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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
Actually it was not a calendar year but a period from late 1906 to early 1908 when the ordinarily stable Joplin is reported as moving from place to place. Despite—or perhaps because of—his deeply amorous nature marriage had been an especially serious step for Joplin, who was thirtytwo years old when he wed. One says “amorous nature” and adds “perhaps fated” because it is all, in essence, to be found in his only diary, his music. In some mysterious way Scott Joplin’s rags began to change after he and Belle separated in 1906. Presumably paralleling his life, they move from the gaily assertive, folklike, and scarcely shadowed melodies of “The Entertainer” into some of the most intimately revelatory of all piano music. These melodies and their haunting harmonizations become the pages of the secret diary of an intensely private and searching nature.
Joplin roamed about the country. He had women; we can glean a few names—and names only—from certain of the dedications of his rags: “The Sycamore” to Minnie L. Montgomery, “Leola” to Miss Minnie Wade, “Antoinette March” to Marie Antoinette Williams, and “The Nonpareil” to Miss Mildred Pender. Still he kept moving on. Some reports of his whereabouts are factual; some are rumors. Immediately after his wife’s death he spent several weeks in Chicago with the Marshalls—Arthur had married—while trying unsuccessfully 10 get a term contract of the sort he had had with Stark, but none of the big Chicago publishers was interested. Then he swung down to Texarkana. There have been persistent reports that he visited London, and he is said to have spent time later in San Francisco, on its notorious Barbary Coast. For a time he is known to have had his own flat in Chicago. After that, late in 1906 and well into 1907, he lived with the Tom Turpins in St. Louis.
The year 1906 saw only two foplin publications following the fecund 1905, evidence of the stress and distraction of the breaking up of his home. The two publications were the lovely 6/8 march “Antoinette” and the piano rag version of The Ragtime Dance . In any event, the freshet after drought came in 1907 with a spate of new issues: six rags and two songs. The rags comprise four by his own hand, “Fig Leaf,” “Rose Leaf,” “The Nonpareil,” and “Gladiolus,” plus two collaborative rags, “Lily Queen” with Hayden and “Heliotrope Bouquet.” The latter is the most haunting and perhaps the most precious of all his collaborative efforts, for its first two themes rescued from oblivion two melodies by the handsome young wastrel Louis Chauvin just before he died of syphilis at the age of twentyfive. He had previously published only two obscure songs. Like Hayden, Chauvin was living in Chicago, and Joplin is known to have visited both young composers there.
By 1908 Joplin can definitely be located in New York, and two rags of that year, “Sugar Cane” and “Pineapple,” bear the Manhattan imprint of the Seminary Music Company. “Fig Leaf” is an issue of the New York office of John Stark, as is Joplin’s only instructional manual, “School of Ragtime—Six Exercises for Piano.” The short exercises with their accompanying instructions are condensed evidence of Joplin’s tutorial gifts. They are notable, also, for being prefaced by his only surviving comment on ragtime:
What is scurrilously tailed nuftime is an invention that is hero to stay. That is now conceded by all classes of musicians. That all publications masquerading under the name ot ragtime are not the genuine article will be better known when these exercises are studied. That real ragtime of the higher class is rather difficult to play is a painful truth which most pianists have discovered. Syncopations are no indication of light or trashy music, and to shy bricks at “hateful ragtime” no longer passes for musical culture. To assist amateur players in giving the “Joplin Rags” that weird and intoxicating effect intended by the composer is the object of this work.
Scott Joplin had barely moved to New York when once again he was able to assist in launching the career of a young ragtime hopeful. Joseph Francis Lamb was just twenty-one and Joplin forty years old at the time, and their meeting took place when young Lamb dropped into Stark’s New York store, near the Flatiron Building on East Twenty-third Street. He was looking for anything new in ragtime sheet music. But this visit developed into something more momentous. Lamb’s memories were still vivid as he told about it long afterward, in 1949:
There was a colored fellow sitting there with his foot bandaged up as it he had the gout, and a crutch beside him. I told Mrs. Stark that I liked the Joplin rags best and wanted to get any I didn’t have. The colored fellow spoke up and asked whether I had certain pieces which he named. I thanked him and bought several and was leaving when I said to Mrs. Stark that Joplin was one fellow I would certainly like to meet.
“Really,” said Mrs. Stark. “Well, here’s your man.” I shook hands with him, needless to say. It was a thrill I’ve never forgotten. I had met Scott Joplin and was going home to tell the folks.
Mrs. Stark told him I had sent in a couple of rags for their approval. I had, all right, and they had come back two days later. Joplin seemed interested and asked if he could walk up the street with me. We walked along Twenty-third Street and into Madison Square Park and sat on a bench.