King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era

King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era

King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era

King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era


In 1974, the academy award-winning film The Sting brought back the music of Scott Joplin, a black ragtime composer who died in 1917. Led by The Entertainer, one of the most popular pieces of the mid-1970s, a revival of his music resulted in events unprecedented in American musical history. Never before had any composer's music been so acclaimed by both the popular and classical music worlds. While reaching a "Top Ten" position in the pop charts, Joplin's music was also being performed in classical recitals and setting new heights for sales of classical records. His opera Treemonisha was performed both in opera houses and on Broadway. Destined to be the definitive work on the man and his music, King of Ragtime is written by Edward A. Berlin. A renowned authority on Joplin and the author of the acclaimed and widely cited Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History, Berlin redefines the Scott Joplin biography. Using the tools of a trained musicologist, he has uncovered a vast amount of new information about Joplin. His biography truly documents the story of the composer, replacing the myths and unsupported anecdotes of previous histories. He shows how Joplin's opera Treemonisha was a tribute to the woman he loved, a woman other biographers never even mentioned. Berlin also reveals that Joplin was an associate of Irving Berlin, and that he accused Berlin of stealing his music to compose Alexander's Ragtime Band in 1911. Berlin paints a vivid picture of the ragtime years, placing Scott Joplin's story in its historical context. The composer emerges as a representative of the first post-Civil War generation of African Americans, of the men and women who found in the world of entertainment a way out of poverty and lowly social status. King of Ragtime recreates the excitement of these pioneers, who dreamed of greatness as they sought to expand the limits society placed upon their race.


Music publishing turned a comer in the 1890s. It became more daring, more colorful, and far more profitable. Marketing of popular music reached unprecedented heights and Tin Pan Alley was born.

Much popular music had a maudlin cast. The immense success of Charles K. Harris After the Ball in 1892 demonstrated the public's love of pathos. Songwriters responded to the demand with such ballads as She May Have Seen Better Days (1894), Those Wedding Bells Shall Not Ring Out (1896), Take Back Your Gold (1897), and She Is More To Be Pitied Than Censured (1898).

But while the public gloried in this self-indulgent and extreme sentimentality, a brash, abrasive, and decidedly zippier style was moving to center stage. This was ragtime, both an irrepressible, swinging dance music and a colloquial, cynical song form. In its vocal guise, it was the antithesis of the precious, saccharine parlor song, telling not of excessive sensibilities, self- sacrifice, and honor, but of black men and women in ludicrous, and frequently demeaning, situations.

Ragtime was at first dismissed as a curious expression of black Americans and stage minstrels, a vulgar fad that would quickly disappear. But as it evolved and adapted itself to the white majority, it took root and became sufficiently broad to embrace both Scott Joplin Maple Leaf Rag and Irving Berlin's Everybody's Doing It. Ragtime dominated American popular music for the two decades from the late 1890s until the late 1910s and was this country's first uniquely national style of music. Out of it came succeeding generations of popular song and jazz.

Ragtime receded from public consciousness during the 1920s and 1930s. By the year 1941, it had been dormant for two decades and was mostly forgotten. Occasionally, people of older generations used the term as a synonym for swing or jazz. A few record collectors recognized ragtime as a distinct style, but relegated it to a minor role in the evolution of American music, that of a precursor, a stage-setter for jazz.

In the 1940s, jazz was on the move. A new generation of jazz musicians . . .

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