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Scott Joplin, who was dubbed "The King of Ragtime Writers" early in his composing career, earned the title through diligence, innovation, and sheer talent. Although he was not entirely responsible for helping lower many of the barriers that stood between black composers and success, Joplin was a leader in this regard, if a passive one. This biography touches on the major points of his life, and does include a lot of independent research by the author. However, is only a subset of Dr. Ed Berlin's authoritative book on Joplin, King of Ragtime, which is a higly recommended source for those interested in Joplin and his publishing champion, John Stark.
Early Years - Finding a Footing
Scott was born in eastern Texas near Linden. The true birth date is unknown, and the common one of November 24 1868 was suggested by his last wife Lottie, although it was likely between July 19. 1867 (the day after the 1870 Census listing him as 2 years old) and mid-January of 1868 according to historian and Joplin biographer Ed Berlin. The June 1880 Census lists him as 12 years old, further reinforcing this probability, and the 1900 Census lists him with an October birth month, although in 1872, a curiosity for certain. Still, based on that record, an October 1867 date seems probable, yet it is possible that even Joplin himself was not certain.
The future composer grew up in the uncertain era of reconstruction. His father, Giles Joplin (sometimes spelled Jiles), was a slave who was freed before the Civil War, and his mother, Florence Joplin, was freeborn. He had four other siblings, including older brother Monroe (1861), Robert (3/1869), Josie (1870), William (1875) and Johnny (3/1880). During Scott's first few years, his parents worked as tenant farmers in East Texas. As the family grew, Giles got a job with the railroad in Texarkana, and Florence took up house cleaning and taking in laundry. Both parents were musical, and Scott learned to play the banjo at an early age. His obvious inherent musical talent earned him offers from area piano teachers to tutor him for free. One in particular, Mr. Julius Weiss, gave Scott a solid foundation of not only piano performance skills but an appreciation for classical music forms.
By the age of 12 he was competent at both interpreting and writing music. His father left home around that time to take up residence with another woman, but stayed minimally involved to some extent in Scott's life. In the June 17/18, 1880 Federal Census taken in Bowie, Texas, Giles is shown as still residing with the family, working as a common laborer, but he may have left within the year. The same record shows Florence and oldest son Monroe working as well, with Scott and Robert in school. The youngest Joplin, Johnny, was only 3 months old when the Census was taken in mid June, and the youngest three were recorded by the enumerator as having the measles. Scott helped his mother raise his siblings, but always followed his passion for music. There are suggestions by Ed Berlin that during his mid to late teens he spent some time in Sedalia, likely with a relative, but came back at some point to Texarkana. Around age 19 or 20 he left home for good.
Scott spent the next few years as an itinerant pianist, developing his own style while absorbing influences of other Midwest musicians. He spent a great deal of time based in St. Louis, and went to the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition (World's Fair) in 1893. It was here that ragtime music, then in its infancy, was most likely heard by the public, and by many other musicians as well for the first time. While it is very unlikely it was played at one of the exhibition's main musical venues, there were certainly a number of establishments just outside the fairgrounds with pianos and no shortage of willing performers. There is no confirmation that Joplin performed anything much less ragtime at the event, or even that he knew any; simply that he was most likely exposed to it to some degree in Chicago.
After the fair, Scott made another appearance in Sedalia with his friend Otis Saunders. He remained there for several months, lodging in the Marshall family home, where he first met young Arthur Marshall at age 13. While based in Sedalia, over the next couple of years he formed various bands and singing groups, including the eight member Texas Medley Quartette which featured his two of his younger brothers, Robert and Will. From 1894 to at least 1896 they toured part of the central and eastern United States. During his travels, Joplin managed to get two of his earliest pieces published, including a maudlin song named Please Say You Will.
His first instrumental works included two typical waltzes of the period, and one ambitious march. A descriptive piece in a style that would soon be the domain of composer E.T. Paull, who was already gaining fame for his Chariot Race or Ben Hur March, Joplin's The Great Crush Collision was intended to emulate a leisurely afternoon journey ending in a horrific train wreck. In reality, it was composed to commemorate a wreck staged by agent William George Crush of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (Katy) railroad line in Texas on September 15, 1896. That afternoon did not go quite as planned. With around 40,000 spectators in attendance to watch the spectacle, it was inevitable that at least two would be killed by the boiler explosion following the crash. Joplin's march was published soon afterwards in Temple, Texas. While it has few descriptive titles in it, there is detailed text denoting the passage with the fatal wreck of the trains speeding towards each other at 60 miles per hour. Whether the piece was perhaps commissioned by the publisher or was just opportunism is unknown.
Missouri - The Rise to Fame
After spending a little more time on the road, Joplin settled for a time in Sedalia, Missouri in late 1896, a move that would change his life. Sedalia was a busy and important railhead in western Missouri, and also the endpoint of a major cattle trail, so the town was usually full of visitors from all over the region. Already a published composer with five pieces to his credit, Scott attended the George R. Smith College (founded to encourage higher education for African Americans) to further his musical knowledge. Marshall may have also attended with him once he turned 14. While it has been postulated that he took courses to learn how to more accurately notate syncopation, a necessity for correctly writing down his ragtime compositions for others to play, given his previous experience his course study at Smith may have been more for advanced harmony and theory, an enrichment of his current knowledge base.
Joplin performed in many area venues during this time both as a solo performer and with varying sizes of groups playing either piano or cornet. Among those was the well-regarded Queen City Concert Band, who often did concerts in Pettis County and surrounding areas. There were also many dance organizations to play for as well, including the Manhattan Dancing Club, the Autumn Leaf Club, and the Black 400, which was run by Tony and Charles Williams. Scott further acted as a mentor for many of the younger black musicians in town, who would often congregate at the Marshall home for instruction and inspiration.
Scott's first piano rag publication came in early 1899. He had submitted a work to Kansas City, Missouri publisher Carl Hoffman. It was endorsed by Hoffman's young staff composer and whiz kid Charles N. Daniels, who received an "arranged by" credit on the cover. There is no clear evidence, based on Daniel's work or his later recollections, that Charles arranged anything more than to have it published. There have also been stories that Joplin submitted another fine rag to Daniels but that it was rejected as too dificult, but again such stories are hard to confirm, even if they are plausible. Scott's next move towards greatness was back in Sedalia. It was while working in one of the many drinking and gathering establishments in Sedalia in the summer of 1899, the short-lived (December 1898 to January 1900) Maple Leaf Club, that Scott allegedly became involved with one of his greatest champions, music store owner John Stark, and at the very least where he found the name for his first truly inspired rag. The club was run by Walker and Will Williams, and located on the second floor of 121 East Main, just over a block east of the primary downtown route, Ohio Street.
How Joplin actually presented the piece to Stark has also become a point of legend. In any event, Stark, who had acquired some publications from another source and was considering putting out some of his own, was impressed enough by Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag that he quickly took it on, giving the composer a royalty (.01¢ per copy). This was very unusual at this time, more so since Joplin was a black composer working with a white publisher. Since it was likely a lawyer friend of Joplin's that helped make the contact with Stark and drew up the contract, it may have been a mutually agreed upon point that not only provided protection for both parties, but would eventually alter Joplin's financial well-being, allowing him to spend more time composing. Stark further encouraged Joplin to bring him more compositions, of which the collaborative Sunflower Slow Drag may have been submitted around the same time. The Maple Leaf Rag, published in Sedalia but printed and distributed in St. Louis as well, was nearly an instant hit locally, and over the next two decades it reportedly became the first piano rag to sell a million copies, although when that mark was reached is unclear. Although the relationship between Stark and Joplin would often be strained over much of the next 18 years, the publisher always promoted Joplin's works as the finest in his catalog. Those periods of animosity between them are in part demonstrated by name of varying publishers whose imprints appear at the bottom of each new Joplin rag.
Of some interest is the progression of Maple Leaf Rag editions that have been in more or less continuous print since 1899. The first, likely printed in St. Louis and distributed there and Sedalia, and places in between, featured a drawing based on a tobacco advertising sketch from the American Tobacco Company. The dancers depicted on the cover are none other than famous black vaudeville stars George Walker and Bert Williams and their wives dancing the cakewalk. After perhaps 1000 copies had been printed, the cover was changed to the common and more familiar Maple Leaf in 1900. The dedication remained even though the venue was closed by that time. The first of these editions had a picture of Joplin on the lower left side. Subsequent editions filled this area with a random pattern. It may be extrapolated that even though Stark did not outwardly demonstrate racism in his embracing of ragtime, some of his customers may have. Therefore, the removal of Joplin's picture identifying him as a black composer rather than suggest an anonymous one may have been simply a business decision to make this increasingly popular rag easier to sell in certain parts of the country. There would be virtually no other reason to change this plate unless the original lithograph was broken. That may have happened at a later time as in the 1920s and beyond there are a couple of mild variations of the famous cover leaf.
In the 1900 Census Joplin was listed as a musician, with his birth date curiously recorded as October of 1872, and his age as 27. He was lodging in the home of Susan H. Hankins, who was also hosting Belle Hayden Jones, the recently widowed sister-in-law of one of his young students, Scott Hayden. The only 1900 publication with Joplin's name on it was a collaboration with his student Arthur Marshall. Swipesy Cake Walk was relatively advanced for that time, and more of a foot-stomping rag than a cakewalk. Mostly the work of his student, Joplin is suspected of having contributed the trio section. This publication helped to solidify Joplin's name as a piano rag composer, and gave Marshall a foot in the door. Sunflower Slow Drag, composed with Scott Hayden and possibly submitted even before Swipesy, was published in 1901. As with Swipesy, Joplin most likely contributed the trio and a few edits elsewhere. Knowing that waltzes were still popular, Joplin wrote and dedicated the Augustan Club Waltzes to the white Augustain Club of Sedalia in early 1900. Possibly a commissioned piece, it was possibly first performed a special ball held by the club that February. However, Stark did not print the piano solo of Augustan Club Waltzes until 1901.
With the publishing business expanding in late 1899, John Stark left the store in Sedalia under the management of Will and moved to St. Louis to open a music store and a furniture moving business. It is probable that the first edition of Maple Leaf Rag had been printed there by a jobber, and as he was to take on more works (including some by his son Etilmon J. Stark), it made more sense to be in a city with better access to printing facilities and distribution. After another year and a half in Sedalia, Scott decided to make the same move. He was likely aware of the bustling ragtime scene in St. Louis, and the coming of the Lewis and Clark Exposition and World's Fair, due to open in 1903. Just before he moved to St. Louis in late 1901, Joplin (as some evidence suggests) possibly married Belle Hayden, and it may have also been a common-law marriage. The couple settled in St. Louis and Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden, along with his new bride Nora Hayden, soon followed them there for a while, even staying with the couple.
St. Louis in 1901 was a bustling locale musically, and it was home of the first published piano rag composed by a Negro, Harlem Rag by Tom Turpin. Turpin ran a number of different saloon enterprises along with his father and brother, and at his own Rosebud Cafe featured ragtime performers from all over, and even the occasional competition. Among the other St. Louis performers were the diminutive and highly talented Louis Chauvin, his friend Sam Patterson, and future entrepreneur and prolific composer Joe Jordan. When Joplin came to town, his growing legacy of fine compositions made him a near-instant celebrity among his peers, and even white reviewers and others in the St. Louis population took notice.
One in particular was Alfred Ernst, director of the St. Louis Choral Symphony Society. He was a German musician who had somehow met with Joplin and appeared to understand the complexities and fine construction of his works. In a newspaper article printed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of February 28, 1901, even before Joplin had officially moved to that city, Ernst talked about taking Joplin pieces to Germany for performance, and even taking the composer himself to play. There is no evidence that such a trip ever took place, but it did help increase the level of respect that Scott had been earning as a composer, and perhaps even as a performer of ragtime.
The contention that Joplin was a brilliant pianist should be abandoned based on a number of reports from his lifetime. He was regarded by many as not poor, but certainly adequate in his playing skills. However, he rarely earned money performing as a soloist, and even made a point of not frequenting many of the notorious venues where other ragtime and barrelhouse pianists were often found. When he was in need of funds, Joplin would play for special events and private parties, and perhaps at the request of Turpin when occasionally at one of his bars. Otherwise, he was evidently more than adequate at teaching both piano technique and music skills, even though his temperament of later years impeded these efforts somewhat. It appears that most of Scott's revenue was generated by royalties from his compositions and the occasional commissioned work.
Success and Heartbreak
The period of 1901 to 1902 was one of the first that found Joplin at odds with Stark. In late 1901 he had The Easy Winners published in St. Louis by Shattinger Music. Even though the title and the cover art represented sporting events and had the connotation of gambling, something that Stark did not endorse in his beliefs, Stark eventually acquired the piece from Shattinger for subsequent editions. Another fine work from the same time was his Peacherine Rag. Marches were still in vogue as well, so the first Joplin work of 1902 to be published was the march Cleopha. A second march from the same year was the less inspired March Majestic.
Among the standout Joplin rags of 1902 was The Entertainer, which was dedicated to James Brown and his Mandolin Club. Such clubs were quite popular during the ragtime era. It could be construed in the literal sense as the musical imitation of a comedic entertainer. In the first section with its call and response construction, it could be asking "why did the chicken cross the road?" The repsonse would be "to get to the other side." It was a memorable and popular work in St. Louis, and would of course become even more popular in the 1970s when it was used as the primary theme for the Univeral picture, The Sting. Another fine rag was The Strenuous Life, the title which came from a collection of essays published in 1900 by then-vice presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt. Joplin held Roosevelt, who had sinced gained the presidency through the assaniation of William McKinley, in very high regard as would soon be demonstrated by his first major stage work. Another rag from that time, A Breeze From Alabama, has remained popular into the 21st Century, particularly as a band work.
The next major flap between Joplin and Stark was over the publication of an extended rag ballet intended for stage or social events, which had evidently been performed as early as 1899 in Sedalia. Stark resisted taking the work on, knowing that it had only a limited sales potential. However, he grudgingly published this long version of The Ragtime Dance, which had been orchestrated and performed in St. Louis as well by this time, due largely to the prompting of his daughter Eleanor. The piece sold poorly as the elder Stark expected. Still, with profits from the other fine rags in his catalog, John Stark was able to open a music store and publishing plant in St. Louis.
Joplin wrote an early ragtime opera in two acts, which finished in 1903 and titled A Guest of Honor. The story was likely based on a formal visit to the Roosevelt White House by black scholar Booker T. Washington, which had been famously protested by many members of Congress from the South. Joplin formed a touring company of over thirty for the show which included Marshall and Hayden. Once Joplin had secured financing, the show debuted in St. Louis on August 30, and he then toured with it briefly in the late summer and fall of 1903. The planned tour included stops in Sedalia, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas. However, they did not make it beyond Springfield, Illinois, when some form of financial misfortune of an unknown nature occurred even before the first week was out.
The company evidently moved on to a few more stops, where it possibly ended in Pittsburg, Kansas. According to a story told by Lottie Joplin, the score was left in a trunk in Pittsburg. Ed Berlin speculated that this might possibly been the result of a seizure of the company's assets for the inability to pay their debts. Although no score has been re-discovered, remnants potentially remain in the form of a rag and march, and some titles from are known at the very least, including Antoinette, a march published in 1906. Also mentioned but never found were Dude's Parade and Patriotic Patrol, the latter of which may have been a militaristic stage drill. Another piece possibly completed during the Chicago visit of the tour was an arrangement of the song Little Black Baby by Louise Armstrong Bristol, which actually credits Joplin as the composer of the music, although that status is uncertain.
To add to Joplin's troubles, there is a possibility that he and Belle had been at odds for some time in St. Louis. He had hoped to engage her in his music by teaching her violin, but she turned out to have no aptitude for the instrument. After they had a baby girl that died at two months, the couple became estranged, then separated. Belle later moved away from St. Louis, ending their relationship. Contrary to some previously published information that perhaps confused Belle Hayden with Scott's second wife, she lived until 1930 or so. Since no official divorce is on record for them, this further reinforces the notion of theirs potentially being a common law marriage.
In spite of the energy that the opera and the tour required, Scott managed to have three rags published in 1903. Something Doing with Hayden may have been from the previous year. He placed the engaging and sanguine Weeping Willow Rag with publisher Val A. Reis, and possibly while in Chicago submitted his Palm Leaf Rag to rag-centric publisher Victor Kremer. The latter is also a favorite with ragtime orchestras over a century later. His most famous work was retrofitted, as were many instrumental hits of the time, with lyrics. Stark released Maple Leaf Rag as a song with coon-type lyrics by Sydney Brown, a move likely unauthorized by the composer, but over which he had little control. Given his largely dignified and pacifist demeanor, it is unlikely that he would have wanted the inclusion of potential razor blade fights and other stereotypical references associated with his famous rag. The original Maple Leaf Rag was also recorded for the first time in 1903 by clarinetist and composer Wilbur Sweatman, but the original cylinder has long been lost.
At some point after the financially disasterous Guest of Honor tour, Joplin spent up to a few months in Chicago before returning to St. Louis. By the time the Lewis and Clark Exposition and World's Fair opened there in late April 1904, nearly a year after the original projected launch, he was probably back in Sedalia where he briefly settled. Many African-American musicians and prominent citizens had lobbied for their own pavillion at the fair. However, some opponents conjectured that it would further segregate them from the majority of attendees who were white, so the effort was abandoned. Black performers were still easily found in the vicinity during the run of the fair, particularly on the mile long entertainment street known as The Pike.
Joplin was given an opportunity to play at the exposition, but his presence was overshadowed by many larger groups, including the legendary band of John Philip Sousa. He was one of many composers who wrote a work specifically for the exposition, giving the world The Cascades, a musical celebration and emulation of the waterfalls that extended out behind the Hall of Music on the fairgrounds. John Stark published The Cascades and wrote ebulient ad copy about it in the paepers. "Hear it, and you can fairly feel the earth wave under your feet. It is as high-class as Chopin and is creating a great sensation among mujsicians. This piece, Tom Turpin's St. Louis Rag, and the extremely catchy Meet Me In St. Louis by composer Frederick Allen Mills are the three pieces from that event that have endured the longest.
Other rags from 1904 included The Sycamore, a "concert rag" published in Chicago by Will Rossiter, likely submitted before his return to Sedalia. Also released was The Favorite, published in Sedalia by the other house, that of A.W. Perry who released a number of other ragtime works. This publication is curious as Joplin would likely not have gone with the smaller publisher by this time. However, Ed Berlin noted that Brun Campbell, a white pupil of Joplin's who had been in Sedalia in 1898 and 1899, stated that The Favorite was likely sold to Perry at that time. While the four year delay in releasing it is hard to explain, there is some potential credibility to that story.
Then there was the heartfelt masterpiece of 1904, The Chrysanthemum, published by Stark. The categorical status of this piece has long been under debate. The description of it given by the composer is "an Afro-Intermezzo." While there is nominally enough syncopation in the work to count it as a piano rag, historian Dave Jasen has maintained, with validity, that it is an intermezzo, a non-syncopated type of piece that lies in limbo between the march and the song, but is usually in ragtime form. This affecting piece has some of the hallmarks of European piano forms with Joplin's signature harmonic patterns and melodic flow, and an unusual but effective interlude that is a full sixteen bars in length. But there is another association to be made with this musical floral tribute.
Unknown for a number of years, but uncovered and researched by Ed Berlin for his book King of Ragtime, curing this period (perhaps even before) Scott somehow met a 19 year-old girl in Little Rock, Arkansas that had captured his heart. He subsequently married Freddie Alexander, to whom he had dedicated the first printing of the Chrysanthemum, on June 14, 1904. The couple then traveled back to Sedalia from Little Rock, with Scott playing concerts along the way. However, as soon as they reached Sedalia in July, Freddie took ill and was confined to bed for a cold that developed into pneumonia. The illness took her life in early September after they had been married less than three months. The details of Freddie's history have been difficult to unearth, and her burial information was lost in a subsequent courthouse fire. Ed Berlin, with a legion of volunteers, sought out her tombstone in Sedalia in 1988. However, she was possibly returned to Little Rock by her sister Lovie Alexander, and is just as likely to have been buried there.
This tragedy started a period of compositional malaise and possibly depression for the composer. Subsequent printings of Chrysanthemum had the dedication to the now deceased Freddie removed. For the remainder of 1904 he was difficult to find, but soon moved back to St. Louis by early 1905. Joplin re-established his relationships with Turpin, Chauvin and Patterson. Marshall had moved back to Sedalia with his new wife. In the 1950 book They All Played Ragtime by Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, the claim was made that young composer James Scott of Carthage, Missouri, made his way to St. Louis to meet the ragtime players there, and ideally Joplin himself. While there is no direct evidence that they actually got together, there are circumstantial bits suggesting it, including the association of Joplin with Frog Legs Rag. He had arranged Scott's best selling piece for band, which was published in Standard High Class Rag, better known as The Red Back Book. However, James Scott spent most of his time in western Missouri, and later Kansas City, so opportunities for an ongoing Joplin/Scott relationship were rather scant.
Joplin's next work was published in the spring of 1905. Bethena was published by a local piano manufacturer, the T. Bahnsen Piano Company of St. Louis. It is a brooding waltz reminiscent of some of the works of Brahms, who Joplin had likely studied in prior years. The piece was dedicated to a Mr. and Mrs. Dan E. Davenport of St. Louis, who may have helped him through his mourning period, and even set up publication with Bahnsen. Ed Berlin brings up the intriguing possibility that the girl pictured on the cover could potentially be Freddie Joplin. It could also be Bethena, but even though many Bethenas have been found in the Census, none could be pinpointed as the namesake of the piece.
Bahnsen also published a song Joplin wrote to lyrics by Henry Jackson, Sarah Dear, a ragtime song either commissioned by or written for the comedy team of Williams and Stevens, who traveled on the TOBA vaudeville circuit. One other piece published before that was either a commissioned waltz or one written in gratitude to another couple that had helped Joplin. William A. and Anna Morgens, who owned a dry-cleaning operation, had a share in the Bahnsen company. The piece was written for their toddler, James Allen Morgens, who was nick-named "Bing." How Bing was morphed into Binks is unclear, but the piece was published as the charming non-syncopated Binks' Waltz. The payment structure Joplin had with Bahnsen is unclear, but it was more likely a direct payment for a set quantity than a commission. This would have made sense for works that were not distributed very far beyond St. Louis.
The remaining 1905 works were more mainstream in both composition but not distribution. The Rose-bud March was a musical dedication to the famous Tom Turpin bar where so many early ragtime figures had congregated in St. Louis. A snappy 6/8 march, it had some of the elements of works by John Philip Sousa or Arthur Pryor, yet easily managed on the piano. Stark's company published the work. Leola, on the other hand, was poorly distributed by the little-known American Music Syndicate of St. Louis. The only ad copy found by this company listed an address of 300-302 N. 3rd Street in St. Louis as of July, 1903, when they were advertising Latonia Rag. Leola and Joplin got a raw deal in this instance. It is notable that this is the rag which first printed what is probably Joplin's own admonition: "Notice! Don't play this piece fast. It is never right ot play 'rag-time' fast. Author."
By the end of 1905, with the fair long gone and the musical center of the country having shifted north and east, St. Louis had undergone many changes. John Stark had set up shop in New York in an effort to compete with larger publishers who were putting out ragtime inferior (his staunch belief) to what was in his catalog. He left Will in charge of the St. Louis operation. Arthur Marshall had moved to Chicago along with a number of other St. Louis musicians looking for new work in a hopefully less saturated market, although most met with some disappointment in that regard. Joplin, faced with a number of choices that could leave him sinking into obscurity or taking a chance at more exposure chose at that time to follow the crowd to Chicago. His brother Robert was already there, along with Marshall, so he at least had some friendly faces to greet him.
Chicago was certainly a better market for publishers, of which there were many. Joplin already had a relationship with a couple of them. So his first published work of 1906, Eugenia, most likely another flora/fauna themed work named after the eugenia bush pictured on the cover, was taken in by Will Rossiter. It features some patterns and phrasing that were similar to the newer European impressionist composers, and had an overall flow that showed an advance in direction from his prior rags.
One of the coming music trends in both the home and in public was that of automated music. By 1906 pushup piano players had been internalized, and player pianos were starting to hit the streets. Joplin was able to capitalize on his fame and use it for an endorsement, most likely one that reciprocated with some compensation of some kind, for one of the more popular player systems of the time, the Apollo Player Piano. The company was among the first big successes in the business, and they touted Joplin's endorsement to their peers in the November 10, 1906 edition of the Music Trade Review:
The following letter was received by the Kieselhorst Piano Co. from Scott Joplin, a prominent local composer, under date of Nov. 5:Louis Chauvin and Sam Patterson also ventured up to Chicago at some point in 1906. Chauvin was starting to deteriorate physically and mentally. Although a number of medical theories have been put forward, a recent and more astute (although non-professional) diagnosis, which would explain his dimunitive height and yellowish coloring, would be that he suffered from sickle cell anemia. After a life of hard drinking and less than safe sex, a toll was extracted on the brilliant performer's body. It was during their concurrent stay in Chicago that Scott and Louis exchanged ideas for a couple of themes that had been running through Chauvin's head. Louis went back to St. Louis later that summer, but returned to Chicago in 1907.
"I want to thank you for your kindness in having my compositions arranged for the Apollo. Out of all the piano players that I have heard my pieces played on, the Apollo always has the best arrangement, and the music seems to be more perfect and cleaner cut. I also like the arrangement of my compositions when played on the Apollo Grand, as the couplers give it much more harmony and make it more like an orchestral arrangement."
It was in 1907 that Joplin would complete a rag based on Chauvin's two themes and submit it for publication, ostensibly to help benefit his ailing colleague. Heliotrope Bouquet, published by Stark, remains one of the most haunting rags that Joplin was associated with. It is likely that Louis wrote the A and B sections, while Scott finished it out, utilizing some of the Chauvin themes in both the trio and D sections. Louis Chauvin would die several months later in March 1908, partially from starvation due to a coma, and the rest from simply being worn out by disease.
Before that, however, Joplin returned to St. Louis late in the summer of 1906, but his activities in public were minimal. Two more pieces would be published late in the year. Antoinette, a 6/8 march that was possibly a remnant of A Guest of Honor, was published by Stark in St. Louis, who may have had it in their office for some time. With some editing by somebody at the Stark company, The Ragtime Dance was repurposed into a half-stoptime rag, trimmed a bit from its original 1902 edition by excising the extended verse and removing some of the repeats.
In early 1907 Scott relocated to Clayton, a suburb of St. Louis, and spent time with white musician Harry LaMertha. Out of this relationship came the piece Snoring Sampson: A Quarrel in Ragtime, which Joplin arranged. Another song appeared in the spring, When Your Hair is Like the Snow, with music by Joplin composed to lyrics by publisher Owen Spendthrift.
In terms of piano rags, the earliest of the year was Nonpareil (None to Equal. The source of the title is unknown. Well known 1880s pugilist Jack Dempsey had gone by the French-derived title of Non-Pareil, but by 1907 any memory of his work might have faded. There were also performing groups and venues that used the same name. The cover gives a clue with a picture of Uncle Sam unfurling an American flag. Whether Joplin or Stark named it might also be a point of speculation. It featured one of the most developed and mature trios to date, with a lot of left-hand motion. John Stark, who had been commuting regularly between New York and St. Louis, published the rag. Whether he had anything to do with Joplin's next move is uncertain, but Stark was likely a factor in it. After an early summer visit to his family in Texarkana, and another to Chicago to see Marshall one last time, Joplin followed Stark's lead and relocated to New York to be closer to opportunities that could forward his music career, never to return to the Midwest.
New York and New Horizons
Some of Scott Joplin's best-developed works are from the period 1907 to 1910, and they demonstrate the versatility of classic ragtime as well as a variety of textures that could be achieved within that framework. Even before he left St. Louis he had mentioned that he was wroking on another opera utilizing older Negro themes. This was likely the early development of Treemonisha, which would later nearly consume him. But for now, he needed to focus on getting down to business. His first residence was in a boarding house on 29th Street, which was a couple of blocks from Tin Pan Alley, at that time located on 28th Street just to the west of Broadway. It was in the tenderloin district, but also in close proximity to a number of Broadway theaters. He was also less than a mile from Stark's New York office on 23rd Street. Many of local venues featured black entertainers either in vaudeville, stage musicals, or musicians playing in restaurants, including some performers that Joplin had met in St. Louis, such as Joe Jordan.
After a month or so in Manhattan, Joplin turned in two of his masterpieces to publisher Joseph W. Stern, who had been friendly to other black composers. Stern, like Stark, was more likely to have paid royalties, and important point for a composer relying on a meager but steady income. Searchlight Rag, which was a nod to the town of Searchlight, Nevada, where Tom Turpin and his brother had a stake in the Big Onion Mine in the 1890s, followed some of the flow of Nonpareil, but was a little less developed. Gladiolus Rag, however, was close to the pinnacle of his composition career. While it followed the chord progression and symmetry of the Maple Leaf Rag, and even the key signature, the nuances throughout were much more sophisticated than his earlier model, and the dense moving chord progressions in the trio required more skill and understanding of harmony from the pianist than virtually any of his previous efforts.
Another collaboration with Marshall, possibly from 1906, was notated and arranged by Joplin, but Marshall wanted to go elsewhere than Stark for publication based on poor negotiations on a previous rag. So Joplin took it to Willis Woodward for publication. (The cover shows W.W. Stuart, but no other publication under that name could be found, and the address and the name in the title footer indicate Woodward). Even though Marshall claims to have written Lily Queen with no assistance, Ed Berlin and this author believe that Joplin's influence in notating the piece, something that Marshall was much less capable of, was enough to deserve a at least nominal co-author credit. The example of composer Artie Matthews, who also published with Stark, provides enough proof of such an influence, as certain pieces arranged by Matthews clearly contain unique characteristics found only in his few rags.
Then there is the question raised by Rose Leaf Rag, which was taken by Boston, Massachusetts publisher Joseph M. Daly. That Joplin ventured to Boston is possible, but given his limited income flow it may have been more likely that Daly, like many non-New York based publishers, had an agent in Manhattan to buy pieces and stock local stores with Daly sheet music. Rose Leaf Rag is another one of the high points in Joplin's extraordinary 1907 output, with a very delicate first section opening full of contrary and parallel motion between the hands. It is much less dense than the previous three pieces, but allowed pianists of lesser ability the opportunity to master a Joplin rag complete with that so-called "weird and intoxicating" sound.
A meeting of great consequence to the legacy of ragtime occured in late 1907 at the office of John Stark between Joplin and a younger white accountant who happened to also write ragtime, Joseph Lamb of Montclair, New Jersey. Lamb had been writing for several years, and already had a number of works in print, but no true piano rags. According to an interview with Joe recorded in 1958, he was at Starks office one day purchasing some of Joplin's more recent works. Before leaving, he vocalized his wish to meet the master at some point, and the clerk pointed to a man with one leg wrapped up sitting across the room. "There he is." Lamb was enthralled, and after the accolades of admiration told Joplin that he had been writing ragtime too. So Scott arranged for Lamb to play some of these rags for him that evening (or an evening soon after) at a gathering. Among the pieces he played were his Old Home Rag and Dynamite, the latter of which Joplin provided a suggestion for improvement. Then Joe played his rag Sensation piano rag. By the time the white composer finished his performance the room full of Joplin's friends had gone quiet. Then, according to Joe, Joplin or one of his friends said, "That sounded like a good colored rag," which is exactly what Lamb had hoped to hear.
Joplin arranged to have Sensation published by Stark, with his name on it as arranger to help with sales, even though his input was likely nothing other than the moral boost. Stark paid the composer $25 with the promise of another $25 after the first thousand copies were sold. A second payment was indeed made a few weeks later, but nothing further for his first true sensation. Just the same, John Stark published pretty much anything Lamb sent him from that point on through 1919, even after the publisher retreated back to St Louis a couple of years later. His output of twelve piano rags with Stark easily rivaled Joplin's for quality and innovation, in spite of a lack of intensive formal schooling in harmony and theory. Lamb was an important link to Joplin and his era when Blesh and Janis interviewed him in the 1950s for They All Played Ragtime
While an article printed in the summer of 1907 suggest that Joplin was only planning to stay in New York for a few months, he had decided by early 1908 to settle there. Since he was known to have attended several of the Broadway shows of his peers, and also to have established some important musical and publishing relationships, Scott evidently felt that he would be better able to implement some of his plans in the difficult but supportive environment of Manhattan. Joplin also had good exposure there, and his name was found in the New York papers from time to time. Most of the articles mentioned his grand plan, the opera he had been working for some time.
His first publication of 1908 made a great deal of sense. A decade prior, stage entertainer Ben Harney, with the assistance of composer Theodore Northrup, had released the first Ragtime Instructor. Entrepreneur Axel Christensen, who had been humiliated with poor piano playing in his teens, struck back and became adept not only at playing ragtime but writing and teaching it as well. He opened a successful chain of ragtime, later jazz, teaching schools in Chicago that stretched far beyond. But in 1908 his efforts were still largely confined to Illinois. Others had picked up on this and also gone after the correspondence and teaching market, with primers on how to syncopate.
Joplin countered these moves by creating his School of Ragtime, eight piano exercises that touched on various points of syncopation. It was an effort to not just teach the consumer how to play syncopation, but to read and perform it properly. Unlike many previous efforts, Joplin's book was aimed at interpreting piano rags in print, not so much in applying the ragtime style to other popular music forms. Perhaps more important than the eight exercises are Joplin's written comments, which clearly provide his view of how ragtime should not only be performed, but written as well. In his introduction he lashes out at "publications masquerading under the name of ragtime," and touts "real ragtime of the higher class," which would obviously include his own and his closest peers. He further makes clear that poor or sloppy performance of ragtime could add to its already tenuous reputation, and included the requisite warning about playing it too fast. Joplin self-published the piece through Enterprise Music, a music jobber in Manhattan, who had also done business with Stark. He, in turn, carried the publication in his 23rd Street office.
Fig Leaf Rag followed within a couple of months of School of Ragtime. Many historians have grouped it with Gladiolus Rag, Rose Leaf Rag and Nonpareil as one of the finest Joplin works of this period. There is an great deal of left-hand counterpoint found throughout, and even a couple of harmonic surprises in the A and B sections. The trio is a true masterpiece, albeit one of the most difficult Joplin trios to perform owing to the right-hand performing octave melody patterns throughout most of it. It is not as harmonically rich as Gladiolus, but the deep left-hand bass patterns give it a beautiful sonority of its own just the same. This would be the last Joplin rag published by Stark during the composer's lifetime.
Next up was Sugar Cane Rag, the first of Joplin's pieces published by Seminary Music, which was run by composer Ted Snyder who would soon be in business with Irving Berlin and Henry Waterson. All this ties together in another story to be relayed. In 1908, however, Seminary was a small but effective firm that evidently offered Scott good terms.
Stark did not take well to Joplin handing Sugar Cane Rag to yet another publisher, and privately criticized the piece in the press, not without good reason either. "Joplin is now only living in the dream of Maple Leaf. No one will perhaps ever equal that ingenious piece nor his Sunflower or Cascades. His labored effort is but a rehash of these numbers which no self-respecting publisher would print." Sugar Cane Rag was clearly modeled on Maple Leaf Rag, closely enough that it could be considered a pale rewrite of the original, yet with some newer elements as well which give it an identity of its own. Stark had also noted in his personal writings that Joplin had been moving about from publisher to publisher trying to find the best deal, and learning that he could have got it from someone else. It is not clear if this was true, but it does reflect the experience of many black composers in New York even into the 1930s.
Just the same, Joplin stuck with Seminary for his next piece in the fall of 1908, one which was clear more original and fresh. Pine Apple Rag by nature was intended to be performed faster than some of the more recent Joplin rags. The B section used a repeated pattern that varied by chords only, but chews up a lot of the keyboard in the process. The trio contains some of the primary harmonic patterns, and predicts both blues and boogie or barrelhouse piano, both of which Scott had almost certainly been exposed to in New York. The left-hand plays a variation of what could easily be shifted into a boogie pattern in many spots, and the right-hand plays into a flatted seventh chord, which would be a staple of blues piano. Many pianists have since taken to playing this section with a swing and swagger befitting of blues players. The final section also contains a boogie bass, or at least one that easily becomes more of a boogie-woogie bass by doubling up on the left-hand notes in the familiar broken octave pattern of the genre.
Pine Apple Rag was dedicated to the "Five Musical Spillers," a traveling vaudeville group of which Sam Patterson was a member. Joplin also had a relationship with William Spiller, the leader. The group played a variety of instruments including brass and mallets. According to Berlin in King of Ragtime, they were already playing Maple Leaf Rag, and took on Pine Apple Rag as well, as later recounted by William's wife Isabele Spiller. Pine Apple Rag enjoyed new popularity along with The Entertainer in the 1970s thanks to the Universal Picture The Sting from 1973.
While Joplin did seem to make some effort to reconnect with Stark, either to publish another rag or two, and perhaps to try and get backing for the opera, Stark had been embittered to some degree by the tough music business in New York City. There had been several sheet music price wars by the end of 1908, and even more were to come. Places like Woolworths were using cheap music as an incentive to get people in the doors, and they were selling music at or below cost, something which hurt other merchants, and ultimately the publishers and composers.
According to Lamb, Stark made it clear that he would not be paying any more royalties on new pieces. Between that and his refusal to consider Treemonisha, the relationship between Joplin and his most avid and able supporter was over. Lamb recounted that he and Joplin had co-composed a rag around 1909, writing two sections each, with Joe taking on the trio and the closing. Stark stated he would consider it only if Joplin's name was removed from the work. Since Lamb would not even consider this, the rag was taken back, and is now presumed lost to history. Stark's business was already hard hit by financial woes, and by 1910, with his wife ailing, John Stark would close his New York office and retreat to St. Louis where things made more sense. Sadly, his wife would die very soon after their return.
Finding the treatment of both himself and his rags by Seminary to be favorable, Joplin submitted Wall Street Rag to Snyder in early 1909. Other than The Ragtime Dance, which was really music with a set of stage instructions, this was his only descriptive piece in addition to The Great Crush Collision more than a decade earlier. E.T. Paull had been doing a booming business, in spite of having only published an average of two pieces per year since 1903, with his descriptive marches. Given his presence among publishers and composers in New York and in various organizations, plus frequent mentions in the trade, it is more than likely that Joplin was quite aware of Paull. Whether or not the work of the New York march king influenced Wall Street Rag is a matter of conjecture, but the author, who has written a full book biography on Paull, is inclined to believe that this is a probability.
Paull's works used music to either describe the emotion behind a certain moment, or in some cases the tenor of the event each section or passage was meant to convey. In this regard, Joplin applied a similar description to each of his sections, and like with many Paull marches, did not return to the A section, further suggesting Paull's influence. Part of the logic of this is that in order to move a story forward musically, a backwards move, such as the repeat of a section, is counter-intuitive. The descriptions for each section are as follows:
A: Panic in Wall Street, Brokers feeling melancholy.
B: Good times coming.
C: Good times have come.
D: Listening to the strains of genuine negro ragtime, brokers forget their cares.
The significance of this was that Joplin was attempting programmatic music, and it may have been related to ongoing work with Treemonisha as well. The opening section is indeed quite melancholy with minimal left-hand movement in the opening measures, focusing on the tonic and the flatted sixth. It is rhythmically reminiscent of Heliotrope Bouquet. While the second and third descriptions are a sort of cheat that play on each other, they are more traditional in their harmonic movement. The trio moves the melody above and below a persistent harmony, all in the right-hand. The final section does, in some ways, emulate the plucking of a banjo. It is unlikely this rag would have been written in St. Louis, so Joplin was now very much a New Yorker.
The habañera rhythm had been a popular staple of ragtime composers for nearly fifteen years. Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton would become one of the most frequent users of the African-based rhythm, which in his hands would become known as the "Spanish tinge." Black composers Ford Dabney and Will Tyers would also make use of it, as would Artie Matthews in his Pastime Rags. Often misinterpreted as a tango rhythm, which has some not-so-subtle differences, many so-called tango were released starting just prior to 1910 which were based on habañera patterns. If there was no other prescient exposure to this rythym in pop music, most musicians had heard it from the opera Carmen and its famous Habañera dance.
Joplin, while not ahead of the curve, did treat the rhythm with more respect when he composed Solace. It was subtitled "A Mexican Serenade," which was somewhat more proper than calling it a tango, and it was certainly not a rag either. If not for its syncopation, Solace might have been called an intermezzo, but was saved from this fate by syncopation throughout. This lyrical piece, of which the trio and D sections were made famous by the soundtrack for The Sting in 1973, also called on some of the harmonic progressions of Mexican music of that time. It is not unlikely that Joplin would have had exposure to this during his travels in Texas, and even perhaps in St. Louis when Mexican musicians would come through town on a U.S. tour. Published by Seminary, it also stands out among Joplin works for the beautiful four-color cover by Irish artist John Frew, who had also contributed artwork for Wall Street Rag and his next Seminary publication, Pleasant Moments.
Having not written a waltz for some years, Joplin came up with a beautiful syncopated three step with Pleasant Moments. In some ways it was closer to rag form than Bethena. The C section was at once both strong and delicate, and invited improvisation on the repeat. He would revisit this waltz in a few years. In the mean time, he kept Seminary Music supplied with rags and they consistently issued them. Country Club, copyrighted the same day as Pleasant Moments, is the simplest of all Joplin rags, and certainly the most delicate. The structure of it does not invite a speedy interpretation.
Euphonic Sounds might be considered a revolutionary ragtime experiment of some kind. Instead of titling it as a rag, he called it a "syncopated two-step." While the piece contains a great deal of right-hand syncopation, the differences from his previous works are in the treatment of the left-hand and the harmonic content. There is a nearly complete absence of the traditional duple or oom-pah ragtime left-hand in Euphonic Sounds, replaced by intricate arpeggios and moving patterns, contrary motion and repeated chords. The B section travels into unfamiliar territory for virtually all piano rags up to that time, working with bold changes and a difficult decrescendo on repeated right hand octaves. The trio is also harmonically challenging, but with a more static left-hand riff.
Scott's final submission of 1909 for Seminary Music was Paragon Rag. More traditional by far in structure, it had yet another interesting feature that showed Joplin's knowledge of performance. In the measures three and four and corresponding measures of the B section, the right-hand phrase from the previous measures settles into a held chord while a pattern is played above it in the same hand. The only way to properly execute this was on a piano with a sostenuto pedal, mostly a staple of grand pianos but rarely found on all but the most expensive of uprights. This center pedal, when depressed, holds the dampers for only the notes currently held down, and sustains only those notes while others are played. This technique would become a standard of novelty and stride pianists, particularly for the left-hand, but was very unusual in piano ragtime. Composer Clarence Woods of Missouri would use the same type of notation in his iconic Sleepy Hollow Rag in 1918. The trio of Paragon Rag bears some similarity in the left-hand to Euphonic Sounds, and the D section a bit more adventurous in phrasing than most of his 1908 works had been. The piece was dedicated to the Colored Vaudeville Benevolent Association (C.V.B.A.), of which William Spillman was a member. He had recently become a member of the association and would remain active in it over the next few years.
Now assimilated into the musical world of New York, Joplin became better known to publishers and musicians alike, and reported befriended many of the black composers in town while rubbing elbows with many others. He found favorable mention in the New York papers and the music trade papers. However, the end of the decade proved to also be end of his most productive and creative period in terms of piano rags. Having talked about his opera project for nearly three years, in 1910 it would become his primary focus. Sadly, his favorite musical child would also lead, in part, to his tragic downfall, and decades later, a posthumous triumph.
Treemonisha and Troublesome Times
By early 1910, Tom Turpin had joined the C.V.B.A. and opened a new venue in St. Louis, Scott's brother Robert was touring the South and Midwest, as a stage comedian and entertainer, Sam Patterson was now performing on his own, and John Stark was on his way back to safer turf in St. Louis. Joplin had become more of an active participant in the New York Music scene, even having some of his rags featured at a January event held by the C.V.B.A. at Madison Square Gardens. However, he did not seem to find favor with the largest and most active black music association in New York, The Clef Club, which was headed largely by James Reese Europe and Ford Dabney. Ed Berlin notes that Europe regarded ragtime as an artificial or contrived music, and his groups performed everything else from classical to dance music. Since Joplin was mostly known for his ragtime, it may explain his absence from any reports about the Clef Club and its activities.
While his music, particularly Maple Leaf Rag, was still popular among the general population, audio recordings of it were scant. Other than the lost Sweatman recording of Maple Leaf Rag, the United States Marine Band had recorded it twice as well as Haenschen's Banjo Band in 1910. The only other Joplin rag found to have been recorded on record in his lifetime was Wall Street Rag by the Zonophone Orchestra. On the other hand, there were many piano rolls of his pieces becoming more widely available as more Americans bought player pianos, so in that regard his works did well. The question of royalties from piano rolls was still an issue as mechanical rights in copyright law was still under debate. Even when the question of music royalties was finally decided, it would be another two years until the same was done for lyrics printed on rolls.
Joplin appears in the April 1910 Census as a musician and composer in Manhattan, plus widowed as would be consistent with the loss of Freddie, still living in the same 29th Street location in the Rosalline boarding house for men. It was during this time period that Scott met Lottie Stokes, although exactly when is unclear. Some sources have said they met while Joplin was staying in her boarding house as early as 1909, but the 1910 Census tells a different story, so it may have been later than that. Later in the year he would move to her building, which was a haven for other musicians as well.
Only two Joplin works appeared in 1910, as he was largely focusing on the completion of Treemonisha. The first was Stoptime Rag, which had been mentioned in the press the previous fall. It was an extension of the idea put forth in the second half of Ragtime Dance, where the pianist stomped his foot throughout (or a drummer in the orchestrated versions) and performed many of the phrases punctuated by the stomps during frequent pauses in the music. In Stoptime Rag only the C section was played continuously save for the last couple of measures, and the remainder of the seven sections were performed in stoptime.
Stoptime Rag marked a return by Joplin to publisher Joseph Stern, as he evidently did not feel that Snyder and Seminary were giving him the best deal any longer. Just the same, they came out with other Joplin work in the Spring, a song version of Pine Apple Rag with lyrics by Joe Snyder, a relative of the publisher. Unlike the Maple Leaf Rag Song, this one appears to have possibly been edited by Joplin. The key was changed from Bb to Eb for singability, and the final section excised. Since there was a popular trend of turning certain rags into songs, Joplin may have reasoned that any extra revenue from such a project would be a necessity to help him fund his basic living expenses while working on Treemonisha.
The opera, which was not touted as a "ragtime opera," was written using the formal operatic structure of no dialogue, recitatives and arias. The story takes place in 1884 and is about a young girl of around 18 named Monisha. She had been found under a tree by Ned and Monisha, and always felt an affinity for that particular tree, so was refered to as Tree-Monisha. The setting is in the American South in Arkansas, where those around her are captivated by and even a slave to superstition and "hoo-doo." However, Treeonisha was raised differently, being educated by a white family, and believed in faith and tangible truths. When conjurers try to sell a "bag of luck" to her mother, Treemonisha exposes them as frauds and sends them packing. They retaliate by kidnapping her and attempting to throw her into a nest of wasps. Treemonisha is rescued by Remus who is quite sweet on her. She then convinces her own people that education is the way to advance their race, not superstition. They declare her their wise and knowing leader, and close out with a celebratory dance.
It is not difficult to draw a number of parallels between the plot and Joplin's past. Freddie was also in her late teens and from Arkansas. Whether she had intention of being a teacher or was educated has been largely lost to history. However, the comparison between the two girls, one factual and one fictional, is not a stretch. In a sense, by bringing Treemonisha to life he was also creating a musical tribute to the late Freddie. By the end of 1910 Joplin had put in as many as three years of work into the three act opera.
In early 1911 he started shopping it around looking for a publisher and backers. He ended up paying for the initial publication in May, and even took the train down to Washington, DC, to hand carry a copy to the Library of Congress copyright office. He also secured a British copyright, showing that Scott was thinking along the same lines as many of the producers of Broadway shows who also took their product overseas. In June his friends held a party for Joplin to celebrate the first step in getting Treemonisha to the stage.
A copy of the score had been left with the editor of American Musician and Art Journal, a periodical based in New York. The editor gave it an extraordinary review and touted Joplin as a credit to his race, and even beyond, noting that he had written "a thoroughly American opera." Comparisons were drawn to the rhythms of Dvořák in the New World Symphony, which actually does contain a plantation theme. He also categorized it by saying that Treemonisha "is not grand opera, nor is not light opera; it is what we might call character opera or racial opera..." He made clear that Joplin was fully successful in his pursuit of elevating both Negro music and American music to a new level concurrently. (The bulk of the review can be found in Berlin's book King of Ragtime.
The amount of effort put into not only getting Treemonisha into print but also trying to promote it to backers likely occupied Joplin's time to the point where he simply did not have the time, energy or inspiration to complete any other compositions. Only two of his pieces aside from his opera would be published that year. One of those was Felicity Rag, co-composed with Arthur Marshall. Given that the two had not seen each other for some time, and that it was published by Stark who no longer had an amicable relationship with Joplin, it is clear that Felicity Rag had been in Starks possesion for anywhere from five to ten years. It is of some significance that Hayden's name was not on the cover of the work, as Stark also had a tenuous relationship with Joplin's younger co-writer. The other work was an arrangement for hire that Joplin had done for black composer Al R. Turner called Lovin' Babe.
THIS BIOGRAPHY IS UNDER RECONSTRUCTION FROM THIS POINT DOWN AS OF 09/09/2010. PLEASE BE PATIENT
The wedding date of June 1912, as reported by Brun Campbell, would be most consistent with the time line, but inconsistent with other factors, such as her using her maiden name on a legal document in 1913. They were possibly never formally married, but she does appear as Lottie Joplin starting with the 1920 Census. There is some possibility that Lottie, born and raised in Washington DC, was married before she moved to Manhattan to run her boarding house, which would explain why she is hard to locate before 1913 when the two were obviously in a close relationship.
For Treemonisha, funding and support was hard to come by because so many investors were involved with Broadway shows offering more popular music, and those investing in opera were going for proven projects. Treemonisha, a story ahead of its time as it involves female leadership and has a strong message of education as a way to gain respect and equal rights among all men, ultimately had only one performance for potential investors in 1911 with Joplin playing in place of an orchestra and a bare stage set.
Emotionally discouraged and mentally affected by the onset of syphilis, Joplin spent his remaining years, particularly 1915 on, slowly deteriorating physically and suffering from the onset of dementia. In early 1916 he did manage at least two different sessions where he recorded a handful of piano rolls. The list included Maple Leaf Rag in two different renditions, Something Doing, Magnetic Rag, his final waltz Pleasant Moments, and, curiously, W.C. Handy's Ole Miss Rag. All but one of these are not accurate indicators of how he would have been playing at that time since they were obviously edited for timing and other errors. The exception is one of his Maple Leaf Rag performances which is uneven and halting at times, but it may have also been edited to some extent. Without an audio recording it is hard to determine exactly how he played, and between even 1914 and 1916 there would have been some significant differences.
The inclusion in that list of Ole Miss Rag raises some questions concerning Joplin's direct or indirect involvement with the piece. Scott had been a friend of Handy, who was known more for his blues than anything else by that time. Only two of Handy's other pieces were originally called rags, and later were published as blues with virtually no changes. Knowing that Joplin was in dire straits, it could be that Handy commissioned him to arrange the piece, or even help compose it, though no documentation exists to directly support that. Ole Miss Rag does have some qualities that do not exist in other Handy works from the period, which further raises these questions, but without a detailed analysis supported by even a single document that likely no longer exists, it will remain a point of discussion with no definitive conclusion.
Joplin finally succumbed to the disease on April 1, 1917, six weeks after having been committed to Bellevue Hospital. Lottie Joplin long regretted not fulfilling her husband's insistent request that the Maple Leaf Rag be played at his funeral. Nonetheless, his music remains an inherent part of American music history, and his contributions to not just Black Americans but to all Americans are long lasting.
As for what happened to some of Joplin's remaining papers and works, including some unpublished manuscripts, has also long been somewhat of a mystery. This includes the status of A Guest of Honor, but also some unfinished rags or songs. It is reported that historian Rudi Blesh saw some of them when visiting Lottie during his interviews in 1949 for They All Played Ragtime, and he jotted down some of the titles, many shown in the listings included here. The status of that box of papers since then is unknown, but speculations vary from being stolen to being accidentally left out in the trash to simply having been acquired by a new building owner who may have disposed of them not knowing what was there.
Legacy and Recognition at Last
The most significant discovery after his death was of Silver Swan Rag, which existed only in piano roll form, although done from a manuscript, not "hand-played." The initial copy found in the late 1960s was not properly credited, but once the news was out that it may be a Joplin roll, another labeled copy surfaced with the proper attribution. Richard Zimmerman, then heading up the Maple Leaf Club in Southern California, transcribed the piece with some assistance, and it was published with a copyright by the Lottie Joplin Thomas Trust, benefitting the aging widow of Joplin.
Recordings of Joplin have been made consistently during his death, but certain interpretations bear mentioning as they altered the perception of his music and ragtime in general. Wally Rose, who started recording with the Yerba Buena Jazz Band in the 1940s, often performed Joplin in less of a rollicking honky style and with a bit more dignity than had been often heard.
A lot of that changed during the honky-tonk piano era of the 1950s, in which most recordings of ragtime and old songs were played on tricked up pianos accompanied by bass or tuba and drums, sometimes with a banjo added. The first ragtime Long Playing record, Honky-Tonk Piano, released by Capitol Records and assembled by Lou Busch, who would become famous as Joe "Fingers" Carr, included a performance of Maple Leaf Rag played by Marvin Ash in a pseudo honky-tonk and jazz style. Imitators in the honky-tonk subgenre quickly followed after the LP became a best seller. Even Rose's interpretation of Scott Joplin's New Rag on Columbia was recorded on a somewhat suspect spinet piano.
In the late 1950s, historian Sam Charters was engaged in collecting music history on tape, and had spent an evening at Joe Lamb's house recording his playing and his recollections of the ragtime era and Joplin. Sam soon became involved with a student of poetry at his college who also happened to play piano fairly well. The couple were soon married, and Ann Charters made some of her first recordings of Joplin played in more of a classic style around 1959, continuing with other composers over the next several years. Max Morath was another fine performer who managed to make Joplin's music sound more dignified in his television and stage presentations of ragtime music starting in the late 1950s, continuing into the 21st Century. He would, at times, mix various sections of different rags into a performance, but Max realized that it was sometimes necessary to be more entertaining in order to whet the interest of newbies to the music, so this practice was understandably accepted by many.
Perhaps the most significant boosts that forever embedded Scott Joplin in the musical history of the United States and even the World occured around 1970. Very Brodsky Lawrence, with the help of Trebor Tichenor, Dave Jasen and Richard Zimmerman among others, edited two volumes of Joplin's compositions for the New York Public Library. As copyright holder Jerry Vogel withheld permission for Searchlight Rag, Rose Leaf Rag and Fig Leaf Rag, the volume was titled The Collected Works of Scott Joplin. Volume One contained all of the instrumental works, and the much rarer Volume Two consisted of Joplin's songs and the piano score to Treemonisha.
In conjunction with this project, a talented young pianist known for jazz as well as baroque performances was tapped to record Joplin's works more or less as written, this time on a grand piano with a classical approach. Joshua Rifkin released the first of what would become three volumes of Joplin instrumentals recorded on Nonesuch Records in 1970. The others would follow in 1972 and 1974. The quality of these recordings and Rifkin's approach created a buzz in the music world, and created some confusion in the records stores as well. Ragtime was already hard to categorize into a broader scope of styles, and some had it in the Folk Music area, while others put it in Jazz or even Popular. For the first time, given the label and the artist, firms like Tower Records had to consider placing Joplin ragtime in the classical area along with Debussy, Beethoven and Wagner. Some offered up an Americana category in the classical bins, so that the works off other ragtime and march composers could also be included.
Treemonisha was successfully staged in 1972 for the first time more or less as originally intended by Joplin, with a full scale re-orchestrated presentation in 1975 by the Houston Grand Opera. In 1982 during Black Heritage Month, Scott Joplin was honored with a 20¢ postage stamp issued by United States Postal Service.
New information does pop up from time to time, but the bulk of what we know about Joplin's life has likely been found by now, one of the best collections being detailed in King of Ragtime by Dr. Edward Berlin. But many discoveries remain for future generations, perhaps in new ways to interpret his pieces, and perhaps other writings that have not yet surfaced.
Much of the best and most accurate information about Scott Joplin can be found in the well-researched and compelling book King of Ragtime by Dr. Edward Berlin, which can be found on my Books on Ragtime page. If you have any interest in Joplin or ragtime music, then it should be in your library as well. Also, thanks to Robert Perry of www.pianola.co.nz, who uncovered the very rare and previously thought lost Pleasant Moments piano roll in 2006. The remainder was found by the author in periodicals, newspapers, documents at the Library of Congress and public records.
James Sylvester Scott (Jr.) was the only major ragtime composer to grow up in southwestern Missouri, primarily in the Carthage area. Born in Neosho, Missouri, about halfway between Joplin and Carthage, he was one of seven children of former slave James Scott from North Carolina and his younger wife Mollie (Thomas) Scott from Texas. While the younger James listed his birth year as 1884 in later years, including on his 1918 draft record, 1885 is more consistent with earlier records, including the 1900 Census in which year of birth was specifically listed rather than implied. His siblings included Lena (1879), Douglass (8/1890), Bessie (1/1895), Howard (1900) and Oliver (1903).
James showed strong musical talent at an early age. His first musical exposure was from his untrained mother, but soon James received some early training in theory and sight-reading from a respected Neosho pianist, as well as private lessons in his teens with a black Carthage music teacher and saloon pianist, John Coleman. Perfect pitch and an innate sense of harmony helped speed along his comprehension and training, and some of his skills were likely self-taught through experience. That the family did not own a proper piano made things difficult, requiring James to use pianos at school or at the houses of neighbors.
For a brief period of a year or so around 1899 the family moved to Ottawa, Kansas, around 150 miles from Neosho. When his family moved back to Neosho around 1901, the only instrument young James had to practice on there was a reed organ which was an inexpensive substitute for an upright. After a few months James Sr. finally procured a used upright piano for the household. Most of the Scott children also showed similar musical talent, and indeed were taught rudimentary keyboard skills by their mother, but did not pursue music as a career. James was the only one that pursued some form of musical literacy, able to both read and notate musical scores. The Scott family was shown living once again in Neosho in June 1900. James was listed as a day laborer at age 15. Scott would move out on his own around 1902 to Carthage, the Jasper County seat, a few miles to the east, while the rest of the family remained in Neosho or a few years.
Scott's initial employment was as a bootblack for a black Carthage barber. At age 17, he obtained one of his first performance gigs at Lakeside Amusement Park, a trolley park in Webb City about halfway between Carthage and Joplin, playing both piano and calliope, and sometimes sitting in on sets performed by other area bands. By 1904 he was working for Dumars Music Store owned by local alderman Charles Dumars in Carthage, doing general cleaning work and picture framing. He had also been the director of the Carthage Light Guard Band for nearly two decades. Mr. Dumars quickly discovered Scott's musical abilities and allowed him to demonstrate pianos and popular tunes, the advent of which brought into the store many curious customers resulting in increased sheet music sales. At times the pair also made road trips into the field to sell pianos with James making each instruments sound its best. The store further provided a storage room full of pianos where the youth could practice and even composer in privacy. Dumars eventually helped publish some of Scott's own compositions as well as those co-written with others.
It is notable that Carthage, unlike many local towns, had very few drinking establishments or other forms of adult entertainment. Joplin, some 20 miles west, was widely known as a haven for such errant behavior, and was burgeoning with such venues. As James was living in Carthage, however, he did not have to play in saloons or brothels to make a living unlike many other musicians of the time. During this time James composed some songs and his first three piano rags. The first was A Summer Breeze (initially the more esoteric A Summer Zephyr) published by Dumars in 1903. It was well reviewed locally and as far off as St. Louis. Dumars also paid Scott a royalty on each copy, an unusual arrangement for a black composer at the time which Scott Joplin had also received from publisher John Stark for his early pieces. This piece was soon followed by a march called The Fascinator.
In 1904, Dumars published Scott's ragtime tribute to the Lewis and Clark Exposition in St. Louis, On the Pike. It is hard to verify whether the composer, now 19, had actually attended the fabled fair, which is plausible given a train ride of a few hours. However, there is no question that he, and virtually every march or rag or song composer in the country knew of the event which had been delayed for a year due to the enormous electrical infrastructure that had to be set up. The piece sold well in his area, and was also offered for sale at or near the fairgrounds. It was also performed by the Light Guard Band in Carthage in front of the court house on July 11, 1904.
A fine opportunity presented itself in the summer of 1904 when Scott was asked to participate in a concert with John W. "Blind" Boone, noted black pianist who although he was blind from birth could play virtually anything he heard, and brilliantly at that. According to the Carthage Evening Press of August 15, 1904: "...A handful of people which grew to a throng as the entertainment continued occupied the Dumars music store Saturday morning when Blind Boone, Jimmie Scott, and Sousa's band were the attractions. Boone chanced to call at the Dumars store to see his professional friend Jimmie Scott, the young colored man who enjoys a reputation as both composer and piano player. Mr. Scott played for Mr. Boone and in the course of his program did a new and certainly original stunt. A grammaphone [sic] containing a Sousa band piece was turned on and Jimmie played a clever piano accompaniment which really made good music. Boone was delighted and before the selection ended said that he had to get his own hand in. He went to the piano and placing his hand on the treble made his nimble fingers fly over the keys in such a manner as to produce an accompaniment to the whole business which sounded like a piccolo. It seemed as if a whole orchestra was there and the audience was bewildered." Boone took an instant liking to the youth which only helped Scott's reputation grow. The same paper had also labeled Scott as "Our local Mozart," referring to both his performance and compositional skills.
James continued to be a popular attraction in the Carthage area and at the growing Lakeside Park. The park itself was racially segregated by Missouri law, but there were special days that black could attend, and black perfomers were always admitted for work. This brings into partial question one of his compositions from the time frame of approximately 1905 to 1906, the Calliope Rag. The calliope is an instrument that while seemingly simple requires some skill to master a method that exploits the fullest possible range of sound from the instrument. The number of keys varied from 30 to 48, a paltry range for a pianist. They were also exceedingly loud due to their nature, hot steam blowing through metal pipes of varying lengths, intended to lure in customers from far and wide. How often James played this cacophonic instrument is unclear, but there are mentions of him performing on it from time to time. He also played for movies that were shown in the park's theater. He reportedly played there into the mid 1910s.
So it was no big surprise to performer Bob Darch when on a visit to the home of some Scott relatives in the Carthage area in the mid 1950s he had to opportunity to view and hand copy (Xerox technology was still not of sufficient quality) some Scott manuscripts. It is likely that the word Calliope was on the sheet, and given the simplicity and the limited scope of the piece it could very well have been composed for the instrument. But as was discovered in interviews with Darch from 1999 to 2001, apparently only the first section was copied, and maybe a partial second section, the rag having been completed by Darch with a little assistance. In 2001, this author reworked the ideas of Darch and Scott, attempting to emulate a piano rag version that encompasses more of the James Scott scope with call and response patterns and other attributes of his, including expanding Darch's 8 measure sections into a full 16 measures. Even at that, there is some controversy that still exists as to whether the first printed version, which first appeared in They All Played Ragtime in 1964, is an authentic James Scott piece. The opinion of the author, which may bear some bias of course, is that it is as much a Scott piece as Heliotrope Bouquet and Kismet Rag are Scott Joplin compositions - which means they are collaborative efforts that bear the mark of each of the named composers.
In 1906 James finally met Scott Joplin in St. Louis. Impressed by both his playing and his compositions, Joplin helped to arrange for the publication of his Frog Legs Rag with John Stark. Whether or not Scott and Stark ever met is unclear, since Stark was in New York City at that time and would be there until 1910. Joplin may have also had some ancillary affect on James since the complexity and variety of his compositions soon expanded. Frog Legs Rag was enough of a success, second only to Maple Leaf Rag in the catalog, that Stark published virtually anything that Scott sent to him over most of the next twelve to fifteen years. It seems that Joplin and Scott met only once or twice, and did not have any evident ongoing relationship once Joplin moved to New York City around 1907.
James formed the Carthage Jubilee Singers which performed local concerts, and he played for the movies at the Delphus Theater in Carthage. He also played with and was exposed to a variety of other musical experiences through Dumar's own Light Guard Band. It is unclear if he went on any of the regional trips that the band took, in part to promote Carthage as a great place to live, as black performers usually did not work with a white band, either due to tradition or to local laws. However through Dumars he undoubtedly heard and was heard by some of the finest talent on the Methodist Chataqua circuits and visiting vaudeville troupes. There is a chance that during this period he may also have been acquainted with fellow Carthage white composer Clarence Woods, as they had taken from the same piano teacher, and Woods also played for movies and local concerts until he moved to Texas for a while in the mid 1910s.
It was in 1906, with the income from his Dumars job and his rags, that James bought a house in Carthage. He then married Miss Nora Johnson (sometimes listed as Norah). The couple remained married throughout their lives together, but never had children. While still living in southwest Missouri, James had some family ties in the Kansas City area, and likely visited there on occasion. His Kansas City Rag of 1907 was dedicated to a Mr. and Mrs. Matt Penn of Kansas City. During the time John Stark was based New York City, Scott continued to submit consistently fine pieces to him by mail, most of which were quickly published. Among the finest that received praise in print from the Missouri publisher were Grace and Beauty, Hilarity Rag, and Great Scott Rag. He even submitted a waltz that Stark published in 1910, Heart's Longing.
Two unusual entries garnered some innovative and exclusive sheet music cover art. The first was The Ragtime Betty in 1909, followed by Ophelia Rag named for the popular comic strip character Ophelia Bumps drawn by Clare Victor Dwiggins. Dwiggin's only relation to Missouri was that his wife was born there. He was in Manhattan around that time, so it is likely that John Stark approached him about drawing the cover, to which Dwiggins complied. These were the only two music covers known to have been drawn by this artist, but Ophelia clearly benefitted from his colorful artwork. Two other pieces from 1909 were collaborations with his overall mentor and biggest supporter, Charles Dumars. One was the rather busy Girl from Anaconda to which Scott did the best job he could with the mouthful of words Dumars had given him. The other, Sweetheart Time, a pleasant waltz song typical of the era.
Before 1908 James Sr. and Mollie have moved to Carthage with four of their children. Mollie Scott died at home on October 3, 1908, the cause listed as "Heart Disease." James remarried in late 1909 to Ella Lesper of Missouri. Scott was shown living at 707 East Sixth Street in Carthage in 1910, listed as a musician and piano salesman. It is notable that this was one of the better areas of town, and the street was occupied by several white, black and mulatto residents, James and Nora listed as the latter. His father, stepmother, and four of James' younger siblings were living nearby at 819 E. Fifth Street, also a well integrated neighborhood.
Jimmie had other ambitions in addition to his playing and composing. Noting that bands were segregated, and that the area lacked a Negro equivalent to the Light Guard band, he worked hard to form and maintain his own band with black musicians recruited from as far off as Joplin. There were notices in the Carthage Evening Press of performances not only at Carter Park but at the local African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, and social events at the Carthage Armory. As with many groups of this size, including the fabled bands of James Reese Europe and Fred S. Stone, Jimmie had some smaller ensembles available for hire from the group as well, making it easier to mine for work in a slagging economy.
Scott continued to work for Dumars until 1914 before turning to performing and teaching full time in southwest Missouri. He had also continued to send at least one to two new rags per year to Stark for publication, perhaps more that went unpublished until later. Two standouts were published in 1911. Ragtime Oriole managed to include emulations of the bird from the title, and Quality Rag further lived up to its name. Both are heavy with hallmarks of Scott's style, including call and response patterns that harken back to the days of slavery and ring shouts, and compact but efficient two measure phrasing. He may have been submitting rags in 1912 and 1913, but the next one to be published was in 1914. Climax Rag was another complex example of Jimmie's evolving style, and may be one of the closest to capturing his dynamic playing style in print. To compliment this rag Stark also published the topical Suffragette Waltz around the same time. Also in 1914 he wrote the music for Take Me Out to the Lakeside in honor of the Webb City park, to words by Ida Miller, the wife of a local entrepreneur who owned tourist cabins in the area. It was an attempt to capture the Meet Me in St. Louis type of song of the past decade, but did not see much circulation outside of Missouri, having been published in Carthage.
As the pending war and the United States' involvement in it approached, the economy in the area started to suffer, in part because the zinc mining industry which had been a staple there was slowing down due to depletion. Other than agriculture, Carthage Marble became the biggest industry, but leisure activity often had to be put aside, creating less work for people in the music and entertainment fields. One last event was noted for his band, which played at the Armory while sending black draftees from Jasper County off to the army in 1917.
At some point between in mid to late 1917 James and Nora moved to Kansas City, Kansas, where he would spend the rest of his life. Evidence suggests that it took a while or Scott to build up both clientele and playing jobs. On his Septemeber, 1918 draft record, where he uses the name Jim Scott, he is listed as an elevator operator for the F.T. Altman firm in Kansas City, Missouri, while he and Nora were living at 352 Rowland Avenue on the Kansas side of the border. Even when he started performing, most of his work was actually on the Missouri side of Kansas City. In 1920 he is finally listed as a theater musician, and Nora as an entertainment cateress, with the couple living at 2404 North Fifth Street, still on the Kansas side.
In 1917 his brilliant Efficiency Rag was published by Stark, along with Paramount Rag The following year Stark brought out Rag Sentimental, which in some ways broke the Scott ragtime mold with a more contemplative piece. Dixie Dimples, on the other hand, was the only late rag not published by Stark, instead coming out under the label of Will Livernash in Kansas City, Missouri. Three more Stark issues came in 1919, including Troubadour Rag, the topical Peace and Plenty rag, and his keyboard encompassing New Era Rag.
From 1919 on there is some question as to whether James' rags were being issued in a timely manner by Stark, as some pieces were sounding similar to 1915 and 1916 issues, and Scott was performing more jazz music now by necessity. Stark had shown a pattern of hanging on to submitted works until it suited him to issue them, which makes it hard to determine the order of when the last rags were submitted and when they were composed. In some cases, however, the freshness of the piece was evident, as with the magnificent Pegasus from 1920, and the only Stark issued song by James, The Shimmie Shake, which contained lyrics of a current popular dance written by Cleota Wilson.
Scott taught piano in a studio he set up near his home, and soon purchased a grand piano, which he later said was his most prized possession. He played in some of the movie houses for a time as a soloist, in particular at a long-term position at the Panama Theater. Vaudeville provided a fairly certain haven for performers like Scott, particularly for black audiences thirsty for their own brand of music, and he took good advantage of this need. He was also a viable commodity as a fill-in accompanist for visiting acts, and playing for the short films commonly shown between some performances. Due to his diminutive height (5'4") and musical vigor, he was became known throughout the area as "The Little Professor."
The increasing complexity of Scott's later rags demonstrate his considerable pianistic skills. His love of the genre was clearly demonstrated in one of his last published rags, Don't Jazz Me, (I'm Music), although that rag, like most of his pieces submitted without titles, was likely named by John Stark or a member of his firm. Stark in particular was frustrated with the onslaught of loose (by the standards of that time period) jazz music, and the title of this ironically somewhat jazzy piece was one of his final editorials on the passing of classic ragtime. Stark was doing all he could to counter the onslaught of jazz, issuing Victory Rag and Broadway Rag well after they were submitted by Scott, and they were among the last pieces published by the pioneering classic ragtime supporter. Both also sounded more like the batch of mid 1910s rags which may have been held back until they were deemed viable, or even necessary by the publisher.
In 1924 James joined the Musicians Union in Kansas City which instantly opened up new venues for him. One of these was the Lincoln Theatre which featured a seven piece band led by Harry Dillard, and had its own stable of vaudeville performers.
Jimmie moved on to a steady playing job at the black-owned Eblon Theater in the busy theater district of 18th and Vine Street in Kansas City, Missouri, with his band. After a good run from late 1926 to late 1928, the band was sidelined by economic troubles and dropping attendance. However, James was able to retain his position even after his band was replaced by a $15,000 Wicks theater organ, as he turned out to be quite capable at that instrument as well. Another musician that played that same organ was Kansas City's own William "Count" Basie, nearly 20 years younger than James, who would sneak in at times just to improve his own skills on the massive instrument.
In 1930 Scott's wife Nora died at age 46, as did a continuing career playing for the movies due to the advent of synchronized sound films. After working through his multiple losses, Jimmie regrouped and formed another band, eight pieces this time. They played for special engagements whenever they could find work during the Great Depression. Towards the end of his life James was in continuously poor health, but kept composing, and moving, reportedly living in four residences, sill on the Kansas side of the border, between 1931 and 1938. His last move was in 1936 to the home of his cousin, Ruth Callahan. Until 1936 his primary income was from teaching piano. He finally succumbed to kidney failure and arteriosclerosis in 1938 at age 53. All of his final works remain unpublished and even undiscovered. To the best of our knowledge he also left behind no piano roll performances (highly unlikely since Chicago and New York where were most of them were done) or recordings.
James had been buried next to Nora at Westlawn Cemetery in Kansas City, Kansas, but for many years their gravesite remained unmarked. Ragtime performer and promoter Bob Darch told of his efforts to find Scott's burial place in the 1950s, which included a mild alcoholic bribe to the groundskeeper, only to find the cemetery overgrown, the Scotts' location poorly marked, and overall sad conditions as it was also a dumping ground. Since then many Kansas City rag enthusiasts, led by by Smiley and Helen Wallace, made an effort to honor their adopted composer with a new headstone, which was dedicated at a ceremony on May 3, 1981. The site is now well kept and often visited by ragtime fans. The inscribed epitaph on James Scott's headstone reads "The Grace and Beauty of His Music Will Live Always." Fortunately ragtime did not die with him, and the vivacity of James Scott pieces will long be enjoyed by new generations of rag enthusiasts.
It should be noted that the author's family was long based in Carthage, Missouri, and his grandfather Paul Scroggs had some memory of hearing ragtime played there in his youth. Some of the research on Scott was done on site from the mid 1980s through 2005 during family visits to Carthage and Jasper Missouri as well as the Kansas City area. The rest was researched in public records and periodicals.
Joe Lamb was born of Irish emigrant Catholic parents in Montclair, New Jersey, one of four children of James and Julia Lamb, including older siblings James Jr. (2/1872), Katharine (7/1878) and Annastesia (8/1884). He was schooled early on by his father in the carpentry trade along with his brothers. At age eight, Joseph received some informal piano and music lessons, the only real training he ever got from his older sisters who were both promising keyboard instrument players. Katharine was his most influential piano coach. Joseph also engaged in learning from the Etude magazine, a popular source for music at that time, which featured many classical works and some light popular pieces.
When Joe was just twelve, his father James died, and the teenager was subsequently sent to St. Jerome's College in Ontario for some engineering training. Throughout much of his time there Lamb was often homesick to the point where he threatened to walk home to New Jersey if his mother did not send him travel fare to get there. Enduring his time at the college, Joe could not keep the music bug out of his system, and even took lessons from a priest at the school. However, these only lasted a few weeks as Joe had ascertained from his previous self-training and the assistance from his sister that the father had little to offer him. He also started composing while in Ontario, having been exposed to some of the German songs frequently performed in Berlin, not far from the school.
Lamb started composing almost as soon as he got to the school in 1900. His first entries were in popular genres, including an intermezzo, a song, and a waltz. One potential popular work, Muskoka Falls, was started when he was fourteen (and finished by the author in 2006).It was an obvious response to Charles Daniels' enormously popular Hiawatha of 1902. The name referred to a recreational resort area for the rich a bit north of Toronto. At one point the dormitory at the school was unavailable for a time, so he boarded at the Walper House in Kitchener, 50 or so miles west of Toronto, about which he also wrote one of his earliest rags. Most of his early pieces were non-ragtime, but some were published in Toronto as early as 1905, when he was but 17 years old, but likely submitted even earlier.
His time at the school was often quite frustrating, particularly given the separation from his family. He also got somewhat tired of the Germanic food that was frequently served there, the sauerkraut in particular. In an interview with Amelia Lamb by writer Eugene McCarthy in 1974, she recounts one rather jarring incident that occurred at the school. "Apparently in those days, the boys used to have to go without butter once a week but it was the custom that everyone took turns buying some on those days. One day, Joe was running back to school with the butter when he ran right into a brick wall and broke his nose."
Given that Joe's exposure to real ragtime was somewhat limited during his time in Canada, it underscores his musical sensibilities that he was able to turn out a piece of the quality of Walper House Rag in 1903, and a 1905 follow-up, Ragged Rapids Rag. Other unusual works included Celestine Waltzes and Lilliputian's Bazaar. Perhaps his most interesting early song was Three Leaves of a Shamrock, which discussed the difficult topic of miscegenation, in this case the marriage of a Irish man to a black woman. Most of these pieces were sold outright at low prices ($5 to $50) to publisher Harry H. Sparks in Toronto, simply because he wanted to see them in print. Most of these submissions were not published until well after Lamb had left Canada. Some were issued using the name of more classical and Germanic sounding Josef F. Lamb. As was a common practice of the time in an effort to boost the composers listed in a catalog, Lamb was also published under at least two other pseudonyms, Harry Moore and Earl West. He considered his relationship with Sparks more of a friendship than a business partnership, and made at least one visit to the publisher and his family some time after he had left college.
After Joe got a job working for a dry goods company in New York City at age 16, he never returned to school. At least some of his pay went towards weekly purchased of sheet music from local department stores, like Macy's and Gimbel's, and from publisher's outlets. He eventually ended up working for a publishing house in Manhattan, still composing on the side and getting small publication runs. In 1906 Joe started his own ragtime ensemble, the Clover Imperial Orchestra, which was kept mildly busy over the next five or so years playing for small gatherings such as church socials or lodge gatherings. Once publisher John Stark opened his own small store in Manhattan, Joe became a regular customer to the point that he was offered a discount for his frequency. It was there in 1907 that Joe had his fateful meeting with his idol, Scott Joplin.
Lamb had only recently been exposed to the classic rags of the "King of Ragtime," but quickly took to not only learning them, but emulating them in his own work as well. According to an interview with Joe recorded in 1958, he was in the publishing office of John Stark purchasing some of Joplin's more recent works in late 1907. Before leaving, he vocalized his wish to meet the master at some point, and the clerk pointed to a man with one leg wrapped up sitting across the room. "There he is." Lamb was enthralled, and after the accolades of admiration told Joplin that he had been writing ragtime too. So Joplin arranged for Lamb to play some of Joe's rags for him that evening (or soon after) at a gathering. Among the first pieces he played was his rag Sensation. By the time Lamb finished his performance the room full of Joplin's friends had gone quiet. Then, according to Joe, Joplin said, "That sounded like a good colored rag," which is exactly what Lamb had hoped to hear. Joplin arranged to have Sensation published by Stark, who paid the composer $25 with the promise of another $25 after the first thousand copies were sold. A second payment was indeed made a few weeks later, but nothing further for his first true sensation. Just the same, John Stark published pretty much anything Lamb sent him from that point on, even after the publisher retreated back to St Louis a couple of years later.
While Joe had written several pieces in 1908, including four rags, only Sensation was published at that time. It is unclear as to if he did not submit some of his pieces, like Dynamite Rag, or if Stark simply chose to not purchase them. Stark ended up publishing twelve of Joe's rags between 1908 and 1919, arguably his finest dozen to that point, but there would be more to come. His 1909 pieces were both standouts. Ethiopia was markedly different from Sensation, and perhaps created a new musical definition for the term Classic Ragtime that Stark had allegedly instantiated. But Excelsior not only offered proof of Joe's inherent musicality, but his persuasive personality as well. The Trio and D section of Excelsior was submitted in the key of Gb, complimentary to the opening key of Db. Given the difficulties of reading, and for some, playing in this key, Stark wanted to demur from printing those sections in that key, opting for Ab instead. However, Joe was adamant about the need to keep the original key because of the tonality it created. After he played the sections in both keys, Stark agreed, and it is one of the few rare pieces from the ragtime era that had a key signature of six flats within.
Joe Lamb is listed in 1910 as living with Catherine and his mother Julia, but his profession is that of a clerk for a dry goods company, although he is also known to have worked for music publisher J. Fred Helf around the same time as a song plugger. Researcher Joseph R. Scotti has speculated that this may have been a move of desperation or panic as Stark had vacated New York in 1910, returning to Missouri to care for his ailing wife. Joe later recalled with sadness a story concerning one of his submissions to Stark just before he left. It was Contentment Rag, and he had written to honor the publisher's marriage to his wife Sarah. However, Sarah died soon after this and the rag was subsequently not published until 1915 with a more generic cover than had originally been intended.
The composer was married in 1911 to his first wife, Henrietta Schulz. This is also when he moved away from Montclair and shortened his commute considerably. The newlyweds settled in at 615 Avenue C. in West Brooklyn, New York. Joe continued working in the dry goods, and also did some arranging for Helf as well, but in addition certainly turned in some of the best ragtime pieces ever written during the 1910's. Fortunately Stark continued to accept and publish these works. In 1913 Lamb raised the bar again with American Beauty, a rag full of lovely eight measure phrases and wide scoping melodies.
In 1914 Lamb got a steady job with the financing branch of an import business, L.F. Dommerich & Company, and from that point on music was relegated to the status of a serious hobby or avocation. Joseph F. Lamb Junior was born to the couple on July 23, 1915, around the time of the publication of the ambitious Ragtime Nightingale. This piece also had a personal history for the composer. Joe had been a fan of Ragtime Oriole by Missouri composer James Scott, who was also published regularly by Stark. Wanting to create his own bird call rag, Joe successfully attempted to fuse two classical pieces into a popular ragtime piece. Having kept some of his Etude magazines from earlier years, Joe took the bass line of the beginning of the Revolutionary Etude by Frederic Chopin and wrote his own lingering minor melody over a modified version of it. After a lovely trio that emulated bird calls, he included a phrase from The Nightingale's Song by Ethelbert Nevin as a bridge back to the closing B section. The end result was what some have called the "lullaby of ragtime," and indeed Ragtime Nightingale (sometimes referred to as Nightingale Rag) still closes out many ragtime performances in the 21st century.
The following year saw publication of one his best overall rags. Originally titled Cotton Tail, it was released by Stark as Top Liner Rag to accommodate cover art stock on hand. Lamb would later retool the piece as the richer and more refined Cottontail Rag, released in the mid 1960s after his death. Collectively they have been referred to as potentially the most perfect classic ragtime pieces ever composed. Top Liner was accompanied by the jaunty Patricia Rag. It should be noted that Joe simply liked the name, and that there was no direct relationship between the name of this rag and his daughter Patricia, who would be born in 1924.
Lamb's 1917 draft record shows him living in West Brooklyn and employed by Dommerich as a Custom House Clerk, with no mention of him as a composer or musician. In 1919 Stark published the last of the Lamb works that would appear in his catalog, the eclectic Bohemia Rag. Henrietta Lamb died near the end of the great WWI flu pandemic on February 6, 1920, leaving him widowed with Joe Junior. For the 1920 Census he was again listed not as a musician, but as a Bank Office Manager for Dommerich. Just the same, Joe was still composing, even if only to follow his own passions.
Joe married his second wife, Amelia Collins, on November 12, 1922. They remained in Brooklyn at 2229 East 21st Street, where Joe would live for the rest of his life. No longer submitting rags to Stark, he still wrote some rags and songs, but mostly kept them in a folder or trunk at home. Since he would take them out from time to time and retool them, it is hard to set a definitive origin or completion date on many of these works since they went uncopyrighted for so many years. Around 1923 or 1924 he was contacted to write some novelty piano pieces for Mills Music, one of the top publishers of that genre. One submission, titled Hot Cinders, was ultimately not published until after Lamb's death, but it stands up well to other novelties of the day. Among some other pieces mentioned, but lost at some point in the 1930s, were Ripples, All Wet, Chime In, and Soup and Fish.
Joe and Amelia had three children, including Patricia (2/6/1924), Robert (11/20/27), and Donald (7/18/1930). From around 1928 to 1935, Lamb was regularly involved with minstrel shows presented at St. Edmonds Catholic Church in Brooklyn. While he provided much of the material and participate in rehearsals, he evidently did not perform in these shows. The Lambs are shown in Brooklyn in 1930 as a family of six, including Joe Jr., Patricia, Richard and Robert. He was listed as a manger for an importing firm, which was likely Dommerich. Beyond that, little is known of his life in the 1930s except as remembered by his daughter Pat. She recalls that he did play the piano quite often at home, including his own pieces. While Pat recognized the pieces each time they were performed, and became quite familiar with them, she admits she didn't even know they had names until much later on. In some cases, they did not have names and had not even been notated, but some would eventually make it to manuscript paper. Joe also loved to regale his family with the now famous story about meeting Joplin, which they eventually got quite tired of, even if he did not.
Pat was actually given piano lessons starting in 1934 from an organist at their church. Even though she was clear with the teacher about the leanings of her mildly famous ragtime father, the teacher insisted on classical training and made it clear that Patricia should never play that ragtime type of music. It didn't stop her from doing that at home. After eight years of lessons Pat was able to play duets with her father, a fond memory of many fun evenings. Joe stayed involved in Pat's piano education, and even though he was flattered that she was playing his rags, he had no trouble with correcting her quickly if she went the wrong direction while playing one of them. The family spent part of each summer at a cabin in Vermont that Joe had purchased on the advice of a doctor, since the location was supposed to have been beneficial for the asthma suffered by one of Pat's brothers. The family would stay there and Joe would join them every other weekend or so. Joe and Amelia still had their children living with them according to the 1940 Census, including Joe Jr., Patricia, Richard, Robert and Donald. He was listed simply as a factor manager, a brief but fairly accurate description of the job he so enjoyed.
In 1949 when They All Played Ragtime was being researched, authors, Harriet Janis and Rudi Blesh came to Brooklyn looking for the composer, trying to disprove a theory that he was simply a pseudonym for Scott Joplin. While the pair did not find Joe or Amelia at home, they did find Pat just up the street, and Rudi became quite excited when he confirmed that he had located the real Joe Lamb. They told her that they had combed the Midwest looking for him, but Joe knew right where he had been all these years. They were able to secure an interview with Joe in short order, and he was one of the features of their book which was published in 1950. As a result of this pioneering effort, Lamb was soon sought out by many ragtime fans, both old and new. But he did not affect any particular changes to his life at that time.
Joe retired from his financial career with Dommerich in 1957, a little after the time of his "rediscovery". It was then that he took a number of rags out of mothballs that had been composed from the late 1910s to more recent ones, and played them into a tape recorder on two different occasions for posterity. One session was for the benefit of a young Mike Montgomery who had just come back from Germany with his new reel to reel tape recorder and was warmly welcomed into the Lamb household for an evening concert by the composer. These late 1958 recordings were later released on a cassette, and they give an interesting look into how the composer approached his own pieces. Many of them were sight read on the spot, and as the evening progressed and Joe tired, he started to leave out repeats, and even picked up tempos a little bit. A second significant set of sessions, also done in his home, was recorded by historian Sam Charters on two dates in August 1959, and released on vinyl in 1968. This included some of his best conversations of recollections of the ragtime years. Lamb even performed for his first and only paid professional gig as a soloist at Club 76 in Toronto in late 1959 through the efforts of Bob Darch, John Arpin and others. It was on this evening that he made his only known recording of Hot Cinders, which is what Montgomery's cassette release was later named.
After a brief flurry of fame and widespread admiration, Joseph F. Lamb succumbed to a heart attack at home in 1960. Many of the unpublished rags were finally put into print in 1964 in the Belwin Mills folio Ragtime Treasures, adding to a great legacy of the potential beauty of ragtime realized for all of us. This folio, until recently owned by Warner Music, has now inexplicably been out of print since the early 1990s. However, there are currently plans in the work to make it available once again, along with a couple of other recently discovered treasures. Fortunately, many other rags and interesting songs spanning his entire career were published, many for the first time, in 2005 through the efforts of his daughter Patricia Lamb-Conn, who is usually escorted to ragtime events by her supportive husband Bill Conn, and especially performer Sue Keller of Ragtime Press in Chicago, followed by Sue's premier recordings of many of these works, and the author's own completion of yet another one of them. Joseph Lamb is clearly never to be forgotten.
In terms of his legacy, Lamb's rags are still among the most played by those who are both discovering ragtime and those who have performed for a lifetime. Running with the best ideas of Joplin, he was able to develop even longer phrases throughout each section, with intricate harmonic balance in his chord progressions, and innovative use of inner melodic lines and complex syncopations as well. That he did so with as little musical training as he had, in addition to having grown up isolated from the mainstream of ragtime output and performance, makes his work all that more extraordinary. Lamb was also able to shape some fine songs and non-ragtime pieces. However, he will best be remembered by his ragtime output, a passion which kept him composing nearly to the end of his life.
I would like to add a personal note of thanks to Lamb's surviving daughter Patricia Lamb-Conn, ragtime performer/publisher Sue Keller and researcher Ted Tjaden, who variously provided additional family information and background along with discoveries and printing of many previously unknown Lamb pieces, some of which were still surfacing in 2008. Visit his site at ragtimepiano.ca/rags/lamb.htm to view some of the rare Lamb publications.
Artie Matthews was born to Samuel and Mary Matthews in Braidwood, Illinois, just a bit southwest of Chicago and southeast of Joliet. Samuel was a coal mine shaft specialist, and when Artie was very young the family moved to Springfield, Illinois to facilitate his work with the Black Diamond coal shaft. Most of Artie's youth was spent in Springfield. The family was shown residing in Springfield in the 1894 directory living at 903 S. 12th Street. In the 1896 city directory, Mary Matthews was shown to be the widow of Samuel, who had died in 1895, likely as a result of his hazardous work. She and her children were now living at 1417 E. Adams in Springfield. Mary Matthews (as Matthues) is also shown in Springfield in the 1900 Census working as a laundress, and widowed, living at 921 S. 14th Street, just seven blocks south of the 1896 address. She has a boy with the exact birth month and year of Artie, but listed as Chalmers. While a name change could have been affected, there is no direct confirmation that this is the composer, but there are no other matches in Illinois, even under Arthur, Art or Artie. Enumerator errors also have crept in quite often. Many ragtime composers adopted their middle names, or dropped them in some cases, so the name of Artie Chalmers Matthews in his youth bears possibility. If this scenario was the case, and the odds are very good, Artie would also have had an older sister, Addie or Addia, born in 1885. None of this can be absolutely confirmed, but by eliminating the other handful of possibilities it becomes very plausible.
Among the splendid achievements of Negro citizens in Cincinnati, none is more outstanding than that of Artie Mathews, founder and director of the Cosmopolitan School of Music, 823 W. Ninth Street.
A Conservatory of Music for Negroes had been a long cherished hope among Negro groups, also among white groups interested in Negro welfare and who recognized the possibilities for the development of the latent musical talent in the colored race.
The old adage, "God helps those who help themselves," is most truly applicable to Artie Mathews...
Ever prompted by the vision of a recognized music school for the people of his race, Mr. Mathews set out in dead earnest to earn the money for its achievement. He started a studio in a small room on Eighth street. He served as choral conductor for the Public Recreation Commission under DeHart Hubbard and Harry Glore.
He established himself officially as a pianist director of cabaret and theater orchestras. With the help of his wife, Anna Howard Mathews, also a talented teacher of music, he was, after five years of strenuous work and earnest saving, able to claim a bank savings account of $1500.
With the sum for the initial payment he ventured in 1921 to purchase a building for the establishment of the proposed school. For $7000 he succeeded in buying the fine old resident on Ninth street, which now houses his institution. It was a courageous undertaking for Mr. Mathews. The road was not easy. Today  he claims for his school the following enviable financial record:
A 14-room building with automatic gas-fired furnace. Adequate furninshings. Four grand pianos, three upright pianos, one combination radio and Victrola, and a library of more than 500 volumes, free of all indebtedness.
The Race Relations' Committee of the Woman's City Club has always felt a keen interest in the Cosmopolitan School of Music... In 1934, the committee won the unbounded and lasting gratitude of Mr. Mathews [by securing] a conference with [the Dean of] the Teacher's College at the University of Cincinnati, which resulted in the Cosmopolitan School of Music being placed on the accredited list of music schools in Cincinnati.
Artie spent most of the rest of his life offering quality music education to minorities, many which went on well prepared for a career in music. He also worked with many Cincinnati churches as a choir director and organist, and with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra as an arranger (the latter according to his son, although no confirmation has been located). He continued to compose, though more in the formats of jazz fused with classical and religious music. The best known of these works is the cantata Ethiopia. Matthews was also active in challenging segregation laws and any other areas where race equality was challenged.
Having left ragtime and blues behind long ago, Artie and Anna made great strides in encouraging new black musicians and composers throughout their tenure with the school. They are shown in the 1930 Census around the corner from their campus, both listed as musicians working at the school. On April 10, 1931, Artie's work made it to Carnegie Hall when the song Who Am I? was performed there by black baritone Jules Bledsoe, opening the program of classical works and spirituals. The Matthews' son, Art Matthews, Jr., was born in the 1930s. However, Anna died later in the decade, and it is probably that Art Jr. went to live with a relative for a while as Artie continued to run the school on a smaller scale.
In 1938 Artie received an honorary doctoral degree from Central State University as acknowledgement of his great community service. In the 1940 Census he is shown as widowed and living at their home school, his occupation now reduced to music teacher in a home studio. This should not diminish his accomplishments, but could be expected after the loss of his partner. Matthews lived long enough to have heard a 1952 rendition of his Pastime Rag #3 performed by Barbary Coast Paul Lingle on the new Good Time Jazz label, part of the great 1950s ragtime revival. Artie taught at his home school until his death, which was just short of his 70th birthday.
Dr. Artie Matthews' musical and personal legacy goes far beyond the Pastime Rags, and it is hard to judge how much of a ripple effect he had on black music and musicians in the United States. His legacy now includes the work continued by his soon Art Matthews who is also an accomplished traditional and electronic musician and teacher. Still, the Pastime Rags and his arranged rags remain as among the finest works of the Ragtime Era, and rate (especially with this author) as works equal to those of the other three greats, Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb and James Scott.
I would like to add a personal note of thanks to Art Matthews, Artie's son, who helped me obtain information and materials in relation to his extraordinary father. Thanks also to researcher Dave Lewis of Cincinnati (formerly with All Music Guide) who sent along a couple articles on Matthews from local newspapers. He has regular music shows found at uncledavelewis.podomatic.com. The remaining information was taken from public records and periodicals or newspapers.
Louis Chauvin was well known, well respected, well regarded, and reportedly the consummate ragtime musician and beyond. The tragedy is that he left virtually none of his life behind when he died so young. Chauvin was of mixed race. He was born in St. Louis to a reportedly Mexican-Indian father and an African American mother, although there is some evidence to contradict this possibility somewhat. In the 1900 Census he claims that both of his parents were born in Missouri. In addition, his generally accepted birth month and year of March 1881 are further challenged by the Census, in which Chauvin (spelled Shovan in the record) insists it is February of 1882.
Thanks go to Scott Joplin House staffer Almetta "Cookie" Jordan and volunteer Steve Hinson who discovered the existence and whereabouts of Chauvin's plot in August, 2007. For contact information or to donate to the headstone, visit the Scott Joplin House page.
Scott Hayden's story is one of the unfortunately common ones of great potential only scantly realized. He was one of the few classic rag composers actually born in the storied "cradle of ragtime" where the genre was informally launched, Sedalia, Missouri. The son of Marion Hayden and Julia (Johnican) Hayden, Scott was the sixth of seven children, including Sarah J. (1868), Mary E. (1869), Fannie (1872), Charles (1875), Earnest (1879), and Julia (10/1884). His paternal grandmother, Littie Hayden, was born in Africa. Scott was fully schooled up through graduation from Lincoln High School, which he attended with another future collaborator of Scott Joplin, Arthur Marshall.
Arthur Marshall grew up in the same environment as another future collaborator with Scott Joplin, Scott Hayden. Yet his story is quite different from that of his Lincoln High School classmate. He was born on a farm in Saline County, Missouri. The 1900 Census shows an 1880 birth date, his 1917 draft card 1882, and later Census records point to 1883. However, 1881 is most commonly accepted and is more accurate than the later dates. It also appears on his death certificate and Social Security record. Arthur was shown as a porter in a Sedalia barber shop in 1900, possibly a shoe shiner. His mother Emily Marshall was a washerwoman, and his illiterate father Edward Marshall had no discernible career, yet they did own their home.
Acknowledgement needs to be extended to Klaus and Hans Pehl, German researchers, who uncovered the information about Letitia/Latisha Marshall, and Dr. Ed Berlin for kindly conveying that information to the ragtime community.
Tom Turpin was born in Savannah, Georgia during the busy period of reconstruction after the American Civil War. Note that his draft card of 1917 shows a birth year of 1874, but the earliest records, usually the most accurate since they are closer to the birth, consistently point to 1871, and a couple to 1873. His father, John L. "Honest John" Turpin (sometimes listed as Jack), was a freed slave who became a political insider during this time. So the Turpins, with the household run by John's wife Julia (Lulu) (Waters) Turpin, were fairly well off. Tom was one of four siblings, including his older brother Charles Turpin (5/1870) and younger sisters Eleanora (11/1873) and Nannie (1/1880). In the mid 1870s the family moved briefly to Mississippi.
Charles L. Johnson was born in Armourdale, Wyandotte, Kansas (modern day south Kansas City) to James R. Johnson and Helen Elizabeth Johnson. Armourdale and Wyandotte were eventually incorporated into Kansas City, the Kansas side of that metropolis is considered his birth place by default. Many Federal Census records and his 1918 draft card show him to be a year older than the commonly published 1876 date suggests.
Charlie was attracted to the piano at a very early age, even though the Johnsons did not have one in their home. After having taken some lessons from a neighbor lady on whose piano he also practiced, his natural abilities encouraged his parents to buy him a piano when he was around nine. Charlie took formal study in classical music until his early teens, when popular music tugged at him continually. While studying Beethoven, he was also playing the hits of the day on the sly. This did not serve Charlie well when his new teacher, a Professor Kreiser, became frustrated by these non-classical piano outbursts, so Charlie quit the lessons.
The youngster continued to learn, though, taking courses to better ground him in music theory and compositional skills, as well as picking up the banjo, guitar, brass, violin, drums and mandolin, enabling him to play with small groups, as well as the George Washington Juvenile Military Band. The 1895 Kansas State Census shows James, Helen (written as Ellen) and Charlie now living in Kansas City, Ward 2. James' occupation was shown as "leisure," which may have indicated a temporary retirement, but his son was now working as a music teacher at age 19.
Johnson lived his entire life in Kansas City, much of it on the Missouri side, which was across the state from the center of ragtime activity in St. Louis. He was not all that far from Sedalia, although that town had a relatively short active ragtime life of a few years. There is some evidence that the word "rag" may first have been used in Kansas City in the 1880s relation to a dance or the music played for it. While there was certainly some good ragtime both played and published in Kansas City, it would become a more prominent music center in the 1920s when early swing music was taking shape.
Charlie's earliest tunes were performed with small ensembles, but not published except for a handful. He was a member of the Walton Mandolin Club during that time period and one of the members arranged a folio of arrangements and compositions that the group played. Among the first of Charlie's releases was Wayside Willie's March published by J.R. Bell of Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1895. Bell also released a couple more Johnson pieces under their imprint, but most were string group arrangements. One of the first mentions of him in conjunction with music appeared in the local newspaper, the Kansas City Journal, on May 26, 1898. Johnson had a tune featured at the commencement exercises of the Kansas City, Kansas, high school, a march appropriately titled The Class of '98', played by Zeiler's orchestra. Whether Johnson was playing with the group or not is unclear.
By 1898 Charlie was working as a piano and music demonstrator for the J. W. Jenkins Sons Company in Kansas City. Having already placed a couple of compositions with them, he managed to get his foot in the recently opened ragtime door with a fine instrumental, Scandalous Thompson, which Jenkins released in early 1899. This was closely followed by Doc Brown's Cake Walk the same year, a piece allegedly based on a local character who is pictured on the cover. Jenkins managed to get an arrangement of this to John Philip Sousa when he was in town. The Sousa Band's performances of the tune helped to make it fairly popular in short order. In their advertising, Jenkins also featured pieces such as Thelma Waltzes and A Love Token mixed in with other popular tunes of the day. He played three of his selections at the Home Products Show in April. By the end of the year his few published pieces were heavily featured in Jenkins' advertising.
After a fairly robust showing in 1899, for the next couple of years there were but a few of Charlie's songs and incidental piano solos appearing in print. Johnson's first business cards and magazine advertisements indicate that he was in the music arrangement and commissioned composition business, in which he met limited success in the early years. In the 1900 Census he is shown still living with his parents in Kansas City, Kansas, now listed as a musician. His father was working again, this time as a claims agent, likely for an insurance company. Later data suggests he would soon be or was already in training to become an attorney.
Charles L. Johnson was married on June 21st, 1901, to Sylvia (Hoskins) Johnson. Their daughter Frances was born the following year but died in infancy. At some point in 1901 Charlie jumped ship from Jenkins and went to work for the Carl Hoffman publishing house.
There was a lull in writing activity for Johnson in 1903, but he fired back in 1904 with a good-sized hit. With the growing success of Hiawatha, the supposed train-oriented song that actually launched the fad for Indian-themed pieces, Charlie came out with a similar intermezzo of his own. Iola did quite well as an instrumental, and the late in the year it was also made into a song just as Hiawatha had been. Both pieces were named after towns in Kansas, not after Native American names or cultures, but as the towns had originally derived their names from Native Americans, there was an indirect linkage. Curiously it was not published by Charlie's employer, but instead by Central Music. Copies under that imprint are hard to find as the company dissolved within a couple of years, and the plates and rights to both version of Iola were sold to the Jerome H. Remick firm. They kept it in print for many years.
Iola became a point of controversy over three decades later in 1940 with the publication and recording of a big band piece called Playmates, much of which sounded very suspiciously like Johnson's tune. While some may have forgotten the piece by that time, the composer had not, and with current copyright owner Jerry Vogel he did battle against the Santly-Joy company which owned Playmates. By 1944, Johnson and Vogel received a decent settlement.
In the 1905 Kansas Census, James was now listed as an attorney, a vocation he would hold for the rest of his life. As Missouri had no Census at that time, Charlie and Sylvia were difficult to locate, but still living on the eastern side of Kansas City. His name was seen in various advertisements for music, and he also advertised on his own in music publications as an arranger for hire. One publisher that took him up on this was Tolbert R. Ingram of Denver, Colorado, and several pieces around 1905 to 1906 show up with Johnson writing music to various lyricists. Many still reside in the Ingram Collection at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
It was in 1906 that Charles L. Johnson officially became a piano ragtime composer, as he concocted his biggest rag hit, Dill Pickles. It was allegedly named quite by happenstance. As it has been traditionally told, Charlie was working late at Hoffman's, composing his new rag. Another employee in the building, sometimes identified as the janitor, asked him what he was working on. Johnson saw the worker's dinner in his hand, which included a dill pickle, and decided that Dill Pickles would be the name of the piece. The body of the A section featured the secondary rag or three over four ragtime pattern that was later used commonly by Tin Pan Alley composers, most notably by Euday Bowman for his 12th Street Rag.
There are a number of factors that contributed to the success of Dill Pickles. For starters, the unusual and creative cover showing copies of the rag being dropped from a giant dill pickle dirigible with the name across the side was instantly eye-catching. The piece itself was accessible to most pianists with reading capability, and easy to pick up by ear as well. The B section had a catchy trombone slide figure in the left hand that further identified the work. With a band it was often used as dance music as well.
The plates and copyright for Dill Pickles were eventually sold to Remick, and with their promotion it became an outrageously successful pieces. Charles N. Daniels was now a manager for Remick, and he likely had something to do with the acquisition of Dill Pickles and other Hoffman properties around that time. As was often the case with such successes, there was an attempt to turn it into what became a nearly unsingable rag song as well, an effort likely not endorsed by the composer, and which ultimately fell flat. Copies of the song are difficult to locate a century later. But the rag continued to thrill and delight. From that point on, Johnson's overall output was quite remarkable in terms of both volume and quality as well as commercial viability. Dill Pickles was just one of four of his rags which reportedly sold over a million copies each during his lifetime.
The success of Dill Pickles helped to both encourage and finance Johnson's entry into running his publishing firm. The initial incarnation of the Charles L. Johnson Publishing Company set up shop in the Braley Building in Kansas City, Missouri, in early 1907. Many of Johnson's own rags after 1906 utilized the secondary rag, or three over four pattern he had first used in Dill Pickles. Since they were generally easy to play and memorize, his products sold briskly. Simplicity worked well for his style, and he was widely regarded for his work by many fledgling composers who asked him for advice or even sent in works for Charlie to arrange. But he was also admired for his versatility. Johnson was just as adept at turning out a ballad or intermezzo as a popular rag.
In 1907 only three pieces were released, two of them in the ragtime vein, including the lovely Southern Beauties. It had started out as Lovey Dovey, but when Daniels acquired the copyright for Remick he thought a more suitable name could be applied. Sneaky Pete (or Sneeky Peet) sounded as if it might have been composed a few years before, but was also acquired by Daniels in short order.
The following year saw a big increase in both instrumentals and songs from Johnson, including his catchy Powder Rag and the more classic sounding Beedle-Um-Bo. The latter had an unusual and creative modulation in it, progressing from the opening key of F into Db for the trio, then back to F. Because of the number of rags, songs, intermezzos and other forms that Charlie had started composing in increasing numbers, he used the pseudonym Raymond Birch for some of his rags and songs. He would later use Herbert Leslie and Eugene Ballard from time to time for songs and instrumentals, but Birch was his primary pseudonym during the ragtime era. Part of this may have been so as to not "flood the market" or dominate his catalog with his own works.
It should be pointed out that suggestions in print that he used the names Fannie Woods and Ethel Earnist as pseudonyms for two of his pieces have been proven to be false, as both of these lady composers have been clearly identified and their parentage of their respective works properly established. With all due respect to those who continue to assert that Johnson wrote Sweetness, the author notes that they would need to explain why there are articles in the Louisville, Kentucky paper from 1912 citing Woods playing her composition, why the piece was dedicated to Woods' future husband, and how Johnson, living in Kansas City, would have even known Fannie's future husband in Louisville. Earnist was also a musician living just outside of Kansas City, and there is a great deal of data to support her authorship of Peanuts, and another piece recently discovered. Hopefully the doubters in the case of Ms. Woods and Ms. Earnist will review the collective evidence and realize that if Johnson published pieces composed by other women for which he did not receive compositional credit, it is probable that this is the same situation.
Many of Johnson's compositions from 1908 and 1909 were in the format of intermezzos, waltzes and dances. However, his rag output increased once again in 1909, as did his reach. Even with his own company, he found it lucrative to sell his copyrights to other publishers, and not just Remick. Two such pieces include his Porcupine Rag, which was distributed by M. Witmark of New York, and Apple Jack: Some Rag, which somehow got into the hands of Vandersloot Music in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Manager and composer Harry J. Lincoln had gained a reputation for the company through the release of several other local rags - albeit none of his own at that time - so Johnson may have simply taken a chance on this somewhat rural company with a wide reach. No details of the transaction have been found. Another commonly found piece from that year was the Pigeon Wing Rag, published by Harold Rossiter in Chicago. One other fairly common piece is his self-issued intermezzo Sunbeam, which had one of the more beautiful covers issued under the Johnson imprint, as did his rag Pansy Blossoms.
It is important to note that while Johnson was selling off his better material, he was at the same time making it possible for other lesser-known composers, many of them women, to have their own rags found in music stores around the Midwest. Some standouts include The Tickler by Frances Cox, Twinkles by Charles A. Gish, and Peach Blossoms and Slivers, both by Maude Muller Gilmore. The latter is more commonly known as Splinters, renamed as such when Harold Rossiter acquired the copyright and plates. Only the title changed and all other aspects remained the same. While Johnson was a relatively small publisher and distributor, Rossiter had a more extensive reach, and he may have either been responding to or heading off an issue with Slivers. There was another rag named Slivers composed by Harry Cook which was also released in 1909. It was explicitly composed for Barnum & Bailey Circus clown Frank "Slivers" Oakley. He had been using Slivers by Cook for a comic baseball routine he had been doing for several years. Rumors of any suits threatened or launched against Gilmore or Rossiter have not been substantiated, but it is possible that such a contention might have spurred the name change for Gilmore's fine rag. Other women published included Kate Myers Stith, Enola Kempka, Elva Tarlton, Lucy B. Phillips and the aforementioned Ethel May Earnist.
In the 1910 Census Charles was listed as a music publisher in Kansas City, Missouri, still living with Sylvia. Apparently no further attempts at having children were made as she is shown as already having had one child with none surviving. Charlie's parents were still residing over the Kansas state line, with James again listed as a practicing attorney. His ragtime output dropped a bit, but he still had at least two first rate pieces under his own name. Under the Southern Moon is questionable as a piano rag, and actually sounds very much like a three part song, indicating that there may have been some intent in that direction. The title certainly suggests as much. Golden Spider was a very intricate rag in which you could hear the lattice of the lacy web being formed. It was the second of his works published by Vandersloot music, and the last, as he may have been frustrated with the lackluster speed of promotion and distribution, in spite of the very nicely rendered cover. It still sold in large quantities over time, and is quite collectible today.
After more than three years in business, the prolific Mr. Johnson sold his firm for a tidy sum to the Harold Rossiter organization in August 1910. It was allegedly on the condition that he not enter the publishing business again for at least one year. But with his output and reputation, Johnson had no trouble getting published by other music houses during that time. In spite of the agreement, Charlie was back in business for himself by January 1911 as the Johnson Publishing Company. He also continued to worked both free-lance and on retainer as an arranger during the decade, so there are many more pieces than we may ever know of that Johnson was responsible for putting in print.
Perhaps it was meant as an inside joke. In 1911 Charlie released the very popular Melody Rag as composed under his pseudonym Raymond Birch, yet "arranged by Chas. L. Johnson." To further the joke, it was one of several parodies of the 1910s based on Anton Rubinstein's famous Melody in F. One other ubiquitous work was Tar Babies Rag with a mildly offensive name and cover, but still frequently found in antique malls around the country. Also in the catalog were many songs by Johnson and other composers, and some more Indian-themed intermezzos. Among these was his own Silver Star of 1910, which was repurposed as a song under the new imprint. Charlie also made an overture to movie pianists, being among the first composers or publishers to offer music specifically for them. For $1.00 they got a packet of 24 thick cards with musical selections intended for picking and choosing to accompany various moods or action on the screen.
Before 1911 was out the imprint again changed to "Published by Chas. L. Johnson," then in 1912 back to "Chas. L. Johnson Publishing Company." Just the same, the majority of Johnson ragtime compositions and instrumentals from mid-1912 on were published by F.J.A. Forster Music Publishers, and even a couple by Cincinnati publisher Sam Fox. Charlie retired from the publishing business by early 1913 and Forster would obtain some of his copyrights for reprints. F.J.A. Forster was a growing concern in Chicago started by Fred John Adam Forster who would soon become one of Johnson's best colleagues in the business, as well as a social friend of the family. Johnson's contributions to the catalog in turn helped Forster grow even more in the 1910s.
In spite of his new alignment of Forster, Johnson compositions still turned up in the Remick and Fox catalogs, as well as under the imprints of Maurice Richmond, George W. Meyer, Dearing and Dietz, M.B. Thomas, Hamilton S. Gordon, the Universal Music Company, J.W. O'Connell, Rollie Moore, Ted Browne and Reynolds, Larson & Company. It can be ascertained that in some of these cases Charlie was providing music for lyrics by or from that publisher, and many of these compositions are the only one under each imprint. Just the same, it made tracking his output difficult at the very least. He also did some fine arrangements of piano rags, one of them being Pickled Beets by Ed Kuhn published by Jenkins in 1912.
One of the other big hits from the pen of Charles L. Johnson was released by Forster in 1913, although it was not an immediate success. Crazy Bone Rag was potentially written to be performed by a pianist accompanied by a bones player. The bones were sometimes actually rib bones, but more often wood shaped like rib bones, used between the fingers of one hand to create percussive rhythms. The cryptic cover provides no clues on this possibility either way. The rag fairly swings, and in some respects is Dill Pickles turned on its side. While it was a steady seller in its time, like Dill Pickles it would become popular during the 1950s honky-tonk piano craze. One of the first recordings was done by performer Frankie Carle in 1952, but it was easily eclipsed in the mid 1950s by the hit single performed by Johnny Maddox, who still plays it as of this writing more than a half century later.
Both 1913 and 1914 were busy years for Johnson songs and instrumentals as well, the most prescient of them being Shadow Time, released as both a "reverie" and a song in 1913. He also wrote a late period "coon" song, My Pickaninny Babe, and although it was a well-crafted lullaby with a tasteful cover, such titles were rapidly going out of vogue. Summer Breezes of 1914 is also still frequently found. His most arguably interesting piece of that year was Pink Poodle, an unusual rag that sounds more elegant when played at a slower tempo, which appeared to be the intention. It had habañera passages scattered throughout and harmonically was very adventurous. While the bold blue and pink cover caught the attention of the consumer, his Peek-A-Boo Rag was even more interesting with an interesting lattice suggesting the title. Taking the habeñera idea further, Johnson also composed Honeysuckle Tango. The majority of his pieces during this period were released by Forster.
In his capacity as a local plugger for Forster, who was located in Chicago, Johnson had the opportunity to introduce a potential hit which he had arranged. The Missouri Waltz (Hush-a-bye Ma Baby), composed by John Valentine Eppel with lyrics added by Charlie's friend and sometimes co-writer James Stanley Royce (as James Royce Shannon), was a lovely tune that he simply could not seem to sell to the public or other musicians. He ended up calling it a "flivver," referring to the erstwhile nickname for the much maligned Model T Ford, and gave up. It started to gain ground in the late 1930s. Once Harry S. Truman became president in 1945, The Missouri Waltz caught on and was finally adopted as the Missouri State Song on June 30, 1949, 18 months before Charlie's death.
Thanks to the still steady sales, and now piano rolls and recordings of Dill Pickles Rag, Forster was able to do well by Charlie in getting his products sold. The Alabama Slide, more of a fox-trot than a rag, made a big splash in 1915, as did Johnson's Cassandra Waltzes. But in 1915 the big topic on everybody's mind was the war that had started in Central Europe in mid-1914, and was now escalating as other nations took sides. War songs were quickly in vogue, not because the United States was all that close to being involved in the conflict, but because so many immigrants in the U.S. had a familial stake in what was happening. Some American soldiers volunteered in the British, French or Belgian armies, so were going off to war without help from Uncle Sam. So Charlie followed suit and wrote some war-related pieces in 1915, including one dedicated to the warship U.S.S. Texas, and the usual separation-from-loved-ones type of ballads.
After a light year of piano rags, Johnson fired back in 1916 with two, both of them still very popular in the 21st century. Blue Goose Rag had a delightful cover, and was a highly melodic piece. The 32 bar trio had no syncopation and was clearly intended as a lyrical fox-trot. Since then it has been a favorite of historian David A. Jasen, and one of the staples of the author's performing friends Jeff and Ann Barnhart, who have turned it into a magnificent variegated opus. Teasing the Cat is a fun work full of little dissonances, and somewhat similar in concept to pieces being issued by Mel Kaufman around the same time. Again, the clever cover was one of the highlights of the work.
There were four other tunes released that same year, but nothing significant. Charlie had resurrected his own publishing imprint one last time, and in 1916 and 1917 was focused to some extent on releases by other composers under his label. He only contributed a handful of his own in 1917, two of them through his own company. In addition, the war was starting to deplete the supply of musicians everywhere, so Johnson was called on more often to perform with local groups or as an accompanist
Charlie's 1918 draft card shows him again as music publisher, and also as employed by the Jack Riley Orchestra. It further implies he was no longer married to Sylvia at this time, as his mother is listed as his nearest relative and no wife shown. With jazz on the way and the ragtime craze fizzling, Johnson released only one more piano rag titled Snookums Rag. The rest of his output consisted of songs and waltzes. The song Our Yesterdays was the first in which he used a new pseudonym derived in part from his middle name, Herbert Leslie. There were also a number of more aggressive war songs. This would also be the last year he published anything under the Charles L. Johnson Music Publishing Company imprint. One of Johnson's biggest non-ragtime hits came in 1919 with Sweet and Low, a song that reportedly earned him $30,000 while it was in print. However, Charlie's output slowed considerably from 1920 to 1924.
In the 1920 Census James, now 76, was still listed as a lawyer in general practice. The couple continued to reside on the Kansas side of Kansas City. Charlie married once again on January 25, 1920, to South Dakota native Eva (Otis) Johnson, who was around 17 years younger than her new husband. The timing is such that he may have been off on his honeymoon when the Census enumerators came to call, as extensive searches have found neither of them in the 1920 record. Upon his return the couple moved into a new home at 648 West 59th Terrace in the Brookside suburb of Kansas City. Both Johnson and Forster were making good profits from his works.
Johnson was still playing with local groups, and probably took some time off as well to simply enjoy his new marriage and accumulation of wealth. But he did not stop completely. There were a few Johnson arrangements that showed up during this period, but nothing significant. Most of what came out were light ballads and dance numbers, including a couple of 1921 songs co-authored with Jack Yellen, who had worked for many years with composer George L. Cobb. As Herbert Leslie he edited a Jenkins folio of Favorite Melodies from the Standard Operas.
James died some time around 1925, and Helen moved in with her Charlie and Eva. That year he introduced yet another Johnson pseudonym, Eugene Edgar Ballard. It is possible that since he had written a series of pieces for younger or less experienced pianists that he preferred his real name not be directly attached. The set of ten Compositions for the Piano were released separately rather than in a folio. Surprisingly, given the climate of the times, Charlie also wrote the music to a pickaninny song composed by Nellie Doud Allen, a relatively rare topic for 1925. From the early 1920s on a lot of Johnson's work had been writing or arranging music for vanity publications by other composers who went on to publish it themselves. Judging by some of those that remain, he may have been glad they were printed in small quantities due to the often inane lyrical content which read like poor prose. Still, he received a standard fee for completion of each submission, and that is what he was in business for.
Output slowed again from 1926 forward. He arranged a tribute composed for aviator Charles Lindbergh in 1927 titled Our Yankee Boy. In 1928 Charlie made one last go at ragtime, this time in the novelty vein. Monkey Biznez was a decent novelty tune, but the composer found it hard to compete against the brilliant works of Roy Bargy, Arthur Schutt, or even Zez Confrey. He also threw his musical hat in the ring with Your Cause and Mine in support of Republican presidential candidate Herbert Hoover. As the Republican convention was being held in Kansas City that year, there was assurance of exposure for the tune. Pushing forward, Johnson utilized yet another pseudonym, reportedly to introduce a series of silly novelty tunes.
The 1930 Census shows Johnson still as a composer of music, and living with his wife Eva and widowed mother Helen in Kansas City, Missouri. The Great Depression had yet to really set in at the beginning of the year in spite of the stock market crash the previous October. But for musicians and composers big changes were very close at hand. Americans feeling the pinch, which by 1932 was almost everybody, were quickly weaning themselves off of sheet music and records. Many had already acquired radio sets, and that medium, paid for by advertisers, became the dominant source of musical entertainment in the 1930s. Vanity publications no longer paid the same dividends, yet Charlie continued to engage in them from time to time. He finally had to give up his nice house and had to relocate into a small apartment where the couple spent several years.
Among Johnson's best friends were the Fred Forsters, and the couples socialized quite often with Charlie and Eva visiting Chicago several times. In Kansas City he was active for many years with an annual event called the Nit Wit Show run by the University Club. While writing only sporadically in the 1930s, he entered publishing once again, this time with Louis J. Bennett whom he had known for many years. One of the first releases of the Johnson-Bennett company in 1936, which came more than four decades after Charlie had started composing, saw another relative success. Radio broadcasts and a recording of his Jubilee in the Sky by Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians got some attention, and even Waring himself personally wrote to Johnson thanking him for the tune submission.
Most of what Johnson was involved with over the next three years was arranging, with scant compositions appearing under a variety of labels, including one more novelty by "Moran Moore" under the Johnson-Bennett imprint. There was a bit more activity in 1940, including a military piece geared towards the Army Air Corps and a patriotic song from the year before, In the Good Old U.S.A., extolling the virtues of the "land of the free." Also in 1940, Charlie was publishing on his own again with another round of the publishing company of Charles L. Johnson. This one survived a little more than a year.
In 1941 Johnson finally joined ASCAP nearly three decades after it was founded, adding him to the ranks of other famous Tin Pan Alley composers who had started the organization. On his lifetime body of successes, Johnson was quoted as saying that he was "merely striking the popular fancy of the multitude; hitting on a waltz, a ballad, of a bit of ragtime that will be hummed eternally once it gets to going. Charlie also continued to write and arrange, with some of his arrangements done for the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. It was discovered after his death that he had written a great deal more material that had not been published, some of it for the local shows, and some of it perhaps written into the late 1940s. Much of it currently resides at the Kansas City Library. Even at age 70, Johnson was able to contribute to no less than three tunes in 1946. His final publishing company was formed with his friend Kenneth R. Barnum that year, and survived until just after his death. Johnson's last composition, Harlequin Night, appeared in 1949 when he was 73 years old.
His final years in Kansas City were spent with friends and family at his home at 3028 Tracy in Kansas City, especially with his doting spouse Eva. On at least two occasions she also directly involved herself with Charlie's work, contributing lyrics to two unpublished works, June Time and Memphis Buddy's Swing-Time Band, the dates of which are unknown. As mentioned in Phil Stewart's pioneering book on Johnson, Eva appears to have also composed her own piece, Snooty Little Cutie (In the Flat Next Door), which was also not published. A copy was provided to him by her nephew Harley Otis. She managed to win a prize for it in a Radio Guide contest held in 1939. It is possible she also contributed lyrics to some of Charlie's published works, but remains uncredited for that work.
Charlie died peacefully just three weeks after his 75th birthday, and is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery in Kansas City. Eva survived him until December 1986. Concurrent with his death in December 1950 was a rising surge in the recording industry promoting a resurrection of ragtime era material, of which Dill Pickles would play a major role as one of the more popular rags. Lou Busch, Dick Hyman, Del Wood, Frankie Carle, and most notably, Johnny Maddox would give his piano rags a new life that continues into the 21st century. One of the biggest proponents of Charles L. Johnson piano rags from the mid 1990s on is the author's good friend Sue Keller, who has probably recorded more works by the composer than anybody else in history. The fine work of collector Phil Stewart has also uncovered many pieces that were unknown or simply suspected to exist. Dill Pickles remains a favorite at 21st century festivals, played more often than not by two or more pianists at one time. What is important, and what would make Charlie smile, is that they are being played - and thanks to loyal fans, listened to as well. Ain't that grand?
Eubie Blake was one of the longest lasting pioneers of ragtime, and lived to nearly a week past his 96th birthday, not his 100th as had long been believed. There is much in the way of legal demographic evidence to show that Blake was actually born in 1887, not 1883 as was commonly written throughout the second half of the 20th century. It has been said he was born to former slaves John Blake and Emma Blake. However, John was born in 1838 in Maryland, a free state, so his status as a former slave is unclear, and Emma was born in Virginia in 1861, so would have been freed by the time she was four. The couple was married around 1882 in Baltimore. Hubert was reportedly the only child of eleven that survived to adulthood. This number is hard to confirm through Maryland records, so since it is word of mouth there may be some question of its accuracy.
Hubert showed a definite propensity for both performance and composition at a very young age. Around the age of six he is said to have wandered away during a shopping trip into an organ store and started working out melodies. The store owner insisted that the boy had a natural talent, and his parents ended up obtaining a $75.00 reed organ, reportedly one a bit more expensive than they would have liked, paid out over an extended period.
Hubert was soon able to play hymns and sacred tunes, but raised his mother's blood pressure when they came out syncopated from time to time. At age 12 he formed a quartet with three other friends and started earning change singing outside of bars and similar establishments. As of the 1900 Census Eubie and his parents were living at 1508 Jefferson Street in Baltimore, along with four lodgers, including two nieces and two nephews. John was shown as a day laborer and Eubie as in still in school. His birth date is clearly shown to be February 1887.
Eubie, as he would be known, composed his first known ragtime piece, Charleston Rag when he was 16, which would make it 1903 rather than 1899 as commonly reported in error. While we may never know how it sounded in at least its earliest renditions as it was not recorded for another 14 years, the version that did survive from that time remains a challenge to this day for even the most adept pianists.
There is a plausible legend often told that when in his teens, Eubie was playing in Baltimore brothels, including that of Angie Shelton. A friend of his mother reportedly heard Eubie's distinct playing of Charleston Rag wafting out from the windows of one of this bordellos (what was she doing in that part of town anyway?). The incident was, of course, immediately reported, and when Eubie came home that evening/morning, his mother was waiting. "Whatchyu doin' playin' in one of them houses of ill repute?" she demanded. After a bit of stuttering and gathering himself, the younger Blake looked at his mother and said, "I'm gettin' near a hundred dollars a night, mama." After a moment of thought and decision, Mama replied, "Well, give me half and I won't tell your father!" In reality, his father evidently approved because Eubie was too young to spend the money, at least where he worked.
The commonly accepted timeline is again called into question, as Eubie supposedly started with "Dr. Frazier's Traveling Medicine Show" on "July 4, 1901." This was more likely 1904 or 1905, and the July 4 dated is as much legend as is his erroneous birth year. No mention of the show was made in any historical papers that were researched, but he likely was real as there were many such "entrepreneurs" at that time. Eubie played the melodeon, essentially a small pump organ, and did some buck and wing dances. Blake did study with professional teachers in his teens, and soon graduated from Baltimore to Atlantic City, probably around 1907, substituting for other pianists or playing pickup gigs during the summer.
It was there some time between 1908 and 1910 that he became acquainted with two Harlem pianists who were also starting their career, Willie "The Lion" Smith and Charles Luckeyth "Luckey" Roberts. Eubi4 both influenced and learned from the pair, and Roberts became a life-long friend. Both men had comparable styles and hand spans, and Roberts would be the first of the Harlem pianists to have his works published, followed shortly by the recently transplanted Baltimore native. Eubie soon spent more time in New York City. It was there that he met up again with classical pianist Avis Lee, who he had known a decade earlier while attending primary school, and proposed marriage to her. Some sources claim this was in July of 1910. However, the couple was shown living as married in Atlantic City during the April 1910 Census. He is shown as 24 instead of 23, but this was only a slight exaggeration.
Eubie wrote a number of rags that made it to publication during the 1910's as his reputation grew. However, they unfortunately had to be simplified from his unique playing style for the sake of public consumption. His earliest rags were published by Joseph Stern who had also published some of Roberts' pieces. Many of Blake's rhythms and "Eubieisms" were just too complex to notate, much less to play. Included in these are The Chevy Chase, named after an equestrian country club just north of the District of Columbia line in suburban Maryland, where Blake or some of his peers had probably performed at some point. Another title, Fizz Water, showed adaptability as it was written as a one-step but also made for a good two-step or rag with a little alteration. The span of Blake's hands easily reached a twelfth, or a full octave and a half on the keyboard. So the left hand patterns were often condensed in print for easier playing by the average pianist. Fortunately for history, he cut many piano rolls of his material during this period, as well as later in life.
During this period in New York City, Eubie made a name for himself both as a pianist and an occasional musical director. He also knew and worked with many members of the much vaunted Clef Club, such as founder James Reese Europe and composer Will Marion Cook. Being the most disciplined musicians in the city, white or black, all of them saw work performing for the "400", the cream of white society, which helped refine their musical skills and personalities even further.
In 1915, Eubie met lyricist Noble Sissle, and started a long run as a composing duo. That run was interrupted in 1917 as Sissle was called to serve with the Army in Europe with Smith (who possibly earned his "Lion" nickname there), Jim Europe, and other black New York musicians. Eubie was likely passed over for service as was Roberts due to their lack of height. His June 1917 draft card shows him working as a musician for the "Cleff Club" [sic] under Europe, and supporting his mother and wife. When Sissle returned after the war the two re-teamed as the Dixie Duo on the Keith Vaudeville circuit. Their post-war works were enough to secure them a contract with the Witmark publishing house, a notable achievement for "colored" performers at that time.
As a piano and vocal team, Sissle and Blake burned up the stage in the last years of vaudeville, with a large quantity of new songs released in 1919 and 1920, of which Good Night Angeline was one of their most popular. Some of their songs were picked up by other artists as well on records and piano rolls. However, they both wanted something more, not just for them but for the black musical community in general. Eubie had by now distinguished himself as one of the prestige artists making rolls for Rythmodik and Ampico, and was frequently advertised under the heading of "temperamental artists whose playing makes little masterpieces of the lighter music." But there were greater things around the corner as the 1920s started. As of the January 1920 Census, Eubie, shown as James Blake, and Avis were living in Harlem at 236 West 138th Street. He was listed as a vaudeville actor aged 33 and Avis with no profession.
While Sissle was in Europe in 1917, Eubie made his first recordings on piano rolls and records, the latter on the Pathé label as The Eubie Blake Trio. On rolls Eubie finally commited his Charleston Rag, but also recorded a number of rags, early blues and even some spirituals for QRS. Now back together in 1921, Eubie and Noble and an ensemble made a series of recordings on the Emerson label under the name of Noble Sissle and his Sizzling Syncopators. They also recorded several piano and vocal duo tracks over the next few years on the Edison, Okeh, Bell, Victor, Emerson, Paramount and Pathé labels. In many cases, their energetic tracks were not relegated to the status of "race records" which was common in the 1920s.
Sissle and Blake were among the first black songwriters to be produced on Broadway. Their earliest and best known show, which has seen revivals into the 21st century, is Shuffle Along, which was produced in collaboration with the comedy team of Flournoy E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles, and based on their own play, The Mayor of Jimtown. The musical got good notices from the very beginning. The Music Trade Review of June 4, 1921, offered the following: "A new musical show called 'Shuffle Along,' produced and played by a company of clever colored performers, evidently marks the return of the days of Williams and Walker, with some added improvements of a modern character, which make it, if anything, more entertaining. It has really good music and much dancing, with many new and clever novel effects. Most of the credit for the success of this new piece goes to two versatile negroes, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, who have supplied all the music and lyrics and who both play important parts in the cast, Blake doing some clever work at the piano and Sissle impersonating with zest a political character. Sissle and Blake are in vaudeville and are not unknown in the talking machine record- field." The cast offered some of the best black performers, including the saucy Josephine Baker and the dynamic Florence Mills. Most importantly, it introduced black jazz into polite society. Shuffle Along ran a very respectable 504 performances in its first run between two theaters. Among their best known songs from these shows was I'm Just Wild About Harry, which he played regularly for most of his life.
Some of their success was repeated in 1923 with their latest musical Elsie. Their Boston run of the show was noted in The Music Trade Review of March 3, 1923: "Sissle and Blake Musical Comedy... Repeats Chicago Success - The musical comedy, 'Elsie,' which has had a successful run in Chicago and elsewhere, has made its appearance in Boston, where it is again recognized as a meritorious attraction. Much of the music for this show was furnished by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, who were responsible for last season's success, 'Shuffle Along.' " In spite of the success on the road, the play ran for only 40 performances when it reached Broadway in April.
Sissle and Blake's efforts on the stage made it possible for many other black artists to have their works heard and produced. The duo also appeared in one of Lee De Forest's early experimental optical sound-on-film shorts in 1923.
Blake was also known to some degree, according to later reports from those who traveled with him, as quite the ladies man and a quiet philanderer. This, however, may have been in later years after Avis passed on, so is difficult to confirm from the word of mouth reports. Shuffle Along was followed by Elsie, which made it through only 40 performances. Another show in the fall of 1924, Chocolate Dandies, also did not fare so well, perhaps because it bucked stereotypes and presented blacks in more of a white context in terms of humor and romance. It closed after 96 performances.
By 1926, the two were veterans, and attempted to enlighten Europe as to their musical styles. Eubie and Noble went the England where they met with a great deal of critical acclaim and stage success. However, the subsequent trip through parts of Europe was hard for Eubie, who was glad to be back in New York in short order. According to a newspaper interview of Eubie quoted in Sincerely Eubie by Terry Waldo, he said, "In Europe, a man or woman is either rich or poor. Poor boys don't grow to be rich men over there, there's no chance. The class system consigns one to the estate in which he was born until death. There is a caste system as strong as there is in India." While many black members of military admired their European counterparts for not having to deal with racism based on skin color, Eubie made it clear that birthright was an entirely different issue, and was glad to live in a society where in spite of the odds the earnest could succeed. In early 1927 Sissle decided to return to Europe and the team split up, although they would reunite briefly in 1958 with other Broadway friends to create a recording of their songs and for a couple of subsequent events.
Starting in late 1926 Eubie teamed up with lyricist Andy Razaf for several years. In 1927 and 1928 he took to the stage again, this time with a vaudevillian he had known years before who went by the name "Broadway" Jones. But with vaudeville being forced off the stage by sound films, their run did not last very long. Blake again worked with Razaf and the pair turned out a number of hits including the poignantly beautiful Memories of You and other tunes incorporated into Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1930. This early Great Depression show was touted as "Glorifying the Negro" and included music by Spencer Williams and Clarence Williams.
By this time, Razaf had also become one of Fats Waller's most frequent lyricist partners, but he was widely employed in the 1930s and 1940s by many composers and continued to write with Eubie as well. Blake revered him because he could supposedly write in meter almost as fast as Eubie could play the melody line. Eubie also wrote some songs with lyricist Henry Creamer and Joshua Milton Reddie, mostly for pickup shows. Published versions of these have not been located, and Creamer's death in 1930 cut short any future possibilities of their continued collaboration. Eubie also attempted a revamped version of Shuffle Along during the 1932 holiday season, but it ran for barely 2 weeks. One of the pianists for that short run was future star Nat "King" Cole. In the 1930 Census, Eubie (shown as "Herbert") and Avis were still living in the same Harlem apartment on West 138th Street, and he was listed as a theater actor, this time his age curiously deflated to 41, indicating an 1889 birth.
After kicking around for so long, Eubie seems to have largely dropped out of sight in the mid to late 1930s. In 1938 he lost his beloved wife Avis to tuberculosis. Her death sent him into a period of listless depression for at least a couple of years. In the 1940 Census he is listed as widowed, with his occupation simply as music composer. But Eubie finally came out again during the Second World War. The first glimpse of him is that same Census where he gives his age, in April, as 56, implying an 1884 birth year. Then on his draft record Blake clearly inflated his age by even another year. Why? The author and other writers thought it was perhaps to be of less use to the military in a combat mode (although his diminutive height and age should have precluded that), or perhaps some other unknown personal reason. In any case, the 1883 story stuck with him throughout the rest of his life.
During the war Eubie briefly reteamed with Sissle and they toured with the USO extensively for the duration, performing in the US and in the various war theaters in Western Europe. After the end of the war he married again, this time to Marion Gant Tyler. They moved into a brownstone in Brooklyn, and Eubie supposedly retired from music, again. Yet he kept resurfacing one way or another right up until his death as his interest in music and performing never really waned.
Around 1949 or 1950, Blake started taking some formal classes in harmony and the Joseph Schillinger compositional method at New York University. He experimented with a number of formats incorporated into ragtime. The system was based on numbers rather than traditional harmonies, and Eubie went along with the advanced concept, creating works using math theory. Among the most unique are the harmonically challenging Dicty's on Seventh Avenue, which was written as an assignment for the course as early as 1949, and the engaging Rhapsody in Ragtime. Eubie Blake had finally obtained his degree in music, and it was not just honorary; it was earned.
There was another brief revival of Shuffle Along in 1952. Then Eubie "retired" again, just as his fame was starting to spread through a recently published (1950) book called They All Played Ragtime. Now approaching his 70th year, Eubie saw a world where many of the innovative music styles being championed by other black performers, including be-bop, free form jazz and straight ahead jazz, were being overshadowed by a national nostalgic phase under the guise of Honky-Tonk Piano. Slowly, he was becoming a commodity again, largely as one of the few remaining pioneers of authentic ragtime performance and composition. Because of this, the bulk of Eubie's recordings were made from the 1950's through the 1970's.
Among the more notable recordings include a session arranged by ragtime performer Bob Darch in 1962. Darch had Blake and a couple of friends from his early days, Charley Thompson and Joe Jordan, brought to Florida where they reminisced and played for a recording that was released both as a radio show and, edited down, a record album called Golden Reunion in Ragtime on the Stereoddities label. This may have jump started his new desire to make records, but still remains an important recording. Ragtime artist Max Morath also helped bring attention to Eubie and other veterans on his television appearances in the early to mid 1960s.
In 1965, Sissle and Blake were honored on their fiftieth anniversary by both ASCAP and the American Guild of Vaudeville Artists. Two years later, Eubie was honored with a bust by sculptress Estelle V. Wright at the Museum of the City of New York. In 1968 he was reunited again with Sissle for the mislabeled album The 86 Years of Eubie Blake (should have read as 82) which was produced by veteran John Hammond who had been responsible for the success of artists such as Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday decades before. The old team also composed a tribute to slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King at the same time. He also went back into the business of not only composing but cutting piano rolls as well in the early 1970s.
Blake also mentored many young artists. One of those was ragtime historian and performer Terry Waldo, who wrote out many important transcriptions of Eubie's pieces in the early 1970's, and assembled the Sincerely Eubie folio. Waldo not only preserved some of the older Eubie pieces that had not been available before, but also made newer works, such as Rhapsody in Ragtime, more accessible to pianists of moderate and better skills. Blake even got his own record label, Eubie Blake Music, for a few years. Among the artists who appeared with him on the limited run discs was Jim Hession, who has had a successful career in ragtime and jazz, and with the Disney organization. Hession now lives in New Orleans, but has vivid memories about his time working and traveling with Eubie.
Surprisingly, the elderly Eubie Blake even made appearances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Today Show, What's My Line, the Saturday morning young adults show Wonderama, The Mike Douglas Show, and radio appearances with Morath and historian/orchestra leader Gunther Schuller. His native city, Baltimore, Maryland, honored him with Eubie Blake Day as well. There were also celebrations for Eubie in Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Canada, and at the Newport=New York Jazz Festival.
Many of these celebrations occurred in 1973, which was allegedly his 90th year, and even though Blake was rightly honored for all his achievements, he never let on publicly about his actual age at that time. It is still a mystery as to why the birth date was inaccurately reported for so long, and it seems to bear some significance to those who wanted Eubie to live to be 100. In all fairness, there was another James H. Blake Jr. born in Easton, Maryland not too far from Baltimore, in 1883, as Census records from 1900 forward would indicate. However, he was not ever shown in the music business, listed instead as a laborer. However, this does not explain the Eubie deception. As previously detailed, the 1900 Census shows him as 13; the 1910 Census in Atlantic City, New Jersey stated his age as 24 (just a little off); his WWI draft card very clearly indicates February 7, 1887 as a birth date as does a 1920 passport application; the January 1920 Census has the more accurate age of 33 (shy by three weeks); his marriage certificate also indicates 1887 as birth year; and the 1930 Census lists him as 41, implying an 1889 birth year - younger instead of older. Surprisingly, even his 1983 death record and Social Security records show the 1887 birth date, yet it took nearly 20 years for this information to become public knowledge, even to ragtime scholars.
When did the deception begin? This is hard to pinpoint. However, his 1942 draft registration card lists him as being born in 1883 and therefore 59 at that point, just a little old to be inducted and be of much use. The government did not have computerized records back then, or this inconsistency would have been quickly caught. That he did this knowingly to the Army is surprising, but we may never know his true reasons. Friends have noted that he was clearly aware of the little lie, but that no malice was meant by it. Note that most of the knowledge we originally had of Eubie concerning age, et. al, was from word of mouth and interviews done from the time of They All Played Ragtime (1950) forward. So given that earlier buried records were essentially not well researched in lieu of Mr. Blake's integrity is understandable to a degree.
In his final years Eubie continued to pop up everywhere. There was a special race named after him at Pimlico on May 15, 1975, The Eubie Blake Purse. He had a guest spot in the 1977 ABC television movie Scott Joplin as the cutting contest judge. In September 1978, the celebratory Broadway musical Eubie opened to great acclaim and ran for more than a year at 439 performances. It yielded Blake and some of his former lyricists a Tony Award® for best original score. Eubie was the guest musical artist on Saturday Night Live on March 10, 1979 at the age of 92, appearing in an extended segment with the singing and dancing star of Eubie Gregory Hines, who had also won a Tony Award® for his efforts. "Do you know who I am?" Eubie asked. "Sure I do," replied Hines just before the pair launched into Low Down Blues, I'm Simply Full of Jazz, and I'm Just Wild About Harry in waltz time and ragtime.
Eubie Blake's career had spanned the time from primitive shows out of the back of a wagon to multi-media presentations on television, and from the days of audio on wax cylinders to the cusp of the time of digital multi-track recordings. He performed right into his 95th year, but was not able to make it to his premature 100th birthday celebration in 1983. Eubie finally succumbed to the ravages of age five days after his 96th birthday, having left many lifetimes of memories and a substantial imprint on all who had encountered him. Fortunately for us, unlike with many other ragtime era figures who were his contemporaries, we have a lot of documentation that he left behind giving us a unique glimpse into a magical time in American music.
The author/artist had his own personal experience with Eubie. It was in 1971 when a classic movie/stage theatre in Santa Monica, California, in celebration of a recent refurbishment, presented a restored version of Lon Chaney's 1927 classic Phantom of the Opera. It included many hand-tinted scenes along with the famous masquerade two-strip Technicolor segment. They even transcribed some of the music of Don Juan Triumphant seen on the Phantom's organ to play back during the screening on the theatre's magnificent organ. Afterwards, the incomparable Eubie Blake performed about a half hour show on the piano. At first I thought it was just an old short guy that was going to do a couple of old songs (I was already taller than he was). Everybody was delighted at what came forth from his dimunitive frame. It was then I was presented the remarkable opportunity to meet the artist. I was nervous enough about this, being the fledgling twelve year old ragtime pianist that I was. But I remember drawing back a bit when the inordinately long and wirey fingers on his spidery hand came towards me. What an awesome experience this was, and a memory that will always stay with me.
Much of the biographical research on Eubie Blake, as well as restoration of his musical legacy, is through the efforts of Terry Waldo who transcribed and assembled the famed Sincerely Eubie folio. His book This is Ragtime has been re-released in 2009 with updated information, some about Eubie Blake. The revelation of the birth date issue is in part due to the extraordinary efforts of the tireless Mike Meddings of the United Kingdom, a well known Jelly Roll Morton researcher, with help from California ragtime research Bob Pinsker. Additional demographics on his age and some other previously unknown facets of Blakes life included here were researched by the author from public records, periodicals and archived sources.
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