Thursday, July 19, 2012 'NYC Music Trail: Scott Joplin's Grave Site'

[Photo: Jake Neher/WFUV, July 19, 2012]


The King of Ragtime's grave went unmarked until the 1970s.

Scott Joplin lived anything but a quiet life.
He wrote pieces many critics call "revolutionary." They include famous ragtime tunes like "Maple Leaf Rag" and "The Entertainer." But with all the "sites of sound" along the New York City Music Trail, the one honoring Joplin is the only one that's almost always silent.

When Joplin died of syphilis in a New York City mental hospital in 1917, he was penniless and largely forgotten. In fact, his grave at St. Michael's Cemetery in East Elmhurst, Queens went unmarked for decades. Standing next to Joplin's...  (which was finally installed in the 1970s), St. Michael's spokesman Ed Horn explains it was a group burial for three people.

"These were people who were truly indigent," Horn says. "People had a hard time to just pay for what the costs were."

Biographer Edward Berlin says Joplin came to New York in 1907 to... his second opera, "Treemonisha". Joplin never came close to the level of popularity he reached while writing ragtime tunes with his operas. Berlin says, although Joplin's time composing ragtime was extremely important and progressive, when the son of a former slave tried to break into "high art," there was little-to-no interest from the white elite. Even in New York City, Joplin could find no one to... publish Treemonisha.

"He probably used all of his money just on getting the opera published."

The plot of Treemonisha centers on a black female lead, who lives in Joplin's hometown of Texarkana, Texas. She struggles to promote education within her community while opportunists seek to exploit rampant ignorance amongst the town's lower-class residents.

The composer would die before ever seeing a full production of the opera. But the 1970s saw a major Joplin revival, capped by the release of the movie "The Sting," which used his music for much of the film's score.

It was during this revival that Treemonisha was finally staged in full, and later had a critically acclaimed run on Broadway. It even won Joplin a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.

Today, St. Michael's remembers Joplin ever year with a...concert and barbecue. Ed Horn says about 500 people show up every year for the music, as well as the... hot dogs and hamburgers.

Note: This is Part Four in WFUV's series on the New York City Music Trail.

[Scott Joplin is featured at]

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