African-American History Month - “I am so humble and pleading still”
You may not remember the movie, but it was set in 1930’s Chicago and featured what everyone thought of when they thought about 1930’s Chicago - gangsters and con men and gambling. But the movie “The Sting” with Newman and Redford and Shaw and so many other great ‘70’s actors also contained an anachronism - the music. The theme and a handful of other adaptations were ragtime, a form that was pushed out of the musical limelight by jazz and blues. The music works in the movie, however, when you think of the plot setup of older grifters handing things off to the next generation. Scott Joplin is responsible for much of the music in the film, especially highlighting theme song “The Entertainer” and its variations arranged by Marvin Hamlisch. The song originated in 1902, just seven years after Joplin’s first published work.
Scott Joplin was born into a musically talented family - who worked for railroads. He did the same for a while, but as a talented multi-instrumentalist he left, hopped on a train, and traveled east of his native Texarkana as a working musician. He went to Chicago as a cornet player during the 1893 World’s Fair. I wonder if he ran into WC Handy, who did the same? Upon returning south, Joplin settled in Sedalia, Missouri, at the time a bustling center of trade and key rail center, with churches, saloons, and brothels; home to two opera houses, baseball teams, an orchestra, and the site of George R. Smith College, one of the few opportunities for an African-American man to attend college at the time. Joplin played locally and regionally - ragtime was introduced to the country at that exposition in Chicago and caught on fast. He also taught ragtime play and composition to Sedalia teens while he attended the school, passing on a musical form that derived its rhythms - and syncopation - from military music and African forms. He was passing on a tradition that was purely American - meaning it came from varied places and was recombined - as were jazz and blues later - by innovators like him. Joplin moved on, first to St. Louis and then to New York, composing and publishing American classic “Maple Leaf Rag,” “The Entertainer” and other greats, as well as two American operas, one featuring an African-American women as the lead/heroine. His talent was taken away by dementia brought on by syphilis, which also took his life. He was only in his forties. But in those early years of Southeast Missouri as a wellspring of “rags,” it was on this day in 1895 that his first was copyrighted after being issued by Syracuse New York businessman ML Mantell.