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Max Morath : Ragtime Composer-Scott Joplin
Max Morath Scott Joplin was born in 1868. His parents were slaves. He was born in Texarkana, before there were two Texarkanas. He left home, they say, when he was about 14. He had studied piano. He also was a cornetist and a vocalist and he was in show business and traveled around the country during those years between Emancipation -- he was born in '68 -- turns up in Chicago probably at the world's fair in 1892, turns up in Missouri in Sedalia around 1897-98 playing clubs there. He's composing, meets a man there who is in the music business and begins the publication of Joplin's rags, a man by a name of John Stark, a white man who came out of retirement to publish Joplin and subsequently a lot of other young blacks from the Midwest. This is a Midwestern phenomenon, this kind of ragtime. Joplin always believed in the importance and the need for elegance in this music which took this strange tawdry name. No one knows where that word comes from, by the way, "ragtime". I've heard a million theories. I don't believe any of them. Joplin, as his years went on, became more and more serious. He composed two operas. His rags become much more complex, much more, inventive and much more difficult as the years go by. Joplin died, I think, at the age of 49 in New York, broke and sick and poor. And it took a long time for is music to re-emerge. It had to re-emerge. My only regret, as I said, is that, ah, in the re-emergence or the rediscovery of Scott Joplin, there is the implication, as there was in the 1970s, that he was this lonely black man writing in a garret somewhere of a music that would take over the country. And, of course, that's not true at all.

My mother, who was born in 1897 in Iowa and was a schooled pianist and played very well and had an older brother who was an ear player and could play anything by ear but couldn't read music -- so my mother would -- or he would -- he was a lawyer. He was 15 years older than her. So he'd go out and buy the sheet music, the rags, and take them home and my mother would sight read them for him and then he'd sit down and play them by ear. Some of those rags remained in our piano bench when I was a kid. And the end of my story is that until I got interested in this on a personal level and began to research it and make a living out of it, she did not know that Scott Joplin was black. Now this is a pretty intelligent, educated woman and she loved the music, by the way, and she knew the good rags. She knew that the Joplin rags, in this particular case, were a cut above the others. But because his picture was only on one or two of his pieces, not the best known ones, my mother, born in Iowa near St. Louis, which was the mecca of ragtime, was not aware as an adult that Scott Joplin was a black man.

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