King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era.
It is oddly fitting that, as Edward Berlin remarks, an "out-of-focus, botched photograph ... is the last image" (189) of Scott Joplin known to exist. Even Berlin's exhaustive treatment of the minutiae of Joplin's often transitory life, including reproductions of different census records, well-detailed maps of Sedalia, Missouri, when Joplin lived there, and full scores of many of Joplin's best-known compositions cannot entirely let the reader see a clear image of the so-called "king of ragtime." This is due, of course, to numerous unfortunate realities, not the least of which being the combination of scorn heaped upon ragtime as a popular and, thus, lesser art, and the almost complete erasure of ragtime from music historical records in the first quarter of this century. Further, U.S. attitudes about jazz overall, from the current neo-conservative embrace of the early "masters" to the general understanding of bebop in the 1940s and 1950s as a sort of Bohemian celebration of alienation, reveal an ambivalence that has not served personal and musical histories and their attendant documents well.
We see by the end of King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era that previous historical and biographical works on the composer, those places where information should be in decent enough condition to be reinvestigated, are often inadequate and woefully incomplete. Further, Joplin's current stature in popular culture is refracted through a kitschy prism related both to disparate ragtime revivals at various periods well after his death in 1917 and to the recent popularity of the 1902 piece "The Entertainer," which appeared in the 1974 Academy Award-winning motion picture The Sting and, as a result, was often re-recorded. To complicate matters of recollection, education, and memory further, Berlin reports in his final chapter a potential roomful of Joplin compositions which has disappeared and the unsuccessful work of contemporary composer T. J. Anderson to establish a scholarship from the proceeds of Joplin's important 1911 opera Treemonisha to benefit young musicians.
Berlin, whose 1980 book Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History is often credited with being the first serious history of the music, presents a well-researched rendition of Joplin's migratory life, but nonetheless punctuates the text with a relentless string of unanswered questions the author offers about his subject's inadequately documented life. For example, in discussing Joplin's first monetarily rewarding composition (and probably his most famous), "Maple Leaf Rag," Berlin ventures a discussion of how music instrument dealer John Stark came to hear, and publish, Joplin's piece. Berlin's questions the story that depicts the Anglo-American Stark walking into the Maple Leaf Saloon, an African American social club, for a beer and hearing Joplin's performance. Berlin asks,
If Stark wanted a beer, why would he have gone to a black social club for it,
one that did not even have a liquor license? On a hot summer day in a town
known for uncomfortable humidity, why would he have gone to an establishment
on the second floor, where the Maple Leaf was situated, rather than one on
the cooler street floor? Was the Maple Leaf Club even open during the
While an interesting process within a biography, this interrogative impulse is curiously suspended at other moments when, for example, the culture of ragtime and its acceptance in a rigidly segregated world begs consideration. Particularly, Berlin fascinatingly discusses Stark's open pride in the fact that the music he published was composed by African Americans. The importance of sheet music and its depictions of race in relation to music is an area much in need of discussion (along the lines of Mark Slobin's excellent 1982 book Tenement Songs: The Popular Music of Jewish Immigrants), yet Berlin merely describes the issue, excerpts some of Stark's publicity quotes, and goes on. Or, to cite another, smaller example, Berlin reports that St. Louis musician/composer Tom Turpin composed the "first rag," in 1892, with the alluring title "Harlem Rag" (later the first published ragtime piece by an African American composer, in 1897). Berlin does discuss Harlem later in the text (after Joplin's move to New York in 1907), but never ventures a discussion of Turpin's use of Harlem as a titular allusion. It's a small matter among many, but James Weldon Johnson's dual fascinations with ragtime and Harlem surely seem to point toward the need for commentary on such small matters. Berlin's book purports to be, after all, a study of Joplin's life and era.
So the questions, which appear often, appear too often in proximity to issues rather difficult to answer or address. As a biography, though, King of Ragtime is all the more exemplary for its consideration of options in the face of incomplete evidence. Berlin opens his study with prescient commentary on the use of census data to establish birthdates and other concrete information, concluding that "the approach in this biography is to present all the reasonable information, to discuss the options, and to suggest what seems most plausible" (5). This diffidence, and this willingness to converse with readers, is an important point to recall throughout the meticulously documented chapters that follow, since the phrase these questions remain unanswered is a brief but central disclaimer in almost every instance at which Berlin enumerates his lists of questions about sources, the veracity of certain events, and so on.
Joplin's years in New York are essential to this study, both because of his operatic work Treemonisha and because of the already thriving popular musical culture Joplin stepped into, with Will Marion Cook and Paul Laurence Dunbar, at one of the earliest peaks of popularity with In Dahomey, a 1903 success at the New York Theatre. Berlin shows that the cultural imperative to produce Broadway-style musicals had led Joplin down a troubled road with his earlier opera Guest of Honor (the title, Berlin suggests, being an allusion to Booker T. Washington's 1901 visit to the White House at Theodore Roosevelt's invitation). Yet Joplin still sought the aura of sophistication with Treemonisha although, as Berlin shows, he never received acclaim for the piece until well after his death.
This discussion presents two important dynamics. First, Berlin has discovered and documents that Joplin was indeed married twice, his second wife being the previously unknown Freddie Alexander, who died just two months into their marriage but who, Berlin suggests, prompted Joplin to "clarify and crystallize his ideas concerning racial pride and African-American heritage" (134). Treemonisha bears biographical resemblance in its storyline to Freddie Alexander's life and directly discusses the importance of education to African American cultural sustenance and continuance. This affirmation of both education, broadly based in a Du Boisian vein, and African American culture, says Berlin, recalls Freddie's unobtainable but suggestively decisive influence on the composer. Second, Treemonisha, like many of Duke Ellington's concert works, sets a historical background for future artists who have composed concert and chamber works and who place themselves in a tradition that includes Ellington and Joplin, especially people like Anthony Braxton (and the Chicago school of composer/performers in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians). The interarticulation of vernacular African American culture and language among the "high" arts of concert music, then, does not look so much like an outgrowth of a colorblind, totalized, postmodern condition as has been portrayed in works like Ronald Radano's New Musical Figurations: Anthony Braxton's Cultural Critique (1993) but instead reveals complex negotiations across the persisting cultural color line that exclusively inscribes "jazz" upon composers and forces them away from the kinds of intertextual (intermusical) projects they envision.
Berlin's chapters on New York share with Reid Badger's recent Life in Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe and Susan Curtis's Dancing to a Black Man's Tune: A Life of Scott Joplin a fine, wide-angle cultural focus on the scene that in many unacknowledged ways set the tone for the Harlem Renaissance. Harlem as a trope and as a physical locale for the Renaissance needs these works to illuminate the inter-regional avenues that created the movement and allowed it to have some level of popular appeal. Though the importance of Scott Joplin may not have been an issue during the period we designate as the Renaissance, his compositions almost surely enhanced the importance of Europe's Clef Club and Tempo Club. And though African American music with decisively popular elements has always been a cultural issue of some debate, both from the viewpoints of a white American cultural elite fearing "mongrelization" and from African American critics who have found the music on some level debasing, Joplin, Berlin shows, often remained above the discursive fray and was championed by ragtime's most ardent critics. What needs to be done in the wake of Berlin (and Curtis and Badger, et al.) is an accounting of how ragtime achieved its popularity in youth culture, how race became a definitive ingredient for white purchasers of sheet music and piano rolls. Whoever undertakes this job will have much of their Joplin work completed and well-documented in Edward Berlin's King of Ragtime.