Sunday, June 25, 2017

Acoustic Guitar: How Composer Scott Joplin’s Sizzling Syncopations Inspired Ragtime Guitar As We Know It

Bob Evans - Maple Leaf Rag (Composed Joplin, Arranged Evans)

Scott Joplin (c.1867-1917) is profiled at, which features a Bibliography and comprehensive Works List by Dr. Dominique-René de Lerma,

Acoustic Guitar

From the August 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY STEPHEN BOISSON

This year marks the centennial anniversary of ragtime innovator Scott Joplin’s death, on April 1, 1917. The big news of the day was America’s involvement in the Great War, not the passing of a once-popular composer. Joplin’s funeral was a quiet affair, with scant notice in the press. The maestro had requested that his most famous composition, “Maple Leaf Rag,” accompany the service, but his widow deemed such joyful music to be inappropriate. Lottie Joplin regretted that decision for the rest of her life.
His music—and ragtime in general—lay dormant through the 1920s and ’30s. But Joplin’s syncopated, intricate creations, such as “Sunflower Slow Drag,” “Elite Syncopations,” “The Entertainer,” “The Cascades,” and, of course, “Maple Leaf Rag,” continue to regale us.

A Gateway to Ragtime
Snippets of the old style ran through popular songs and jazz tunes, many of which placed “rag” in the title. Country-blues guitarists recorded simplified ragtime forms: Mississippi John Hurt based “My Creole Belle” on a section of “Creole Belles” by J. Bodewalt Lampe and George Sidney; Reverend Gary Davis cut an abbreviated version of “Maple Leaf” called “Make Believe Stunt.” Indeed, by the time of its resurgence in the late ’60s and ’70s, many acoustic pickers were playing real ragtime—David Laibman, Eric Schoenberg, Stefan Grossman, Duck Baker, Guy Van Duser, Ton Van Bergeyk, Lasse Johansson, and others. And Dave Van Ronk deserves special mention for recording “The St. Louis Tickle” in 1963. (Current fingerstyle great Mary Flower even has an instructional DVD devoted to ragtime guitar.)
As Joplin reigned during the music’s heyday, he reclaimed the throne upon its return. Though “Maple Leaf Rag” was at no point forgotten, it was again a popular gateway to the genre. “It’s a song that people like when they hear it,” fingerstylist Pat Donohue says. “I’m always looking for those.”
“Maple Leaf Rag” was published in 1899 by John Stark and Son of Sedalia, Missouri, where Joplin lived at the time. The composer was guaranteed one cent per copy. Stark boasted that “Maple Leaf Rag” sold more than a million copies, “and no abatement of demand,” though it’s not proven those numbers were met in Joplin’s lifetime. Nonetheless, the royalty from this composition alone provided Joplin with a comfortable base income.

While “Maple Leaf Rag” was not the first ragtime instrumental published, it was the most musically ambitious for the day.

“Maple Leaf Rag” was widely beloved. At a White House soiree during Theodore Roosevelt’s administration, the president’s 17-year-old daughter, Alice, asked the director of the U.S. Marine Band to play Joplin’s piece. When the director pleaded ignorance, Alice assured him that “the Boys” played it often for her, and the request was met. In fact, the U.S. Marine Band made one of the earliest recordings of the song.
While “Maple Leaf Rag” was not the first ragtime instrumental published—that would be William Krell’s “Mississippi Rag” in 1897—it was the most musically ambitious for the day. Most rags were divided into three strains, or sections, whereas “Maple Leaf Rag” has four. The melody takes surprising twists and turns and the bass part is equally felicitous.
Joplin’s musical sophistication would prompt him to move beyond ragtime, to ballets and operas, an ambition Stark tried to dissuade. In his final years, he was debilitated by tertiary syphilis and an exasperating struggle to stage his 1911 opera, Treemonisha. The closest he came was a barebones recital in 1915 at Harlem’s Lincoln Theatre, where he provided the orchestration on piano.


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