Maple Leaf Rag

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During those nomad years the sober Texas youth played “down the line” in the honky-tonks, a term that was then a specific euphemism for “whorehouses.” Young Joplin played the saloons and gambling casinos and was resident “professor” (pianist) in many a bordello, playing for the girls as they stripped for the out-of-town buyers and entertaining in between times. Joplin played in the New Orleans mansions of Countess Willie V. Piazza and Lulu White, Scar Face Mary’s in Oklahoma City, Mother Johnson’s and Madam Betty Rae’s in St. Louis, and Minna and Ada’s Everleigh Club in Chicago, as well as in the less splendid houses of madams with even more colorful names: Ready Money and The Suicide Queen. It was a hectic milieu yet, in certain ways, a creative and relaxed one. In it reality and unreality met, day and night merged, and differences of skin pigmentation ceased to matter greatly. As on the Basin Street of song, the white folk and the dark folk met, and through them the two American cultures mingled. There were tensions, of course, and deadly rivalries, such as those for bed favors. But there were competitions less perilous: one pianist, perhaps white, pitting his “finger-buster” against that of a rival player, perhaps black.

There was, strangely, a certain haunted glory to it all. It was the right time and the right place, and something extraordinary happened. Folklorist Alan Lomax has called it “a moment of ecstasy.” Despite the personal rivalries original melodies floated in the air, and while technical pianistic tricks were traded or stolen, these vagrant little sixteen-bar two-step and cakewalk themes were being loosely combined by all and sundry into threeand four-theme syncopated set pieces. A few, following the quadrille format, combined five themes. They were early called rags, probably because they were at first so casually patched together. It is understandable that a craftsman like Joplin would refer to the name as “scurrilous.” And yet this term, deprecatory as was “jazz,” served less to belittle the music than to lend it a titillating sort of mystery.

So, with all the others, Scott Joplin floated back and forth through Missouri, on down into the Ozark towns, and into the newly opened Oklahoma and Indian territories, Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. If his activities had any center at all from 1885 to 1893, it was St. Louis. Then in the latter year it became Chicago for the duration of the World’s Columbian Exposition, where he led a small band in “the District.”

In 1894 his activities took a new turn. He went to Sedalia, drawing as far as possible out of the red-light milieu. He played cornet with the Queen City Concert Band and started to commit his musical ideas to paper. It was at this time that he began touring with the Texas Medley Quartette, an eight-voice male group that he organized, with his brothers Will and Robert as leading tenor and baritone. Joplin arranged the music, composed some of it, furnished piano accompaniment, and sang an occasional solo. The Quartette toured widely for a couple of years, as can be sketchily traced through Joplin’s first actual publications, issued in the cities this little glee club visited. The first Joplin songs are rather undistinguished ones, bearing the sentimental tone of the period. Two waltzes came out in 1895, with the imprint of two different Syracuse publishers: “A Picture of Her Face” and “Please Say You Will”—“As Featured By the Texas Medley Quartette.” Rushed off the presses, the sheet music was then carried by the Quartette and hawked at their concerts.

The eastern tour was followed by a midwestern and southwestern tour, indicated by a trio of piano-solo publications secured in November, 1896, in the town of Temple, Texas. Two of these, issued by Robert Smith, are “Combination March” and “Harmony Club Waltz.”

The third publication, “The Great Crush Collision March,” is more a descriptive overture than a march, a musical narrative about a train wreck, dedicated to the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad. Along with the music is a printed between-the-staves commentary: “The noise of the trains while running at the rate of sixty miles per hour,” “Whistling for the crossing,” and finally “The collision,” described by four short, frantic high discords, followed by a heavy, low chord. Until very recently it has been assumed that “Crush Collision” dealt with an actual accident that had occurred on the “Katy Line” ( M.K.&T. ). In the summer of 1974, however, the true facts came to light through the research of a Joplinophile, Mrs. Carol B. Seeker. She discovered in old local newspapers that on September 15, 1896, the head-on collision of two old locomotives with empty cars was staged as a publicity stunt by one William Crush, general passenger agent of the M.K.&T.

The event, staged at Waco, was witnessed by a record crowd of fifty thousand people who came by horse and buggy from all directions. The thirty-ton engines, one painted red and one green, ran unmanned for two miles and had reached a speed of ninety miles an hour when they smashed nose-to-nose. Mrs. Seeker notes that the spectators did not escape unscathed:

The boilers burst, showering the crowd with chunks of red-hot, razor-sharp metal. A man watching from a mesquite tree had his skull ripped open by a piece of flying chain, and a farmer fleeing the scene was decapitated by a piece of iron plate.