"Maybe 50 years after I'm dead my music will be appreciated."
-- Scott Joplin, 1915It might seem ironic, or it might seem typical, that it took a wealthy white musician to give a mostly undiscovered African-American composer his due.
Prior to 1974, few other than ragtime music diehards had heard of Scott Joplin. But after the movie "The Sting" became a huge hit in the early winter months of that year, Scott Joplin was transformed into a household name.
Joplin's ragtime music, incredibly popular in the early 20th Century, was heard throughout the movie as arranged by Oscar- and Grammy-winning composer and pianist Marvin Hamlisch. "The Sting" won seven Academy Awards, including best picture, and it also spawned a hit single, Hamlisch's "The Entertainer," based on a song Joplin wrote in 1902. "The Entertainer" reached No. 3 on Billboard Magazine's Hot 100 list in 1974.
After decades of obscurity the public had rediscovered Joplin. You can meet him today in St. Louis at the only home in which he lived that still stands. A 30-minute-long guided tour takes you through exhibit rooms and a reproduced turn-of-the-20th-Century flat.
To appreciate Joplin's significance in American musical history, one should understand ragtime. At Joplin's home you learn about the syncopated, bouncy, piano-dominated music, originally known as "ragged time," because of its supposed ragged sound. Traditionalists didn't listen to ragtime when it was first developed. They thought it was immoral.
Yet, ragtime performer and historian Jan Douglas notes, "Ragtime made an amazing transition from music of the counter culture and the black culture to music of the mainstream. It made a sudden transition from the whorehouse to the parlor."
You can hear classic ragtime in a chamber designated as the music room where a player piano, circa 1915, cranks out the frisky sounds of Joplin and other ragtime greats such as Tom Turpin and Eubie Blake. Visitors are often seen sitting at the piano, pretending to be tickling the ivories.
The brick, two-family home with arched doors and windows was just over 40 years old when Joplin moved in with his wife in 1900. Joplin lived and worked here until 1903, composing "The Entertainer," "Elite Syncopations" and "The Ragtime Dance" on a piano similar to the James A. Holmstrom cabinet grand sitting in an upstairs parlor today.
By that time, Joplin was spending most of his time at the piano composing and teaching, and performing only occasionally.
Sheet music for "The Entertainer," "Elite Syncopations," "Sunflower Slow Drag" and "Maple Leaf Rag" rests on the keyboard. It was his composing and not his performing that earned Joplin and his wife the money to settle here. Joplin published "Maple Leaf Rag" in 1899 and within six months it sold 75,000 copies of sheet music. It was a smash in the contemporary world of ragtime and would become the first sheet music ever to sell more than a million copies.
You read in a first-floor exhibit that Joplin was a child prodigy and was writing, improvising and playing music in his home in Texarkana, Texas, by age 11. Soon he was performing in a small band in front of local crowds. Restless and in search of a larger audience than could be found in Texarkana, he hit the road around age 14 in 1882 and for the better part of a decade played in the pool halls, saloons, theaters and brothels of St. Louis, New Orleans, Nashville and Louisville.
It was the central Missouri town of Sedalia that influenced Joplin's life in a more substantial way than any big city. Sedalia was the home of predominantly black George Smith College, and although Joplin was a gifted natural musician, he adored the idea of a formal education. What musical skills Joplin didn't learn in the school of hard knocks he learned at the school in Sedalia. He took music classes and experimented with complex musical rhythms. It was also in Sedalia where he met his wife, Belle Hayden.
And it was in Sedalia where he made his first major business contact, a white music shop owner named John Stark. Stark heard Joplin play in a local night spot called the Maple Leaf Club and was so impressed he decided to publish "Maple Leaf Rag," the tune that brought Joplin financial stability. One posted photograph shows the white-bearded Stark sitting at a desk. Another presents a run-down Maple Leaf Club, obviously taken years after its prime. You can also see an exhibit showcasing the evolution of recorded music, featuring the compact disc's primeval ancestors such as a Victrola cylinder and Edison 78-speed phonograph record. But in Joplin's day music was available for mass purchase only as sheet music, and several covers of Joplin's are on view.
To comprehend the racial climate in which Joplin worked, note the cover of the sheet music for his most famous song, "The Entertainer," graced by today's standards with a remarkably racist illustration of a stereotypical strutting, top-hatted black man on stage. The cover of "Maple Leaf Rag" is less offensive; it's simply a maple leaf.
You get an idea of the Joplins' living quarters on the second floor. The coal-burning stove in the kitchen was used for cooking, and the bedroom fireplace kept the couple warm in winter. On muggy St. Louis summer nights they would often sleep outdoors on the adjacent sleeping porch.
On top of a cabinet in the parlor is a violin, and it is in this room that visitors are told about the time Joplin tried to teach Belle how to play. Our guide said, "It probably didn't go too well since they never spoke about it."
The marriage didn't last, the couple separating shortly after their only child, a baby daughter, died. Joplin ultimately remarried twice and moved to New York.
You read in the Joplin House about the composer's pet project, an opera called "Treemonisha," which Joplin began writing around 1909. "Treemonisha" told the story of a free black couple in the years immediately after the Civil War. They adopt a baby girl who grows up to become a teacher and leader. Nobody, not even Joplin's long-time friend John Stark, felt it could be a commercial success, and Joplin was unable to get a publisher.
Obsessed with "Treemonisha," Joplin himself arranged to have the opera published, and for the next few years he scrimped, saved and sweated to bring it to the stage. He had resigned himself to the fact he alone would have to produce it.
Nevertheless, though parts of it were performed publicly, the entire opera never was.
Joplin was devastated. And with ragtime music rapidly losing popularity in favor of the more complex jazz, Joplin lapsed into periods of depression over the next few years. He died in 1917 at age 49 from complications of syphilis in a hospital for the mentally ill in Manhattan.
"Treemonisha" was performed for a second time about 60 years later, in Atlanta, in 1972. In 1976 it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music.
IF YOU GO
Scott Joplin House State Historic Site at 2658 Delmar Blvd. in St. Louis is open March to October 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Tours are offered on the hour. Admission: $4 for adults and $2.50 for ages 6-12. Information: 314-340-5790; www.mostateparks.com/scottjoplin.htm.
Note: The building next door to Joplin's house has been refurbished and opened as the new Rosebud Cafe, featuring four live ragtime performances every year. The first floor of the cafe interprets a turn-of-the-20th-Century bar. The second floor has a contemporary look to accommodate large groups and special performances. (The original Rosebud Cafe where Joplin played was located at 22nd and Market Streets, roughly five blocks away.)
Best Western Inn at the Park, 4630 Lindell Ave.; 314-367-7500.
Holiday Inn--Forest Park, 5915 Wilson Ave.; 314-645-0700.
Red Roof Inn--Hampton, 5823 Wilson Ave.; 314-645-0101.
For information on other African-American historic sites in St. Louis, contact the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission, One Metropolitan Square, Suite 1100, St. Louis, MO 63102; 800-916-0040 or 314-421-1023; www.explorestlouis.com.
--M.S.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times