BOOK REVIEW: Edward A. Berlin's King of Ragtime -- Scott Joplin and His Era

Music History Book Reviewed By Tim Gracyk

This August 1907 Columbia cylinder catalog supplement (on the right) describes a recording of Joplin's best-known work this way: "The catchiest of banjo melodies by the author of 'Sunflower,' Scott Joplin, the King of Ragtime Writers--dedicated to the famous 'Maple Leaf Club;' played in most resonant ragtime style by the King of Banjoists, Vess L. Ossman. A particularly fine number. Positively the best banjo record on the market."


I have long intended to write about important entertainers and artists of the past century who did not make commercial recordings during their prime years but should have, given their fame. The list would include Groucho Marx, Shirley Temple, Marilyn Miller, Fritzi Scheff, and Anna Held. Once topping my list was Scott Joplin, but I no longer think it odd that he never made recordings (he did cut piano rolls).

The simplest explanation for Joplin not recording is that presumably no company invited him to record. Company executives might have been indifferent for a number of reasons: relatively few artists of Joplin's generation made solo piano recordings, and most who did were in-house musicians (that is, they were staff pianists who showed up each day at the studio, usually to accompany singers); when "Maple Leaf Rag" first became popular, Joplin lived in the Mid-West, far from the Manhattan recording studios of the major companies; Joplin was not highly regarded as a player, certainly not by the time he moved east to where the recording industry was headquartered--syphilis hindered his playing; Joplin's was never a household name, notwithstanding the popularity of "Maple Leaf Rag," until the 1970s with the success of the film The Sting, which led to new popularity for Joplin's "The Entertainer."

Now available in paperback, Edward A. Berlin's biography of the composer is essential reading for anyone interested in popular music from the 1890s to WWI. It will delight those who love ragtime. It should be required reading for all who write about popular music of the past since the book is partly about how to conduct research and how to evaluate sources.

I like the fact that Berlin never exaggerates Joplin's popularity during the composer's lifetime. He writes, "Much has been written about the prodigious sales of ['Maple Leaf Rag'], but we must be judicious in evaluating the claims...As popular as the 'Maple Leaf' was, it did not sell as much as the most popular vocal music." Its publisher, John Stark, advertised that a million copies had been sold, but Stark's own ledgers suggest that a million was an inflated figure. Nothing prevented the sheet music industry--Tin Pan Alley--from inflating figures. Exaggerating sales was a common practice a century ago, no matter what the product. I know that advertisements in trade journals for talking machines make some outlandish claims.

The fact that "Maple Leaf" was recorded eight times in Joplin's life confirms that it was genuinely popular, but I wish Berlin had mentioned that not one of these recordings sold well. Readers might wrongly conclude that "Maple Leaf Rag" was often played on phonographs. Around 1906, perhaps one in every two homes with a talking machine of some sort (disc or cylinder) had some version of "Silver Threads Among the Gold," "The Holy City," "Hiawatha," and "You're A Grand Old Flag." These were truly popular songs! Among homes with talking machines, perhaps only one in a thousand had some version of "Maple Leaf Rag." (I have to guess since no sales figures exist for individual titles--I do have years of experience in sorting through collections of vintage records.) If you owned an Edison cylinder machine decades ago, you were out of luck. You could buy an Edison cylinder of "Maple Leaf Forever" or "Maple Leaf, Our Emblem Dear" but no "Maple Leaf Rag." If today you wish to buy a "Maple Leaf Rag" disc made during Joplin's lifetime, you will have a difficult time finding a copy.

From Victor's January 1909 record catalog. Notice that #4911 is Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag"--one of the few records of Joplin's classic rag cut during Joplin's own lifetime. It did not sell especially well, and the record was soon afterwards deleted from the catalog.

While never exaggerating Joplin's popularity, Berlin may overstate ragtime's when he writes in the Preface, "Ragtime dominated American popular music for two decades..." Whether we measure by sheet music sales or record sales, I would say that the ballad or sentimental song dominated the period more than ragtime. Actually, no one type dominated. For example, record lists of 1910 consist of marches, waltzes, ballads, rags, comic numbers, and sacred tunes. Comic numbers were often ragtime-influenced, maybe also the occasional waltz (Joplin called his "Pleasant Moments" a ragtime waltz), but even if ragtime is defined in a very loose manner, it never accounted for more than 20 percent of titles issued on sheet music and recordings during any given month.

Berlin reports all facts of consequence about Joplin and also exposes widely reported "facts" as being incorrect--Joplin was not born on November 24, 1868, which is the date found in several books (Joplin had to have been born prior to that but no exact date is known); he was not born in Texarkana; and so on. Berlin presents what other researchers have discovered (his "Acknowledgments" page is gracious), adds his own significant findings, meticulously documents his sources, duplicates rare photographs and legal documents. The writing is a model of conciseness and clarity, with the musical analysis never obtrusive, the discussion of sources never pedantic.

Berlin has scrutinized Joplin sheet music and points out the significance of the composer publishing with first this publisher, then that publisher. In the case of the 1914 "Magnetic Rag," Berlin makes the point that "since he published it himself, we can assume it reflects his wishes in every respect," an interesting comment on works not self-published. We may never know which publishers altered Joplin's music and the extent of possible alterations.

Allusions and now-obscure references are carefully identified and explained. For example, Berlin writes, "The dedication of Pine Apple [Rag]--'to the Five Musical Spillers'--is not surprising, given Joplin's close friendship with Sam Patterson and William Spiller." The 1902 "The Strenuous Life: A Ragtime Two Step" refers to a speech, then a published book of speeches, by Theodore Roosevelt. Berlin writes, "[T]he phrase 'strenuous life' was so closely associated with the President that the audience of 1902 would have recognized the reference." (Joplin was not the only composer to use the phrase in a song title. I do not know when it was composed, but "Strenuous Life March" as performed by the famous United States Marine Band and composed by one J.G. Boehme was issued on an Edison two-minute wax cylinder in October 1910.) Subtitled "Scott Joplin And His Era," here is a book that puts Joplin in a meaningful historical context.

Berlin even judges the quality of some works. "Rose Leaf Rag" is called "another outstanding" composition whereas "A Breeze" is "not one of Joplin's better rags." "March Majestic," from 1902, is "a good march, in 6/8 meter, but not one to call attention to itself." This may alienate a few who believe aesthetic judgements have no place in a scholarly work, but Berlin establishes such familiarity with even the most obscure Joplin compositions that I am happy to learn how this Joplin authority views various works.

The book is about Joplin and his era but a theme that runs throughout this book is that a researcher must never accept at face value anything said or written by others, especially if a source is clearly wrong about some things. Berlin writes on page 5, "In studying his life, we are continually faced with conflicting evidence. In view of this general lack of certainty, the approach in this biography is to present all the reasonable information, to discuss the options, and to suggest what seems most plausible." If Berlin was exasperated by discovering much that is clearly wrong in the testimony and published research of others, he hides it well. On page 143, when evaluating the testimony of cousins surnamed Martin, he does state, "Once again we see the unreliability of testimony," but this sounds testy only if yanked out of context. After all, despite the unreliability of their testimony, it inspired a search that led to a major discovery (see the book for what I mean).

Recollections of those who once knew Joplin must be considered but never accepted without verification from other sources. As Berlin puts it, "[W]e can learn from testimony but retain a healthy skepticism and continue to search for more evidence." Marriage certificates, John Stark's logs, contemporaneous newspaper accounts, census listings, copyright applications, city directories--these are sources that, carefully interpreted, establish where Joplin was, what he was doing, when he was doing it. Along the way of telling Joplin's story, Berlin teaches valuable lessons about conducting research and evaluating sources.

Usually the biographer of a major composer can study papers left behind and also build upon the research of previous biographers. Joplin evidently destroyed unpublished works, afraid of others stealing his compositions. Manuscripts that did survive were poorly cared for by his wife. Moreover, Joplin has been ill-served by previous books about him, with the exception of Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis' They All Played Ragtime, which of course covers far more than Joplin's life and compositions--and Blesh and Janis, who conducted their research and published their book with incredible speed, were often careless with their presentation of evidence.

That Berlin discovered so much new information about Joplin by examining newspapers is astonishing. Berlin's most startling discovery is that Joplin married one Freddie Alexander on June 14, 1904. She died of pneumonia months later, on September 10. Berlin makes a convincing argument that Treemonisha owes much to Joplin's memory of Freddie.

Berlin is frank about what he has not been able to learn. For example, he writes, "I have been unable to discover the reason, but James Reese Europe, Ford Dabney, Will Marion Cook, J. Rosamond Johnson and others in the black musical elite seem to have ignored Scott Joplin." Berlin avoids idle speculation but I do not mind wondering aloud whether these musical leaders viewed Joplin as a "one-hit wonder" of the previous generation. Notwithstanding the brilliance of other compositions, only "Maple Leaf Rag" enjoyed genuine success.

If any other Joplin composition enjoyed even moderate success, Berlin does not identify it as such. What was Joplin's second most popular work? We are not told. I suppose two candidates are "Wall Street Rag" and "Gladiolus Rag" since these were the only compositions aside from "Maple Leaf Rag" to be recorded by ensembles during Joplin's lifetime. "Wall Street Rag" was recorded by the Zonophone Orchestra around 1910 (a rare disc!). "Gladiolus Rag" was recorded by the Pathe Dance Orchestra in late 1914 or early 1915--we can only guess at a recording date since no studio logs for Pathe exist (the basis for a gues is the release date). It was issued on a 12 inch disc and a 14 inch disc. The 14 inch disc remained in the Pathe catalog for a longer time than the 12 incher, which is curious since 14 inch discs were slow sellers--difficult to store, more fragile. It is worth noting that Joplin's works were cut by ensembles, not solo pianists. In recording studios, ragtime during the Ragtime Era was usually played by ensembles or banjoists.

New facts about Joplin may surface in coming years, but it is unlikely that enough will be discovered to justify another biography soon. Even if a copy of Joplin's first opera, the 1903 A Guest of Honor, were to surface, it is possible we would learn little from it. It may have been a mere warm-up exercise for Treemonisha. Joplin possibly recycled the best musical themes of the early ragtime opera when writing the later grand opera. Actually, Berlin explores the possibility that "Antoinette," a Joplin march published in late 1906, was recycled from A Guest of Honor. Nothing survives today that even tells us the subject matter of that first opera but Berlin makes a compelling case that it may have been about Booker T. Washington's dinner at Theodore Roosevelt's White House. Berlin is always careful with wording. We are told what is known for certain and what is mere speculation.

The discussion of Treemonisha is detailed and insightful. I do not regard Treemonisha the work as highly as Berlin though even he is ambiguous when praising it: "Treemonisha is a fine opera, certainly more interesting than most operas then being written in the United States." The adjective "fine" is artfully qualified. Berlin is certain that it is interesting, perhaps not so certain that it is fine.

When listening to the recorded performance available on a Deutsche Grammophon CD set (435709-2), I marvel that Joplin invested so much energy promoting this work. I take into account that Joplin might have strengthened it after seeing it staged and that this Houston Grand Opera performance may not be true to Joplin's intentions. Nonetheless, Joplin's genius for melody is not evident in this opera. Berlin quotes New York Times critic Harold Schonberg, who cited two notable musical moments when reviewing an Atlanta production--"A Real Slow Drag" and "Aunt Dinah Has Blowed de Horn." I also enjoy "We're Goin' Around (A Ring Play)" from Act I. But inspired moments are few.

We cannot know today how Joplin trained himself for writing opera. Berlin states, "We learned from Alfred Ernst's remarks in 1901 that Joplin greatly admired the operas of Richard Wagner." Berlin, never assuming that Joplin knew Wagner's music well, states, "We see evidence of this admiration in Joplin's adherence to the Wagnerian operatic ideal of a single artist being responsible for both the music and libretto." In other words, Joplin possibly learned from Wagner's example only that a composer need not turn to others for a libretto. Perhaps Joplin was inspired by Wagner's risky practice of composing works without a contract, writing without knowing where or when the works would be performed. Sadly, Joplin had no King Ludwig II to save the day.

The Alfred Ernst remark about Joplin "greatly" admiring Wagner's work spurs Berlin into looking for possible Wagnerian influences. Berlin notes two parallels between Treemonisha and Wagner's Ring cycle, but the latter work is so long and complex that most works of theatrical art have some parallels with the Ring cycle, even if not intended. I think it possible that Joplin's exposure to Wagner's music was limited to potpourris played by military bands or other pianists. It would be interesting to know whether Joplin ever attended a performance of a Wagner opera.

Was Joplin familiar with the great operas of his contemporaries--Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Strauss? We do not know. How carefully did Joplin study the light operas of Victor Herbert? Around the time Joplin wrote Treemonisha, Herbert wrote two genuine operas--Natoma and Madeleine are legitimate operas, not light operas--but Herbert's two "American" operas failed to catch on despite great singers being in the casts. Did Joplin know about these American operas? The one thing I wish Joplin had learned from the works of Puccini, Wagner, and the others is that an opera can be packed with memorable melodies. As I've already suggested, when I hear Treemonisha I can only shake my head and wonder, "Why aren't there more good tunes, more musical phrases worth humming?" To be fair, I'll admit that Wagner and Puccini are not remembered for their first operas (Mascagni is!). The great melodies that we associate with Wagner and Puccini came after these composers had written a few operas, and a more experienced Joplin might have also written great operas.

By quoting a 1911 item from the American Musician and Art Journal, Berlin helps readers place Treemonisha in some context, Horatio Parker being an example of another American composer writing opera. Perhaps Berlin could establish more clearly that Joplin, in completing an opera at a time when no other American composer of his generation had written a popular opera, set himself up for failure. The fact that it was an American opera doomed the work, not so much that it was composed by an African-American or featured African-American themes, as other writers have suggested. Vera Brodsky Lawrence states in her notes to the Treemonisha recording that for Americans early in this century it was "unthinkable" for a black composer to "invade the inviolable white precincts of grand opera," but can Lawrence name a white American who composed a successful opera? Joplin's nationality, not his race, should be the issue here (well, the quality of the work should be the real issue--and Treemonisha is not a good opera). John Stark's refusal to publish the score is testimony to sound business instincts.

I detect some arrogance in Joplin's belief that he could succeed with opera when no other American composer had. Consider also Joplin's pronouncement on sheet music, beginning in 1905 with "Leola," that "It is never right to play 'rag time' fast." Never? That he says this about all rags, including those composed by others, suggests that he took the epithet "King of Ragtime Writers," which appeared on sheet music beginning in 1901 with "Peacherine Rag," too seriously. Berlin notes that Joplin may have added this to sheet music because "Maple Leaf Rag" was used by pianists as a "virtuoso showcase." Nonetheless, Joplin was bold to make this sweeping statement about ragtime, and I wonder if it had any weight with his contemporaries.

There is no compelling evidence in the testimony of those who knew him that Joplin was arrogant although Joplin pupil Brun Campbell did state that Joplin "was a little hot headed at times" in an article for Jazz Record. Campbell, like others, is problematic as a source. In an autobiographical piece first published in a 1940s jazz journal and reprinted in John Edward Hasse's Ragtime: Its History Composers and Music, Campbell recalls that when Joplin died, "each carriage in his funeral procession carried the name of one of his compositions." Berlin explains in a footnote why Campbell's claim about the funeral is "pure fantasy." Berlin does not quote the "hot headed" comment. For those willing to acknowledge Joplin's genius--Joseph Lamb did, for instance--Joplin could be generous. What was Joplin really like?

Berlin's footnotes are as interesting as the main text. I like knowing not only that Joplin is buried in St. Michael's Cemetery in East Elmhurst, New York but that it is "plot 5, row 2, grave 5." We learn in Chapter 12 that Joplin purchased sometime after 1908 "a large Steinway grand piano," and a footnote adds, "The piano still exists and is in private hands; I have not been permitted to see it. The serial number indicates it had been purchased new--not by Joplin--in 1908." This speaks volumes about Berlin's attention to detail.

Most biographies end with the death of the book's subject, but Berlin's final chapter, "The Legacy of Scott Joplin," goes decades beyond 1917, telling the fascinating story of what happened to Joplin's estate and how Joplin's name was revived, his genius acknowledged.

I am amused to find in this final chapter a rare instance of Berlin deviating from the dispassionate, objective tone used elsewhere in the book. When discussing Richard Zimmerman's five-record set, titled Scott Joplin--His Complete Works, Berlin calls the set's inclusion of Treemonisha excerpts to be a "tragic error." Sure, it turned out to be costly to a record company because of a perceived copyright violation, but "tragic"? Berlin never uses the adjective when recounting Joplin's life, which had tragic moments. Freddie Joplin's sudden death must have been the emotional low-point for Joplin.

Incidentally, Zimmerman's five-record set, originally issued by Abend, is now a Laserlight 5-CD set. I purchased my copy at a Price Club/Costco store for under $20. Is there better evidence of Joplin's rags having entered "mainstream" culture than the availability of his complete works at a Price Club outlet? I should also mention that the ice cream truck in my neighborhood plays "The Entertainer" every day in the summer. Joplin worked in relative obscurity in his own lifetime but today his name and works are probably better known than the names and works of Sousa, Victor Herbert, and George M. Cohan. If you had predicted such a thing in 1905 or 1910, you would have been labeled a lunatic!

Appendix B at the back of Berlin's book reprints three songs composed by others but arranged by Joplin. They are missing from the so-called Complete Works of Scott Joplin, edited by Vera Brodsky Lawrence. Berlin makes corrections where they are clearly needed--an "its" is changed to "it's," one F is changed to F sharp, and so on--but carefully indicates what the original source states and where, thereby creating no problems for future generations of scholars.

Published by Oxford University Press (ISBN 0-19-510108-1), KING OF RAGTIME is available for $14.95 in all bookstores with well-stocked music sections.