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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
His fairness was amply repaid. “Maple Leaf Rag,” its first-issue cover adorned with cakewalking couples borrowed from a tobacco ad, took off like a rocket; its climbing sales spread out from Sedalia to cover the nation within months. Its modest three pages of piano score, tempo di marcia , changed the lives of both publisher and composer. The publication date was around mid-September, 1899. By 1900 Stark had pulled up stakes and moved to St. Louis, where the “Maple Leaf had bought him a store and a complete engraving and printing shop. Joplin followed shortly, his financial future assured by this hit. In one stroke he was free to leave the underworld to teach and pursue his already lofty composing ambitions.
The changes “Maple Leaf wrought did not end there; it changed the course of American music too. Already a hit, ragtime became a national rage and then, immediately, an international one. Infuriating the American musical Establishment, it now confirmed its members’ growing hostility and assured a long conflict between “ragsmith” and “longhair.” Almost unbelievably, this deep schism would not be bridged until the igyo’s, with all the actors in that original turn-ofthe-century drama long since dead and gone. Without support from serious quarters after the fad faded, ragtime had to hibernate until the long winter was over.
It was not so abroad. The serious consideration the music so badly needed here was freely forthcoming overseas, and nearly a decade and a half after its first impact there the case for ragtime was being summed up in 1913 by Arnold Bennett in the Times of London:
Ragtime is absolutely characteristic of its inventors—from nowhere but the United States could such music have sprung. … Nor can there be any doubt about its vigour, brimming over with life. … Here for those who have ears to hear are the seeds from which a national art may ultimately spring.
Bennett, however, had scant faith that our ears would hear:
The American dilettanti never did and never will look in the right quarters for vital art. A really original artist struggling under their very noses has small chance of being recognized by them, the reason being that they are imitative with no real opinions of their own. They associate art with Florentine frames, matinée hats, distant museums, and clever talk full of allusions to the dead. It would not occur to them to search for American art in the architecture of railwaystations and the draughtsmanship and sketch-writing of newspapers, because they have not the wit to learn that genuine art flourishes best in the atmosphere of genuine public demand. … The sole test of a musical public is that it should be capable of self-support … it should produce a school of creative and executive artists of its own, whom it likes well enough to idolize and enrich, and whom the rest of the world will respect.
And sure enough, here in ragtime’s native country the sides were drawn and the furor was louder than the music, even if Sousa’s band was playing it. The monthly Musical America , organ of the Establishment, declared that ragtime “exalts noise, rush, and street vulgarity. It suggests repulsive dance halls and restaurants.” The periodical was too delicate even to hint at bordellos down the street.
The American Federation of Musicians had already bowed officially to the Establishment, ruling ragtime off limits for its members. The fiat was ineffective, and pianists went right on smuggling this musical contraband to their audiences.
Even among American composers, however, there were significant defections. Though most, like Edward MacDowell, were outspokenly hostile to the “nigger whorehouse music,” the real genius among them, Charles Ives, loved this “street” music and quoted from it in his works. Even such a paragon of respectability as Charles Wakefield Cadman, the composer of From the Land of the Sky Blue Water , observed that in this new music might be found “the germ of a national expression” and that “the restless energy and indomitable will of America [are] somehow symbolized in terms of an intelligent syncopation.”
In all this confused babble, with all his success, sat Scott Joplin. As far as his lofty aims were concerned, he was to find himself very much the struggling original artist of whom Arnold Bennett had spoken.