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.

The piano’s impact on blacks was considerable, bringing about a decline in the popularity of instruments such as the banjo, whose origins perhaps lay in Africa. The rise of an instrument irrevocably linked to bourgeois European notions of the home, the parlour and of harmony in every sense required major ideological adjustments. The piano embodied a kind of Enlightenment clarity: its keyboard made manifest, literally in black and white, a tonal range independent of muscles, lungs or lips. Its individual notes, percussively produced, were ‘given’ and, in jazz terms, uninflectable: they could hardly be ‘bent’ or encouraged to take on a distinctive edge through the insertion of mutes or other devices. To violate harmonic rules was to be socially as well as musically discordant; it is no accident that the primary business of John Stark, publisher of Scott Joplin’s most famous rags, was the selling of pianos.

The arrival of the cheap domestic piano hastened the decline of field songs and ‘spirituals’ among former slaves, but by and large failed to establish a pious white tradition of hymns and Chopin in their place. Instead, it helped to clear a space into which sentimental ditties, love-ballads and so-called ‘coon songs’ moved, as well as ragtime. This shift from sacred to secular at the family hearth perhaps accounts for some of the attacks on ragtime music as savage and degenerate. The aftermath of the Civil War had in any case raised the question of the extent to which newly freed slaves, together with their music, might aspire to become full participants in an ‘American’ way of life. Dvořák had engaged with the matter head-on when, in 1893, he declared that his experience of living in the United States had satisfied him that ‘the future music of this country must be founded on what are called the Negro melodies ... These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are American.’

White Americans persisted nevertheless in applying to ragtime metaphors that glanced knowingly at the old, trusty indicators of an untamable black sexuality. ‘Ragtime tunes,’ opined the director of the Institute of Musical Arts, ‘are like pimples. They come and go. They are impurities in the musical system which must be got rid of before it can be considered clean.’ ‘The counters of the music stores are loaded with this virulent poison which, in the form of a malarious epidemic, is finding its way into the homes and brains of the youth to such an extent as to arouse one’s suspicions of their sanity,’ thundered one journal. ‘The American “ragtime” ... is symbolic of the primitive morality and perceptible moral limitations of the Negro type,’ blustered another, adding that ‘with the latter, sexual restraint is almost unknown.’ The not unhappily named Karl Muck, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and one of a number of Germans imported to ensure that American musical life fulfilled its European destiny, felt moved to comment in almost urethral terms: ‘I think what you call here your ragtime, is poison. It poisons the very source of your musical growth, for it poisons the taste of the young. You cannot poison the spring of art and hope for a fresh clear stream to flow out and enrich life.’

In 1901, however, the St Louis Globe-Democrat reported the encounter between Scott Joplin and Alfred Ernst, also a German and director of the Saint Louis Choral Symphony Society. Undeterred by obstructions to the fresh clear stream, Ernst announced a project – never realised – to take the young composer to Europe. Joplin’s ‘genius’, he thought, was ready to blossom. His work, despite ‘a certain crudeness, due to his lack of musical education’, clearly indicated that ‘the soul of the composer is there and needs but to be set free by knowledge of technique.’ ‘Recently I played for him portions of “Tannhäuser”,’ announced Ernst. ‘He was enraptured. I could see that he comprehended and appreciated this class of music. It was the opening of a new world to him, and I believe he felt as Keats felt when he first read Chapman’s Homer.’

The only wild surmise which visited Joplin, who remained in America, required him to avert his gaze from the New World he already inhabited, and to look back across the Atlantic. Wasn’t Europe where the ‘spring of art’ itself was to be found? Most thinking citizens of St Louis would probably have agreed. And so, in August 1903, at Crawford’s Theatre on Locust Street, rehearsals began for what must be ranked as Joplin’s bid to reach that untainted source and the white recognition, even citizenship, it seemed to offer.

The location of Crawford’s Theatre, in the part of Locust Street that extended towards East St Louis and the red-light district, mocked Joplin’s aspirations from the start, confirmed aspects of his music’s history and partly sealed the fate of his outrageous project: an opera, no less, entitled A Guest of Honour. Even today, it has the air of a massive cultural oxymoron. Edward Berlin speculates that the libretto may celebrate Theodore Roosevelt’s politically dangerous invitation to a black man – the celebrated educationalist, Booker T. Washington – to dine at the White House. Styled a ‘ragtime opera’, A Guest of Honour could be counted equally provocative, proposing as it does a unification of the lowest and the highest in musical forms.

Like Wagner, Joplin had taken on responsibility for every aspect of the production, even forming a special touring group, Scott Joplin’s Rag-Time Opera Company, for the purpose. But the enterprise was doomed. In the absence of adequate backing, the production achieved only one performance, a scaled-down dress rehearsal. The theft of receipts at an early stage caused a planned tour to be cancelled, and with words and music lost in an abandoned trunk, the story goes, A Guest of Honour finally disappeared as a coherent work.

The other inhabitant of Locust Street at this time was T.S. Eliot. Born in 1888 at no 2635 (presumably a long way from Crawford’s Theatre), he lived there until 1905, when he began his own journey to Parnassus via the appropriately named Milton Academy in Massachusetts, followed by Harvard and then Paris, Oxford and London. Susan Curtis, whose book contributes to a continuing series on ‘famous Missourians’, doesn’t mention the connection, yet a similar notion of Art clearly impelled each of these American entertainers in the direction of Europe. Eliot’s notion of a coherence which somehow links Dante and Laforgue with Shakespeare and Donne is, of course, a vulgar transatlantic fiction. Derived from wishful thinking and a grab-bag of Harvard survey courses, it led him to extraordinary delusions about confections called tradition, sensibility and England.

Yet, despite an intense and ultimately corrupting Anglophilia, Eliot’s roots in Locust Street went deep, generating not only what he latterly, and in sonorous middle-class English tones, termed a youthful ‘nigger drawl’, but a lasting awareness of the proximity of implacable, dark and savage forces, symbolised by the sullen, untamed pulse of the nearby Mississippi. The disturbing non-European rhythms of that ‘brown god’ were always in the air, he tells us, ‘present in the nursery bedroom’ and permanently capable of undercutting safer, domestic measures. The syncopation of the images bobbing in its flow, its worrying ‘cargo of dead Negroes, cows and chicken coops’, haunts the wary time-step of Four Quartets, as well as other earlier and later works.

Both of these books offer readable and incisive accounts of Joplin’s life. If Curtis’s focuses more precisely on its Midwestern dimensions, Berlin’s offers greater detail about the later years, together with a closer and more technical scrutiny of the musical structures. It also contains a revelation: that on 14 June 1904 Joplin married a 19-year-old woman called Freddie Alexander. She died three months later. The details of this tragic affair are almost completely buried. Joplin’s associates and relatives never spoke of the matter, and Freddie Alexander seems until now to have virtually vanished from view. In rediscovering her, Berlin raises the possibility that her true memorial is Joplin’s most ambitious work and his second attempt at opera: Treemonisha.

Treemonisha was finished in the late summer or autumn of 1910. By 1909, Joplin had broken with Stark, but his alternative publishers all rejected the new piece. He was forced to publish it himself in 1911. Hailed, in a favourable review by American Music and Art as a ‘thoroughly American opera’, it tells the story of a young black woman who seeks to lead her people out of ignorance and away from the superstition and ‘conjury’ which hold them back, towards a vision of freedom and truth. This white, European model of ‘improvement’, offering moral and spiritual uplift through education and literacy, causes the libretto to stagger under a burden of sentimentality and bad faith.

Joplin’s use of a kind of cod ‘down home’ discourse for the repressed blacks and their exploiters – ‘Dis here gal don’t believe in superstition ... Dat’s de truth’ – compounds the felony, and Treemonisha’s ‘standard’ English, presumably intended as a sign of her own education, rarely penetrates a self-imposed haze of Christmas card smugness: ‘For ignorance is criminal / In this enlightened day, / So let us all get busy / When once we’ve found the way.’ Apart from one or two stirring numbers, the music flounders and sprawls, clutching at a gravity that almost always escapes it. The rhythmic and melodic subtleties of ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ are continents away.

From 1911 to the end of his life, Joplin put most of his energy into this dubious project. From the first, promised stagings seemed always to disintegrate. There are confused reports of an informal performance, put on at his own expense, in Harlem in 1915, to which friends and backers were invited. But the audience amounted to only 17 people. His public pronouncements – ‘my opera ... is not ragtime, and the score is grand opera’ – indicate bravado rather than confidence. Fashion and, more important, the focus of black consciousness were changing. Demographic and economic pressures were beginning to turn Harlem into a centre of self-confident African-American culture, and Joplin’s self-abnegating view of ‘de truth’ must have jarred in a community less and less likely to be discountenanced by its own origins and way of life. In 1917, he entered a ward for the insane in Manhattan State Hospital. He died there on 1 April, aged 49, and, in fulfilment of Dr Muck’s direst predictions, of syphilis.

The time was in any case altogether unpropitious: for 1917 was the year not only of the Bolshevik Revolution and of America’s entry into the First World War, it also brought the closing of the New Orleans brothels, at the behest of the United States Navy Department – an event which precipitated jazz music up the Mississippi, beyond St Louis, into the great northern cities of Chicago and New York, and from there to the world at large. Already, by January, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band had opened at Reisenweber’s in Manhattan, from where their brand of white, domesticated jazz barged boisterously onto the stage of popular music, elbowing ragtime decisively into the wings. In June the publication of Prufrock and Other Observations announced a brilliant début.

The posthumous indignities traditionally associated with the assuaging of national guilt were duly inflicted on Joplin over the years. Two volumes of the Collected Works were published in 1971 by the New York Public Library. In 1972, the first full production of Treemonisha was given in Atlanta, and in 1975 another, re-orchestrated version was produced by the Houston Grand Opera. In the same year it reached Broadway. In 1976, Joplin was awarded a special Bicentennial Pulitzer Prize for his contribution to American music and finally, in 1983, the reproduction of his likeness on a United States postage stamp completed the restoration of the years that the locust had eaten.

As both these books expertly and incisively demonstrate, his life nevertheless still teems with unanswered questions. Is Treemonisha Freddie? Do Joplin’s manuscripts still exist? What happened to the duffel bag, reportedly full of them, and including a piano concerto, glimpsed in the office of an executor of the Joplin estate in the late Fifties? And perhaps most intriguing and ironic of all, was Joplin finally, but murderously, embraced by the culture to which he had aspired? Were some of the strains from Treemonisha ultimately plagiarised by a European-born composer and covertly woven by him into a melody that brought world-wide fame – a process which first travestied and then obliterated Joplin’s work?

‘That’s my tune,’ Joplin is reported to have said when he first heard Irving Berlin’s ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’. Published in 1911, the noxious frivolity of this song’s lyrics managed – virtually unaided – to torpedo any claims ragtime might thereafter make to be a serious and complex musical form. But by then, the United States from which his tunes derived, and towards which Treemonisha was directed, was fast vanishing. Joplin’s own story, of deluded aspiration, mistaken conviction and stubborn persistence, may be better rendered in Berlin’s other attempt to capture national preoccupations, ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’.