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JoeMc on 05/20/2010 at 02:30PM

A Ragged Life; or, How to Invent Modern Music in One Easy Step

If he looks unhappy, it may be because in 1908, when this photo was taken, things were going south.

If there's one thing that seems inarguable to me about popular music, it's that it operates on a continuum. Nothing springs full-grown from the head of a Gershwin or an Armstrong or a Hank Williams; the music we think of as new all comes from those who have come before. The best musicians and performers will revamp, recombine, and renew the music of past generations, but the roots are always showing.

Well, almost always. One guy who is pretty darn close to the main root of all of the musical trees that grew up during the 20th century is a quiet little dude from Texas who decided that mixing some African syncopation into European forms might make for an interesting hybrid. His name was Scott Joplin, and his experiment in musical miscegenation would transform popular music in America.

Ugh, that sentence there sounds like a PBS documentary is about to start. Have no fear, this post will be shorter than Ken Burns' Jazz (at least a little shorter). But the truth is, Scott Joplin did have a lot to do with creating the music that led to the music we listen to now. He never actually recorded anything himself, but we do have some piano rolls he had something to do with, and if you play them back, you can get a hint of what he might've sounded like. Listen to a couple of them below, and I'll make an attempt to continue in a slightly less PBS-inspired manner after the jump.

Joplin was one of those guys who had it from the get-go: As a kid, he'd sit at the piano at his neighbor's house and improvise, creating songs out of nothing at all, much to the amazement of his parents. Once it became clear that Scott wasn't serious about doing anything else but playing, his mother brought him to a German music teacher in Texarkana, who schooled the kid in music theory, keyboard technique, and the great composers, allegedly without asking a dime in return. Joplin also grasped a whole different tradition, an African folk song tradition that would be intimately familiar to the child of a former slave. His musical education encompassed not only the classical standard-bearers, but also the spirituals and jigs he'd learn for to play for pocket change at local black churches and dances. Like the Ray Charleses and rock 'n' rollers who came later on, Joplin absorbed all kinds of music and this mixture was the basis for his style.

While still a teenager, Joplin decided to try and make his living as a musician, but he found the going rough, and the only work he could get was in brothels and bars in Chicago and St. Louis. He did manage to attend composition classes at an all-black school in Sedalia, a city almost 200 miles west of St. Louis, while making his living as a piano player in dives. Joplin eventually moved to Sedalia, where his talent became evident to the locals fairly quickly and he got a comfortable gig at the Maple Leaf Club, a sort of black gentleman's club.

Joplin wasn't there long before his knack for improvising new tunes got noticed, and he started to write them down. One of the most unusual was a tune he named after the club, the "Maple Leaf Rag." Although other people had clumsily "ragged" (syncopated) songs before, none had done it with such sophistication or style, and Joplin's piece, once published as sheet music in 1899, became a blockbuster hit. It almost singlehandedly started the craze for Ragtime, which dominated the next 15 years of popular music. By combining syncopated African rhythms with a European classical approach, Joplin created something vastly influential on all the music that followed. Listen to it below in a piano roll restoration that is about the closest we can come to hearing how Joplin might have played it. (Piano rolls were like punch cards in a piano that recorded a pianist's performance for later playback.)

And that's the happy part. Credits roll, if this is the movie. But life isn't a movie, and after this high point of his career, things went less swimmingly for Joplin. A divorce; a dead child; a quick remarriage, and five months later, that wife's death, too. Joplin made a good living as long as he stuck to creating rags, but because he was an ambitious guy, he started to compose operas, and he got into trouble. His first opera never made it out of Sedalia; his second went bust after somebody stole all of the box office money; and as for the third, well, he pounded the pavement for almost ten years in New York to get it produced and never managed it. The best he could do was a run-through with his piano at a rehearsal hall, which the invited critics bashed, even though it did what his rags did in a different form: meld African and European theme and feeling. Joplin's operas were too black for whites and too white for blacks, and his audience drifted away to Broadway or jazz. By the late teens, ragtime was all ragged out.

So was Joplin. Once fairly comfortable financially, Joplin got poor pretty fast. But it just got worse: It turned out that he had syphilis, probably picked up from one of those Chicago or St. Louis brothels way back when. In the days before antibiotics, it was a killer. The syphilis attacked his brain, he went mad, and he died as a patient in the Manhattan State Hospital for the insane in 1917.

It's nice, I guess, that Joplin has been rediscovered by subsequent generations, first in the late 40s/early 50s during the dixieland revival, and then in the 70s, when "The Entertainer" hit #3 on the Top 40 after The Sting starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman came out (the version below is from a 1902 piano roll, not the Marvin Hamlisch hit version). It's probably too early for the next revival, but you never know. Old-timey as they can sometimes feel, Joplin's rags were among the first indications that America's music would be a great big stew of different flavors from different places, and the next generation of jazzers would run with it. You can hear more Joplin, and more Ragtime, courtesy of Curator Oddio Overplay, who has posted a wonderful collection called Frog Legs on the FMA. Check it out here.




jason on 09/17/14 at 04:04AM
Revisiting this great historical post!
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