Those who have seen the classic movie The Sting (1974) may be aware that the film’s ragtime score set off a revival of interest in the music of Scott Joplin. Despite the incongruity with the setting of the movie (The Sting is set in the Depression of the 1930s, while ragtime is music of the 1890s), ragtime works brilliantly as a score to the film. Its free-wheeling, optimistic, and tightly calibrated sound fits perfectly with the themes and tone of the film. Joplin himself was a fascinating figure, a brilliant visionary who does not fit neatly into any standard classification system.
He was born in Texas in 1868, the son of a Giles Joplin (an ex-slave who had emigrated to Texas to work on the railroads) and Florence Givens, a freeborn woman from Kentucky. Both of Joplin’s parents were musically proficient and encouraged the boy to take up musical activities. However, his father–with that practical streak that all fathers by nature must share–saw music as little more than an amusing diversion. But Joplin’s mother encouraged his musical talents, scraping together the money needed to buy a used piano. There then occurred one of those strokes of great luck that can make all the difference in a young man’s life: the association with a great mentor. There just happened to be a German professor of music named Julius Weiss who had emigrated to Texas from Saxony, and this professor took an interest in the young Joplin. For five years (when Joplin was between the ages of 11 and 16), Weiss tutored Joplin free of charge; he provided that essential harness and discipline without which no amount of genius can flourish. Joplin was to remain devoted to Weiss even as the old professor faded into obscurity; we are told that Joplin even sent him gifts of money in his old age to ward off poverty.
Weiss instilled in Joplin an appreciation for music as an art form and a mathematical discipline; the tight, intricately paced quality of Joplin’s ragtime compositions owe much to the influence of his classical training. It is often said that ragtime music is an ancestor of jazz; but this is not really the whole story. Joplin actually disdained free-form improvisation: he felt that all of his compositions should be played exactly as they had been written by him. Ragtime in many ways is its own separate musical genre, unlike anything before or since. It combined the rollicking, bawdy feel of the brothel with the rigor and discipline of classical German musical forms. It is an unexpected fusion, but it works.
By the late 1880s Joplin had taken to the itinerant musical circuits of the American South. Being a black traveling musician in those days was not easy, to say the least. Regardless of talent, the only positions open to black musicians were at brothels, cafes, and barrooms; the pay was decent, but hardly regular, and he ended up associating with the bottom of society’s social pyramid. It may have been around this time that Joplin contracted the syphilis that would eventually kill him decades later. We do not know. What we do know is that Joplin appeared (with a band he put together) in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair; his music instantly became exposed to a huge audience and a national craze for ragtime was set off. Joplin did not invent the genre, but he became its most influential and capable practitioner.
The 1890s were Joplin’s best period. He relocated to Sedalia, Missouri and continued to perform, as well as teach. His first rag medley, Original Rags, appeared in 1899; that same year he released his most lucrative piece, Maple Leaf Rag, the publication of which enabled Joplin to achieve some degree of financial security. Joplin married in 1899 but soon divorced and married again in 1904. He had big ambitions for his music; he had no desire to remain stereotyped as entertainment for saloons and cathouses. Perhaps inspired by his childhood association with Julius Weiss, he began writing operas in the early 1900s, even going so far as to create his own small opera company. His first opera was called A Guest of Honor and was released in 1903.
But this was not easy; the public was not ready for Joplin’s vision, and he had no contacts, support system, or financial backing. So he was forced to invest his own money in his projects, and in the long run this proved to be catastrophic. To be closer to the culture of the stage and opera, Joplin moved to New York City around 1907 and shopped his musical operas around; there were no takers. The ragtime “fad” had burnt itself out, and Joplin found himself too closely identified with it to be permitted a second hearing. His major project was an ambitious opera named Treemonisha, a story about a young slave girl who achieves mental liberation through education and discipline. The work is nearly unique in the American tradition; it mixes Joplin’s ragtime roots with European ballet and arias. The problem was that no one knew quite what to do with the opera. Unable to find a publisher, he published it himself at significant expense in 1911. When the work failed to excite interest, he made one last-ditch effort to generate interest in his music.
In 1915 he had an abbreviated form of Treemonisha staged in Harlem in New York City. By all accounts, the performance was an utter disaster. Unable to hire the full ensemble needed to give the opera a proper showing, Joplin had only himself on piano as musical accompaniment. His audience was mystified by the music; it was not that they disliked Joplin, but the cultural form was at that time too unfamiliar, too unexpected. Joplin had tried to bridge the gap between mass culture and high culture, and he had failed. He was so far ahead of his time that his public simply could not appreciate him. The opera would never be performed as it was originally intended until the 1970s.
After the Treemonisha debacle, Joplin withdrew from public view. His final years were tragic. He was tired, financially broken, and suffering from the advanced stages of the syphilis that would ultimately kill him. As noted above, he probably picked up the disease as a young man, but the spirochetes had stayed in remission for many years. There was no known cure at that time. As 1915 drew to a close, however, he was becoming increasingly unable to function. He died in 1917 at the age of 49 and was buried in an unmarked grave. When the movie The Sting achieved the pinnacle of its popularity in 1974, a proper headstone was erected over his grave.
He was the greatest musical innovator of his era. Time, which is the ultimate judge of men and deeds, had vindicated his genius.
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