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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
The newspaper and magazine coverage was extensive, and the local public talked about little else for months thereafter. It seems possible, even likely, thatjoplin mayhave witnessed the event. In any case he gave the premiere performance of The Great Crush Collision March in Temple in mid-November, 1896.
Joplin’s musical description of this apocalyptic event is a milestone in his development into a ragtime composer, for it is actually a rag without indications for syncopation. But it is nonetheless essentially a rag; playing it even in simple syncopation establishes this beyond a doubt. In effect it is Scott Joplin’s first rag issue, printed the year before the first recognized rag publication, “Mississippi Rag,” by a white bandleader named William H. Krell.
Joplin certainly played the “Collision March” as ragtime and may even have wanted it so published. Ragtime is known to have been on the scene at least as early as 1892 or 1893, but the publishers at that time shied away from issuing syncopated music. In fact, they consistently stood in the way of good ragtime composers, their objections centering on the difficulty of playing the really good numbers. Many a fine composition was discarded in its original form for a simpler, more salable version.
Before the year 1896 was out, Scott Joplin returned to Sedalia, this time to settle there and to enroll at the George R. Smith College for Negroes to advance his musical education. He quickly took root in the Pettis county seat, where he was to publish his first two real rags and to sponsor two gifted fifteen-year-old black Sedalia youths, Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden, as ragtime composers.
Krell’s 1897 rag was soon followed by the first rag of black authorship to reach the presses—“Harlem Rag,” by Tom Turpin of St. Louis. Turpin—owner, bartender, and ragtime pianistcomposer of the Rosebud Café—was Scott Joplin’s staunch friend.
“Harlem Rag” came out in December, with Joplin past ready. This was the spur he needed, and early in 1898 he is known to have taken two ragtime scores into the Sedalia music publishers A. W. Perry & Son. They turned him down, and strangely, without approaching the other Sedalia house, John Stark & Son, he went to Kansas City later in the year. There the house of Carl Huffman bought “Original Rags” but foolishly passed up the more brilliant “Maple Leaf Rag.” “Original Rags” came out in late March, 1899. The cover shows an old, tattered Negro picking up rags in front of a dilapidated cabin. Under the title is the caption “Picked by Scott Joplin.”
A misunderstanding about that caption arose in the early ragtime-revival circles of the ig4o’s. There is a theory that Joplin did not write any or all of the five themes that make up the piece but merely picked (i.e., chose) themes he had heard in his travels. This certainly does not accord with the proud (though gentle) nature described by all who knew him. What most likely is involved is the crude racist humor of the period, a labored vaudevillesque pun comparing a ragtime tunesmith to a ragpicker. This jibes, too, with the contemporary habit of calling ragtime pianists ragpickers (the New Orleans ragtime player Tony Jackson wrote a song called “Pick-It Boy”) and echoes the then well-remembered generic source of the early ragtime piano style in the syncopated “jigs” that the early minstrel men picked out on the fivestring banjo. It is all very much in the pattern of the period; for example, a then-current term for a male Negro was “jig,” shortened from “jigaboo.” Talented Negroes in those days pocketed their pride—or else. The great comedian Bert Williams, for example, recalled: “[My partner] and I would never have got onstage so beautifully dressed if we didn’t throw it away for a laugh. We’d interrupt our dancing to rub our feet, presumably aching from too tight shoes.”
Black composers ran the same gauntlet when they took their manuscripts to white publishers—and there were no black publishers then. Many a fine tune was sold outright, without royalties, for a twenty-dollar bill. It is unlikely that Joplin sold “Original Rags” quite so cheaply, although the pressure to join the swelling ranks of ragtime composers must have been strong.
In any event, his next contact and publications were to be models of unprejudiced fairness. Soon, back in Sedalia, local music dealer John Stark, dropping into the Walker Brothers’ Maple Leaf Club, heard Joplin play the piano rag he had dedicated to the club. Stark introduced himself and asked Joplin to drop in to see him at his music store and publishing office.
Promptly the next morning Joplin appeared with a young black boy in tow. As Joplin played “The Maple Leaf Rag” the little boy did soft-shoe dance routines. Stark immediately bought the rag and signed the composer to an exclusive contract, on terms that would be fair today.