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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 was born, both he and his death certificate said, in Texarkana. Today each of the twin cities that face and merge across the Arkansas-Texas state line claim him as a native son. Actually, on November 24, 1868, he was born where Texarkana was to be, in a sprawling prairie settlement with the wooded Ozarks nearby.
His father, Giles Joplin, was a laborer, an ex-slave from North Carolina. His mother, Florence Givens Joplin, was born free in Kentucky. Scott had an older brother, Monroe, and two younger ones: Will, who sang and strummed guitar, and Robert, who sang and did a little songwriting. Scott’s two sisters, Myrtle and Ossie, contributed to what was a very active musical homelife, led by the father’s plantation fiddle and the mother’s folk singing and five-string-banjo picking.
Of them all Scott proved to be the most musical and the most ambitious. While very young he played the guitar and blew the bugle. He was barely seven when he discovered a piano in a neighbor’s house and, experimenting on it, was overheard and given regular access to the keyboard. Before he had reached the age of eleven, his selftaught pianistics were the talk of the neighborhood. His mother was a laundress, and rumors soon spread to the white community through servants’ talk.
The local German music teacher (every sizable midwestern town had one in those days) heard of the little black prodigy and invited him to play for him; lessons, probably free, followed. Before he was fourteen, Joplin was adept at basic keyboard technique and sight-reading and had the foundation necessary to extend and confirm his evident instinct for harmony. Equally important, he was deeply imbued with respect for the masters and their music. When his teacher played Bach or Beethoven for him, Scott felt that he was part of it all.
His preparation came just in time. He was only fourteen when he left home, driven out mainly by his father’s growing objections to the hours he devoted to music when he should have been learning a trade. Thus early he became for a time “a homeless itinerant,” as his future publisher and friend, John Stark, was to characterize him after his death, adding the terse, true commentary: “He left his mark on American music.”
By the time John Stark met him in the late iSgo’s, Joplin was no longer a homeless migrant musician, but he had only recently left the honky-tonk trail to settle in Sedalia, Missouri, after fourteen nomadic years. Those years should by no means be deprecated. They were true années de pèlerinage . Though the social conventions and prejudices of the day forced Joplin to wander in the multicity underworld of the red-light district, the pianist was carrying to the end that most rigorous of apprenticeships: meeting gifted rivals everywhere in terms of musical emulation and competition.