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Maple Leaf Rag
“It is needless,” wrote his publisher, “to say anything of the writer of ‘Maple Leaf,’ ‘Cascades,’ ‘Sunflower’ or ‘Entertainer.’ You know him.” But this black genius died penniless and all but forgotten
June 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 4
Scott Joplin, riding high in the early flush of his success, wrote the jaunty words on the preceding page for a song that he fashioned in 1904 from his sensational piano rag hit of 1899. And “The Maple Leaf Rag” was all that he claimed; it changed his life, and it changed American music.
The career of this black American genius seems almost to be an amalgam of legends. Joplin exemplified the Horatio Alger legend of early success, although he reached beyond the financial rewards that mark the boundaries of Alger’s concept. But there is another, darker legend: Joplin, his full genius unrecognized, his songs bearing the unjust stigma of mere popular success, dying prematurely in mad despair.
Finally there is the legend of his belated discovery and recognition. This is happening today; his piano rags furnished the music for the hugely successful motion picture The Sting , and one, “The Entertainer,” a 1902 hit, has swept the nation again.
But it is doubtful that any Scott Joplin rags would have been thought of by movie producers today were it not for the phenomenon of “The Maple Leaf Rag.” The stupendous international hit that it became in 1899–1900 made it the first instrumental, so far as is known, to top the million mark in sales of sheet music. And it achieved this through fingers on the keyboard; radio, television, and sound movies were still only science fiction and the record industry a mere promising infant. The sudden explosion of this one Joplin number sparked a public rage for ragtime. The fad began in 1897, and by 1900 it was a veritable mania. Halfway through that year an American newspaper headline declared “Paris Has Gone Rag Time Wild,” with reports of the French cakewalking in the streets to le temps du chiffon as played at the Paris Exposition by John Philip Sousa’s band.
Ragtime retained its hold right up to our entry into World War i, then to be replaced by the brassy unisons and more martial rhythms of Dixieland jazz. This was time enough, however, for Joplin to perfect the piano rag form in more than thirty published examples, to establish the ragtime song form (with lyrics added to “The Maple Leaf Rag” and “Pineapple Rag”), and to spread out into other forms: the tango, a ragtime folk ballet, and two ragtime—or Afro-American—grand operas. Around 1914 there were even reports, which Joplin did not deny, that he was also working on an Afro-American symphony.
Whatever Scott Joplin’s actual achievement, he died feeling that it fell far short of his dream. That dream was to carve out of sound a truly American and truly classic music, respectful of but not subservient to European music, a racially balanced music truthfully reporting American life, its tempo, and its temper. Fate gave him only forty-eight years to pursue that dream.
Yet during those years he was able to change the central character of our music, a change as much in spirit as in outer form. Ragtime was a resounding declaration of independence: the revolutionary idea of a music both classical and popular—classical in its formal complexity yet popular in its irresistible rhythm and melody—a classicism of, by, and for the people, black and white. Musing on the strange fact that not until the igyo’s have we begun to realize what the music really means, the noted present-day ragtime player and composer Max Morath was recently moved to remark: “So odd, the long sleep of ragtime under layers of misunderstanding!” And all those years Scott Joplin slept in an unmarked grave on Long Island, his name and fame similarly buried.
Just what did Scott Joplin do? He classicized two popular American dance forms, the cakewalk and the two-step, very much as European composers had done with the popular dance forms around them. H. Wiley Hitchcock of Brooklyn College wrote not long ago that the Joplin piano rags are “the precise American equivalent, in terms of a native style of dance music, of minuets by Mozart, mazurkas by Chopin, or waltzes by Brahms.” As to their true musical worth Professor Hitchcock describes the Joplin rags as “elegant, varied, often subtle, and as sharply incised as a cameo.” They are, he concludes, “lovely and powerful, infectious and moving.”
The stage was set for a Joplin when ragtime surfaced in the mid-iSgo’s, for here was the first music to fuse African, white American, and European elements and—perhaps most important of all—the first music to allow the two races, black and white, to function on both the creative and the performing level. This spicy, tantalizing, charming new music was no burntcork minstrel exploitation by whites of black music for white audiences only.
Ragtime surmounted racism. In the honky-tonk areas black and white pianists rubbed elbows, just as they did in the great public ragtime contests from the late 1890’s on, particularly those sponsored by the Police Gazette in Madison Square Garden and those at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Of the half dozen or so other great talents of classic ragtime Scott Joplin personally sponsored and aided no fewer than three: Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden of Missouri and Joseph Lamb of New York. Of this trio the first two were black, and the third white.