While doing a bit of research for this post, I learned something that is actually a correction of something I’ve believed for years. Remember in the 70s when the ragtime piece “The Entertainer” was all the rage, because of its use in the popular movie The Sting? I don’t know why, but for pretty much all the time I’ve been aware of that piece’s existence, I thought that it was an original piece of ragtime music written by Marvin Hamlisch as a pastiche of the kind of thing that Scott Joplin wrote back in the late 1800s.
Well, as the kids say these days, “I was today years old” when I learned that no, what’s heard in The Sting is an arrangement composed by Hamlisch, and Mr. Joplin actually did write “The Entertainer” in 1902. Joplin (1868-1917) himself was known as “the King of Ragtime”, and ragtime music comprises almost all of his compositional output. He was trying to move beyond his ragtime reputation in his later years, but syphilis and dementia cut his voice short.
I know virtually nothing about ragtime, to be honest. My main impression of it is likely the same as many people: it’s mainly kept alive not through active performance but by being the kind of music used by piano teachers to help young students develop rhythm skills. “Here’s a piece that’s fun to play!” is the likely selling point when a teacher is helping a kid choose the next thing they work on, and…well, in a lot of cases, ragtime actually is fun to play, especially if you’ve been spending months struggling with the chaste classicism of, say, a sonatina by Muzio Clementi.
Obviously, though, ragtime–a musical form that springs from Black culture and artistry–deserves better than to be reduced to a common teaching tool for young piano students, especially when the music’s cultural context is virtually never discussed. “This is a piece by Scott Joplin, who wrote more than a hundred of these!” is about all you learn. At least, that’s about all I learned when it came time to try my hand at a ragtime piece. Which one was it? Almost certainly “The Maple Leaf Rag”, of course. Joplin wrote over a hundred rags, didn’t he? And yet, every year at piano recital time, someone played “Maple Leaf Rag” and no other.
I don’t mean to sound irritated at my piano teacher or at piano teachers nationwide, who can’t always be true to the music at the same time they’re trying to get little Billy interested in actually practicing for once. They can’t teach the basics and try to keep some kid motivated enough to put in their half-hour a day of boring Czerny exercises while also doing anything more than the bare minimum in terms of music appreciation, but…well, anyway. Ragtime, an adaptation of the popular march form of the day coupled with the syncopated rhythms of African music, would help pave the way for the rise of jazz, so its place in music history is secure. But ragtime shouldn’t be seen as merely a popular form for just a few decades that’s important for blazing a trail for the extremely important work that came afterward. Ragtime is a musical moment that somehow captures a certain air of sadness at the same time that it’s doing its “bouncy happy” thing, and while maybe it has its limitations, it should still be seen as more than just a thing to be viewed through a sepia veil.
Here is not “The Entertainer”, or “The Maple Leaf Rag”. This is “Solace: A Mexican Serenade”, in which Joplin takes a slower tempo and incorporates tango rhythms into his normal ragtime language.
Joplin eventually wrote a ballet and two operas to go along with his ragtime work. As with many composers, I wonder what he might have accomplished if not for his illnesses and early death. The idea of Scott Joplin writing at the same time as George Gershwin is enticing, to say the least.