Dat’s de Truth

Terence Hawkes

  • Dancing to a Black Man’s Tune: A Life of Scott Joplin by Susan Curtis
    Missouri, 265 pp, £26.95, July 1994, ISBN 0 8262 0949 1
  • King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era by Edward Berlin
    Oxford, 334 pp, £19.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 19 508739 9

In 1903, on Locust Street in St Louis, Missouri, two Americans found themselves engaged in complex and fateful negotiations with European culture. One was Scott Joplin, black ‘King of Ragtime’ and already the famous composer of ‘Maple Leaf Rag’, ‘The Entertainer’, ‘Peacherine Rag’ and ‘Elite Syncopations’. (The other can be caught up with later.) The son of a former slave, born in 1868, the year of the ratification of the 14th Amendment, which began the struggle for equal treatment under the law for black Americans, Joplin was a quintessential child of his time. By 1903, he had been in St Louis for two years. After a sojourn in Sedalia, Missouri, whose Maple Leaf Café had inspired his most famous composition, his move to the city confirmed a series of significant developments in African-American music. Ragtime had first begun to make its presence felt at the Chicago World’s Fair (the Columbian Exposition) in 1893, where, at what Susan Curtis perceptively calls a significant ‘frontier of modern culture’, the music of black Americans offered serious competition to the classical music of Europe. Despite an economic depression, people flocked to the ‘midway’ and the sporting house districts where it flourished. By the turn of the century, ragtime was thriving from coast to coast and more than a hundred rags were in print as sheet music. ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ had turned out to be a phenomenal bestseller. Published in 1899, it sold half a million copies in ten years and made Joplin a nationwide reputation.

The 1904 St Louis World’s Fair (the Louisiana Purchase Exposition) would attract an even larger number of ragtime piano players, from all over the United States. Although banished to the area given over to mere diversion (an unofficial policy of racial segregation was partly to blame), the music’s presence was bound to be forceful. Despite Joplin’s relatively humble role as ‘entertainer’ (the title of one of his most haunting compositions) ‘The Cascades’ would become his fetching memorial to the Fair’s famous Cascades Gardens. In 1903, then, St Louis was poised to house the royal court of a truly American music. As ‘King of Ragtime’, Joplin sat securely on its throne.

It is probably misleading to think of ragtime as part of the prehistory of jazz. Despite attempts to link it with the emergent blues and improvised music developed by African-Americans after the First World War, ragtime represents a quite different mode. It is essentially a written music for the piano. In fact, most of the classical ragtime composers insisted that it be played as written, preferably at a moderate to slow tempo. Joplin despised the crowd-pleasing antics of ‘finger-busting’ showmen and went out of his way to emphasise that ‘it is never right to play ragtime fast.’ The music’s dignified, shimmering figures may have provoked discreet tapping of the feet, or been deemed suitable for novelty dances like the cakewalk, but it aimed at the sort of gentility implied by titles such as ‘Gladiolus Rag’, and ‘Heliotrope Bouquet’.

Embodying almost the reverse of the ‘savage’, the ‘hot’ and the improvisatory, it was never readily adaptable to the ‘animal’ dances which jazz inspired: the Turkey Trot, the Ostrich Walk and the Grizzly Bear. The melodies later fudged together by jazz bands as ‘Tiger Rag’ began life as components – some of them in waltz time – of a stately New Orleans quadrille. In this sense, ragtime represents a kind of ‘writing down’ – almost a domestication – of an oral, African impulse, and a bid on the part of its early (and best) exponents for a kind of white, European respectability.

Ragtime’s astonishing success depended on the new techniques of mass-production, which made pianos more generally affordable. This in turn fuelled the production of cheap sheet music and, as Susan Curtis points out, eventually revolutionised the sort of entertainment judged suitable for home consumption. A solid, often ornate piece of furniture, the new upright, steel-frame piano came, by the end of the 19th century, to symbolise the respectability that was the reward of the upwardly mobile.

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