owned the Rosebud Club on Market Street near Union Station where Joplin later worked. Turpin's rags, called folk rags were a little bit different. They were more spritely, more in tune with the pace of an urban saloon at that time. His best rag, "St. Louis Rag", was written for the World's Fair and published in 1903.
Mr. Tichenor told an interesting tidbit about the "Father of St. Louis Ragtime." "Tom Turpin ' s
niece, who' s still living, claims that Tom taught Scott Joplin, which is kind of a shocker. We don't
know if that's true or not but Turpin seems to be in on the ground floor, one of the early pioneers
"There's some question especially in the early days how an arranger affected ragtime. What did they do with the raw product? It' s something we just don't know. All of Tom Turpin's are arranged by D.S. Delow, who was a professional arranger here in St. Louis. We just will never know what he worked with because there's just no manuscripts. It's not classical music where there are usually manuscripts existing somewhere, for the manuscripts were all destroyed when they were put into print. It's really hard to find out what was actually written down. Stark was not stopped by that difficulty. Whatever was submitted to him he published it no matter how hard it was."
Scott Hayden was another Joplin protegs and collaborator. A native of Sedalia he first met Joplin in 1896 when Hayden was fifteen. The two composed four Joplin-Hayden rags. Their first collaboration, "Sunflower Slow Drag," was written in Sedalia and published in St. Louis in 1901 by Stark. 1903, 1911 and 1913 witnessed other cooperative teamwork, "Something Doing," "Felicity Rag" and "Kismet Rag."
Another Sedalian friend of Joplin's was Arthur Marshall who was born in Saline County on November 20, 1881. They attended Lincoln High School together and took the same courses at George R. Smith College. Marshall came under Joplin's influence in 1896 and was soon performing in the local sporting district. He and Joplin wrote "Swipsey Cakewalk" which was published in 1900. Marshall died in 1968.
Percy Wenrich, known as the "Joplin Kid," was an important and often overlooked ragtimer. He was from Joplin, Missouri, but the reason for his title was not solely the name of his hometown. He decided to cash in on the coincidental correlation between the name of his town and the "King of Ragtime."
Wenrich took the rhythms and various harmonies that were developed and played in ragtime and translated them into the type of music the average person could sit down and play at the piano. He brought ragtime into the realm of pop_ ular music. He was active about the same
time that people like Irving Berlin were writing. Some of Wenrich's songs were "Put on Your Old Gray Bonnet," "We're Sailing Down Moonlight Bay" and "When You Wore a Tulip."
Another excellent pianist was Blind Boone (John Boone) from Columbia, Missouri who lost both his eyes at an early age. Because he was a black man he could not perform in most auditoriums and did most of his concert work in churches. Gary Ellison said of Blind Boone, "His bit was, whether it be classical, popular or anything between, he would invite anyone in the audience to come up and play something on his piano, preferable something he had never heard before. Then he would sit down and play it better than they did.
"One of the great songs he wrote is a thing called the 'Marshfield Cyclone.' This little town of Marshfield, Missouri, was virtually wiped off the face of the earth when this tornado came through. Boone was in the area at that time and he sat down to the piano and wrote a semi-classical ragtime piece where he tried to imitate the sound of this tornado ripping up Marshfield. He would do it with a lot of form, crashes down on the bass keys of the piano and things like that--a very popular thing, sort of a novelty number. He was an excellent Missouri musician."
Another interesting Ozarkian caught up in the ragtime era was Rose O'Neill. (See Fall, 1977) Rose created the Kewpie dolls and lived at Bonniebrook near Branson, Missouri. She also lived in New York in Greenwich Village near Washington Square. Some ragtimers wrote a successful tune named after her, "Rose of Washington Square."
Eubie Blake, another well-known and respected figure, is an elderly ragtimer in his nineties. He is an extremely accomplished pianist who has appeared on the Tonight Show and numerous festivals including the Scott Joplin Festival held in Sedalia in 1974. Eubie possesses extremely long fingers which help him play his difficult compositions which require a tremendous reach.
Gary Ellison, an accomplished pianist himself said, "I can comfortably get by playing an octave, and if I force, ten notes. Eubie can do tenths as easily as I can do an octave. He has to write simplified versions of his own rags for everybody else. Composers don't like to have their style crimped and that's what it amounts to. Eubie, an old fiend of mine, sent me three handwritten manuscripts of rags he wrote about 1902, 1903 and I couldn't play them. I took them to the piano professor at Southwest Missouri State University and he looked at them and folded them up and turned them back to me. I don't think he could get through them, either."
In the eighty years that have elapsed since the first ragtime music was published, it is estimated that there have been about 3,000 rags published, with present day compositions adding to that number. With all these different 'people composing their own rags, new types of ragtime have originated, such as folk style rag and country rag.
As the musical aspect of ragtime has evolved, so has the public opinion. It has taken well over half a century for the public to accept ragtime for what it is--the first original serious American music that has stood the test of time and weathered extremely well under the circumstances. In spite of the disdain of Joplin's contemporary critics, ragtime was not a passing fad. It is accepted the world over as a legitimate and brilliant form of music.
Ragtime's originator and promoter has also received the fame and recognition he never really got while he was alive. Scott Joplin's name is well known. His music today is so totally respectable that most people do not even know of its sporting district origins, nor does it even matter as its popularity is ever increasing.
Ragtime has been generally recognized again by the public only recently in the '60's and '70's, more than half a century after its decline in the '20's. The Ragtime Renaissance achieved widespread popularity when Marvin Hamlisch put together the score for the smash The Sting. "Best Scoring Adaptation of the Year" was among the seven Academy Awards the picture won. Almost all of the music he incorporated into the score was original Scott Joplin, with his "The Entertainer" being the theme. The success of the movie also ensured the success of "The Entertainer" which can still be heard on radio stations everywhere.
Ragtime, the folk music of the city, as its only serious critic of Joplin's day called it, was the product of an era of urban development, racial and cultural mingling and free individual expression.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.
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