A SCOTT JOPLIN BIOGRAPHY - November 24, 1868 – April 1,1917
(Focused on his years in Sedalia, Missouri)
Rather untraditionally written by Larry Melton - November, 2015
On the occasion of the 116th year of The Maple Leaf Rag
Most Americans who had a major cultural, economic or political impact on the nation have fairly detailed and well documented biographies, often many, written in each generation. However this isn’t exactly the situation in the case of America’s formative composer Scott Joplin and his publisher John Stillwell Stark.
While amazingly competent biographers have exhausted nearly every possible resource in writing their stories (many times over by now), the fact is folks, there just isn’t that much documented material to be found. Certainly there is precious little left that master sleuth’s like Bill Edwards, David Jasen, Trebor Tichenor, Terry Waldo, Dick Zimmerman, et. al. and ragtime’s real-life syncopated Sherlock, Professor Edward Berlin2 haven’t found.
So, before I begin I have an urgent need to go off on a tangent, relevant I think, but nevertheless off subject. I box it off so as to properly identify this diversion…there may be others!
I need to mention ragtime scholarship and my personal experience with some of the most remarkable researchers I have known in my college history teaching career.
My first exposure to the history of Joplin and ragtime came from reading “They All Played Ragtime” (hereafter TAPR) by Harriett Janis and Rudi Blesh. They were the first to track down ragtime history by going to the sources still available in the late 1940’s. There are elements of their story that has not held up in the light of modern research and resources that simply weren’t available to them. Having made that disclaimer, I am forever grateful for their work and that it was done so early. Most significantly, I am eternally grateful to have known Rudi Blesh and to have benefitted from his brief but personal tutelage. He is and should ever be, the “Grand Gentleman of the Genre”.
During the 1960’s and the ragtime revival era of the 1970’s other amazing scholars began to emerge and they have collectively added immensely to our knowledge of both the history and the evolution of the music. I also had the benefit of several of these sages when planning the 1974 Joplin Festival in Sedalia. Max Morath actually began my formal ragtime education. He is not only tremendously knowledgable about the field but like Rudi is as kind, gregarious and generous a gentleman as I’ve ever known. Max led me to Rudi and to Trebor Tichenor. I already knew Trebor from his ragtime festivals on the St. Louis Goldenrod Showboat. He was gentle almost timid away from a piano stool, and so soft spoken as to need a microphone in normal conversation but his knowledge of Missouri Valley ragtime and the field in general was as immense as his great physique. Other than his distinctive name, there was nothing remotely backward about Trebor’s ragtime knowledge.
Finally all these resources led me to Richard Zimmerman, the scribe and reporter for ragtime who in the early 1970’S was working in Los Angeles with the Maple Leaf Club there. Richard’s talent and inquisitiveness have contributed so much to our knowledge of ragtime and after thoroughly researching the major figures he has tackled some of the more obscure personalities and musical elements in his writing. In this list Dave Jasen’s fine work must also be mentioned with distinction.
Any of the works associated with these men are highly recommended. However, the research ramped up in the mid-1970’s and a new generation of researchers began contributing information. I speak of scholars like Terry Waldo, David Thomas Roberts, Scott Kirby to were researching while pursing performance careers. But, then appeared a fellow who literally leaves me in awe when I see his capacity for meticulous research, careful analysis and a seemingly insatiable desire to publish and share his discoveries. Ed Berlin’s work is always as near always definitive as is possible and I eagerly await the revision of “The King of Ragtime” that should be out soon. I end reluctantly, since there are so many more, with my final two nominees for ragtime scholarship honors. Perferror Bill Edward’s research and his remarkable web site are of inestimatible value and we all benefit from his generous sharing. And the fellow who goes all the way back to the 1974 Festival preparation deserves a final bow. David Reffkin in San Francisco has personally interviewed every personality ever associated with ragtime in the last 40 years for his weekly KUSF “Ragtime Machine” radio program. (He also hasn’t missed a Sedalia Festival in that long running tradition and is himself a brilliant ragtime violinist, arranger and conductor.) Should he ever find time, he will be able to leave the world, a personal accounting of his life immersed in ragtime.
It should also be noted right now before you wade knee deep into my verbiage, that this biography is written from the obsessively proud perspective of the citizens of Sedalia, Missouri. Though exiled for some time I include myself and we are profoundly honored that Joplin even stopped off here, much less wrote and published the composition that ushered in the era of American popular music and jump started the American music industry.
So, just so you know…we unashamedly proclaim that Sedalia, Missouri is Where American Music Began and Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag and the contract he signed with his publisher John Stark brought it all about. Now, with that disclaimer in mind, I’ll proceed to this locally authorized biography of the “King of Ragtime” (sorry folks, Elvis was merely K2). See the bibliography at the end for slightly different portrayals and be sure to read the mini-biography Ed Berlin wrote for the exclusive use of the Festival Foundation in 1998.
And now that we’ve had the news bulletin and cartoon it’s time for the main feature…Professor, start the music and roll the film.
In 1973, when the first Joplin Festival was only a glimmer in the mind of a few city fathers, Jerry Adkins produced a Joplin Commemoration in Texarkana, Texas for the town’s centennial. He graciously treated my family as guests of honor and trundled us all over town, detailing Joplin’s probable birth nearby, and his rather transient life in several Texarkana, Arkansas and Texas homes.
According to Ed Berlin Joplin was born after June of 1867. However ASCAP must have had an agent at Joplin’s burial in New York City’s Borough of Queen’s Potter’s Field to know the exact date in 1917 to so accurately date his belated memorial. They have a way of showing up at unexpected places (all in the name of intellectual property rights of course). Or maybe they listened to Brun Campbell (of whom I’ll have more to write later) who made Joplin’s burial sound like something P.T. Barnum and a New Orleans street band produced. (Brun should have seen Bob Darch’s 2003 memorial in Sedalia…now that was a production)
That Joplin was born the son of a former slave in a time of post-Civil War depression makes Abe Lincoln’s log cabin beginning seem almost affluent by comparison. The important elements of Joplin’s early life must include the role his mother, Florence played in struggling to raise her family of six after her husband left and the influence of Julius Weiss, a white German piano teacher, who augmented the young boy’s musical instruction his parents were providing.
Julius was probably responsible for instilling in Scott Joplin his great appreciation for European classical music and Florence who labored hard to support her children, and taught them the value of getting an education. Both of these values resonated through the composer’s career and he celebrated his mother and mentor in his opera “Treemonisha”. But look out…I’m getting ahead of myself…
So a bit of history to get myself back on track, literally. Texarkana like most western cities of any size was connected to the main line railroad system by the mid-1880’s. Specifically, a teenaged Scott Joplin could get on a train near his home and with a few transfers onto the Missouri Pacific line come to a place like, oh say, Sedalia.
What actually brought him here as early as the late 1880’s is only speculation. With several Black families named Joplin in the city directory at that time he may have been visiting relatives, and may have discovered the Negro Lincoln High School. Listening to his mother’s advice that must have always been in his head, he probably stayed and attended classes.
Also of great importance to our wandering minstrel, there was music in Sedalia. It was a musical town and it wasn’t long before he linked up with a local group. However, this was not before he returned to Texarkana and became embroiled in a controversial concert his group presented to honor the memory of one Jefferson Davis. Whoa, did they take some heat for that but a buck was a buck, or a quarter was a quarter more likely, and Joplin was still a young man. Decisions regarding social issues and politics were probably not on his radar yet. (I’m prone to anachronisms because I am one.) Joplin was also spending time in St. Louis, mixing with the Black musicians there while building his own musical reputation.
We know like most young men not tethered to a job or family in those days, Joplin went to the fair…not just any fair but the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. That’s right, you are on the ball…Chicagoians missed the 400th anniversary by a year but finally pulled it off. We’re not sure what all he did in Chicago but he could have heard a lot of music there he had never heard before from magnificent organ recitals to the ethnic folk music of dozens of world cultures. It would have put a lot of notes in his head and apparently Joplin’s mind was already full of musical arrangements just waiting to be composed. But again…I must lead you back.
Favorite Joplin stories tell of friends he met at the fair and of a musical group with whom he was playing cornet. Now since the cornet figures prominently in Joplin’s early career (and may have even been Aunt Dinah’s dinner horn in “Treemonisha”) I decided to find out the difference between it and a trumpet. My professional jazzman, next-door neighbor informs me that the cornet has a conical shaft that expels a mellower sound megaphone like as opposed to a straight shafted trumpet that can control and “bend” the sound before it escapes making it more desirable, I suspect, as ragtime morphed into jazz.
As for his friends, it seems one was an Otis Saunders, possibly from Oklahoma Territory or just another wanderer like Joplin. They wound up back in Sedalia and Joplin seems to have used the town as a base for the next five or six years leaving frequently but always returning.
First, about all that leaving. Joplin was part of two musical groups in Sedalia,. He sang and led his Texas Medley Quartet which was probably an octet and included at two of his brothers. He was also part of the Queen City Cornet Band. The members of that band would figure in his career later and also in Dan McCabe’s touring minstrel shows.
He apparently traveled quite a distance with the Medleysts having secured the services of a booking agent so the group obviously had talent. Their tour can be somewhat traced by Joplin’s music he had published along the way. They spent some time in Syracuse N.Y. in 1895 and he hawked his first two compositions, period waltz ballads, to local businessmen. There is nothing great in them but it does illustrate his ability to annotate music and it was good enough to attract the businessmen to fund publication in 1896.
The group was also in Temple, Texas that year as well and Joplin had a wonderful piece titled “The Great Crush Collision March” published there by another businessman impressed with the composer’s talents. This one is reminiscent of E.T. Pauli’s great pieces with the artistic covers. Another publisher in Temple brought out Joplin’s “Combination March” and still another “Harmony Club Waltz”. These all indicate Joplin was well aware of the “popular” music of his day and was trying to write in styles that were selling.
By the way the story of that Texas Medley Tour undoubtedly still holds many great secrets…hopefully our stellar company of ragtime sleuths is on it.
Now before we bring our itinerant octet back to Sedalia it is worth reflecting on the importance of what was happening in young Scott Joplin’s life. First he and the group must have put on a pretty good performance to have managed such a tour.
Second, it is apparent they had some kind of backing to help financially, at least at first, and to arrange the bookings to keep them on the road over such a wide area and in a relatively short time. For this they employed the Majestic Booking Agency of St. Louis. I’m also inclined to suspect some connection with the minstrel shows of the era, especially since a very large Black minstrel company had a Sedalia connection. McCabe and Young Minstrels broke up in 1892 but Dan McCabe came back in 1894 with a “Coontown” production company and his brother William who was born in our fair city, had his own company later on. And later on, I’ll pick this up again…
To wrap up this segment, I point out Joplin’s ability to annotate music sufficiently for publication and his skill at writing in the musical styles of the 1890’s must have been fairly well advanced. Keep in mind as well, there is a major depression in America at this time and forty and fifty cent sheet music and 25 to 50 cent tickets to public performances represented quite an expenditure for people out of work or earning less than a dollar a week. Unemployment was in the double digits in the last half of the 1890’s.
But that’s all nuts and bolts stuff so I’m going to bring the itinerant musicians back to Sedalia and try to provide at least a cursory account of the next five years that ended in our great moment in American musical history.
Joplin had picked up friends on his travels and even more importantly had made contact with some great musicians in St. Louis at Tom Turpin’s Rose Bud Café. Even more significant for Sedalia, Joplin acquired some young local students like Scott Hayden and Arthur Marshall. Joplin would marry Hayden’s sister-in-law and Marshall was a life-long and devoted friend even after the two physically moved apart.
So what do we actually know? Well, since you asked, we know Joplin and probably Otis Saunders came back to Sedalia after finishing up their “Medley” tour in Joplin, Missouri. They would have found ready work in Sedalia’s main street entertainment district. Joplin has always been identified with the Black gentlemen’s clubs on Main Street. In fact when I purchased the Maple Leaf Club advertising card that Ed and Ruth Ann Cook found in 1974 it specifically listed Joplin as “The Entertainer” and by many accounts he played in many other venues.
There is also Joplin’s participation in the Queen City Cornet Band. Several of his fellow musicians were in McCabe minstrel companies later and show up living with Joplin in St. Louis.
It didn’t take long for Scott Joplin to attain the modern equivalent of being a “Rock star” and of course he would soon become “The King of Ragtime”.
In Sedalia Joplin and Saunders befriended the Williams Brothers who would later run the Maple Leaf Club and the group may have collectively decided Joplin should take music classes at the George R. Smith College for Negroes over in East Sedalia when they discovered the depth of his talent.
Sadly when the college burned in 1924 the records were lost after transfer to another college so we only know from a few sources that he was there. We know Arthur Marshall graduated from Smith College with a degree in education but sadly little is known of Joplin’s studies except to assume his enlarged exposure to classical music.
Now prior to this Joplin had been working with Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden offering music lessons and most probably teaching them the art of syncopating music. And, learning of Sedalia’s ragtime prodigy, musicians began drifting into town to meet Joplin and hear his music and learn his style first hand.
One such character was fifteen-year old Brunson Campbell, a white teenager from rural Kansas who was mesmerized by Joplin’s story and came to Sedalia to be taught this new ragtime music. Campbell would become Joplin’s most faithful publicist after John Stark, continuing his promotion well into the 1950’s. Unfortunately, he had a tendency to fabrication when telling of his time in Sedalia and with Joplin and thus some of his accounts are questionable.
With Joplin’s publishing success on the road and with new compositions at the ready, the young composer set out to get more of his work published. He went to local music publisher Austin W. Perry and apparently offered him what would become his most famous work but Perry possibly took a lesser effort titled “The Favorite” and didn’t actually publish it until June of 1904. The Joplin and Perry relationship may well be another area in need of good sleuthing as I will probably get around to detailing later.
I also point out that there was at least one other miniscule publisher in town at the time, the Truxel Music Company. They had a small catalog and Joplin may well have tried them as well. Stark bought Truxel out and moved into their store at 114 5th Street early in 1899.
In fact it is probably time to jump right into a minor Joplin quandary that has potentially major implications. Just when Joplin wrote his masterpiece is widely speculated and when and how it was named has also never been completely settled. It is generally accepted that there is a relationship between Joplin’s seminal composition and the Maple Leaf Club (to which he dedicated the piece in its third printing). However though incorporation papers exist for the club, its actual beginnings are uncertain.
We do know of course that Scott Joplin and John Stillwell Stark were introduced and history was made. Just how the actual meeting and Stark’s discovery of Joplin’s famous rag happened has several scenarios. The important fact is that Joplin, assisted by a young White attorney Robert, Higdon, signed a landmark royalty contract with Stark. The agreement called for a payment and royalty of a penny a copy. It was signed on August 10, 1899. Stark copyrighted the rag September 10th and printed the first Sedalia edition of 400 copies with an unflattering Black minstrel couple on the cover typical of period “coon” songs.
Since the story goes into warp speed at this point, I’ll exercise my prerogative as a guest writer here and stir things up. J.M. Barre had his “Neverland” so I’m creating my “Maybeland”, a sort of quasi-authenticated speculation only conceivable in my Brunson Campbellesque mind (my spellchecker is going berserk!)
I must remark that several of the distinguished scholars I have earlier touted with respect and awe have rather categorically dismissed the theory I’m putting forth. With much respect for their polite but firm rejection I continue to wonder however….
What inspiration led to naming the composition Joplin knew would give him fame if not fortune. All of his biographers have speculated on several possibilities. First there is The Maple Leaf Club proposition that Arthur Marshall supported. After all Joplin dedicated the third printing of the rag to the club. There’s a pretty strong case for this one but, I obstinately continue.
There were the Canadian Williams brothers themselves and the maple leaf title could have been to honor their heritage and/or the club. Third, there was the possibility that the title referred to the Canadian destination of the Underground Railroad. After all the maple leaf was used on slave quilts hung out each morning ostensibly to dry but actually to direct the way to Canada and freedom. Then, stretching it a bit was the “Maple Leaf line” of the Missouri Pacific Railway system that was so named because it was said the route on a map resembled the leaf. Goodness knows Joplin probably spent time on that route. And, semi-finally, as everyone always mentions, there were the ever present maple trees all over Sedalia constantly dropping leaves and seed pod reminders of their distinguished presence. Ragtime composers have always had a proclivity for using botanical names and references so I should probably leave Joplin’s titling right here…
But no, I have to submit one additional proposition. Tom Ireland was quoted as saying the “Maple Leaf Rag” wasn’t named for the club but rather the club for the rag and that certainly intrigued me. And remember the adolescent Kansas kid I mentioned coming to Sedalia to meet Joplin? Well, after a short musical itinerancy Brunson Campbell went to California and became a barber. However, he was always promoting ragtime and wrote many letters plugging Joplin’s fame and encouraging places like Sedalia to honor the great composer with a memorial.
In a famously and frequently published letter to George Scruton, of the Sedalia Democrat newspaper Campbell said, “It (The Maple Leaf Rag) was named after a waltz written by a Sedalian by the name of Florence Johnson, in 1897, who called her number “The Maple Leaf Waltz.” It was published by A.W. Perry & Sons Music Co., still in business at 306 West Broadway”. He goes on to say, “’The Maple Leaf Waltz’ was popular and Joplin liked to play it so well he named his famous “Maple Leaf Rag” after it.”
I know what you are thinking, that Campbell was known for fabricating more than one story. However, I mention that several of his previously questionable accounts have recently been proven true and he did, after all, have the publisher and copyright date right. Furthermore, Florence Johnson the composer had probably lived in Canada when she wrote the piece so at least she had a Canadian connection.
Thus “The Maple Leaf Waltz” is my nomination for the namesake of Joplin’s masterpiece. Besides I like Campbell’s quirkiness and underdog reputation and so I go with this histo-mythic explanation and with profound apologies to Arthur Marshall and the distinguished scholars lined up behind the venerable Maple Leaf Club theory, I trust old Tom Ireland was referring to what Brun Campbell wrote and back Flossie’s “mediocre” little waltz as Rudi Blesh described it. (What the heck I could even subscribe to a theory involving all five of the above!)
1 From Scott Joplin’s gravestone placed September, 1974 by ASCAP
2 Apologies to the many great biographers I have neglected…I will sit for an hour in a dark room listening to Philip Glass synthesized rags for each worthy author I left out. I’ll be there a long time.
And so I haven’t so much led you through Joplin’s career as I have dragged you like a leashed puppy, sniffing down every scent trail and nearly forgetting where we were going only to finally arrive at this profound conclusion…
While St. Louis and Chicago, Texarkana and New York played major roles in Scott Joplin’s life and career it all comes down to this. The first 400 copies of Scott Joplin’s masterpiece “The Maple Leaf Rag” with Stark’s Sedalia imprint and the precedent setting contract signed on August 10, 1899 at 114 East Fifth Street to publish our national treasure, allow me to celebrate the life of this musical prodigy and proclaim with genuine pride that it is
Where America’s Music Began!