I’m now back in Louisiana after three eventful days on the road. Primary among my stops was St. Louis where Thursday afternoon I had the opportunity to visit the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site. Though Joplin lived here for only two short years from 1901 to 1903, it is the only structure still-standing tied to him. It barely survived the bulldozers itself when graffiti mysteriously appeared one morning indicating, “SCOTT JOPLIN LIVED HERE,” and concerned citizens then took the time to investigate this claim. Specifically, Joplin occupied the small, two-room apartment upstairs designated by the address 2658A Morgan Street (now Delmar Boulevard). The entire building, however, is now designated the state historic site with Joplin’s original apartment setup as it might have appeared during his years there with one room as his bedroom and the other as his composing studio; they were fairly certain of the placement of an upright piano because, as our tour guide told us, that was the only place in the apartment structurally strong enough to hold the weight of a piano. The other rooms have been converted into a small museum, research center, and gift shop; down the street is a reconstruction of the Rosebud where Joplin once performed and where today pianists will gather to play in his honor.
I first got into the music of Scott Joplin five years ago through guitarist John De Chiaro who proudly states he is the only person to have “arranged, performed, and recorded” all fifty-two of Joplin’s rags, waltzes, and marches. Indeed, John played a selection of these as our very first concert of Abendmusik Alexandria, and it was in writing my program notes for this concert and working with John that I discovered the sheer variety of Joplin’s music for myself. Previously, I had been somewhat dismissive of Joplin, knowing only his two most famous pieces—The Entertainer and The Maple Leaf Rag. John, however, introduced me to many other pieces by Joplin, including Bethena: A Concert Waltz and Solace: A Mexican Serenade which are very different pieces from the first two. John also enthusiastically shared with me the story behind The Great Crush Collision March. Apparently, a railroad magnate staged a train crash as a public spectacle, lining up an audience for the fateful collision which resulted in a few injuries when the explosion was larger than expected. The piece is a short suite musically depicting the spectacle which could have only been dreamed-up in the late nineteenth century.
Furthermore, in my research for the program notes, I discovered in Joplin not only an interest in elevating the popular ragtime genre he had inherited into a legitimate artform, but also a will to elevate African Americans generally through education. These aims come together in his rag-influenced opera, Treemonisha, in which the educated female protagonist fights-off the superstitions of her fellow villagers. I actually listened to Treemonisha for the first time on my drive from Louisville on Thursday morning and was struck at how faithfully Joplin merged the traits of ragtime into a post-Wagnerian operatic idiom. His broader goal to uplift African Americans also aligns Joplin with Booker T. Washington, who was the subject of his lost first opera, A Guest of Honor. Through his musical activities, Joplin also becomes a forerunner to the Harlem Renaissance. Joplin did spend the last ten years of his life in New York City, from 1907 to 1917, and potentially met several of the figures who would define this movement over the next decade. After having gained this context, it was no longer possible for me to dismiss Joplin as merely a popular entertainer: he was now a major figure in American music, even if, tragically, much of his work in the larger genres had been lost and his educational aims were never fully-realized in his own lifetime. With this new appreciation, I also enjoyed his music more than ever.
John was the one who told me about the Scott Joplin House in St. Louis. He himself had visited many years ago, and he was thrilled to hear Joplin’s rags played on an era player piano through piano rolls that Joplin himself had recorded and in Joplin’s own house. It was as close as one could come to being there a hundred years ago, sitting alongside Joplin as he played. In my visit Thursday, I too had this experience as we listened to The Maple Leaf Rag and The Weeping Willow Rag, probably on that same piano. Though I stayed undercover at first, it was eventually discovered that I too knew something of Joplin’s life, and soon the tour guide was calling on me to help answer questions. She also gave me the opportunity to choose the two rags we listened to. What surprised me most about the player piano was not the roll of paper or notation—I’ve seen those before and have composed my own Studies for Player Piano with that notation—but that the piano had to be pumped with the legs and at a steady tempo. The noises of the pumping mechanisms and the never-perfectly-steady tempo were a reminder that, no matter the advantages of that technology, it still could replace live performance (just as recordings and livestreams cannot today).
I very much enjoyed my visit, and I felt as if I was almost in Joplin’s presence. I left with several mementos, including a CD of music by other ragtime composers besides Joplin himself released by the society, The Friends of Scott Joplin, and two t-shirts featuring the covers to his Maple Leaf Rag and Sunflower Slow Drag. Friday morning, I had a good visit at Washington University in St. Louis—the other reason I had taken the detour—and then headed south. By Saturday afternoon, I had reached Texarkana, another community, lying on the border of Texas and Arkansas, which has embraced Scott Joplin as their own. Traditional accounts hold that Joplin was born in Texarkana, yet Texarkana was not founded until a few years after Joplin’s birth. Regardless, Joplin did grow up in this town, and it was here that he began studying piano with a German-American neighbor, Julius Weiss, who introduced him to the European repertoire and passed onto him the notion that music could be art rather than simple entertainment. There’s a wonderful mural honoring Joplin, if you’re ever in Texarkana, though I could not find much else of musical interest to do there.
Later this summer, I have one more Joplin stop planned: Sedalia, Missouri where Joplin began his professional career as an entertainer at the Maple Leaf Club. Though the club is gone, an International Ragtime Foundation now hosts an annual festival in Sedalia each May. I’ll miss the festival (this time), but I expect Sedalia will still be worth my while!
About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer graduated with his Master of Music in Music History and Literature from the University of Louisville in May 2019 upon the completion of his thesis, “Liminal Aesthetics: Perspectives on Harmony and Timbre in the Music of Olivier Messiaen, Tristan Murail, and Kaija Saariaho.” He has shared this pioneering research through presentations given at the American Musicological Society South-Central Chapter’s annual meetings in Asheville, NC and Sewanee, TN and at the University of Tennessee Contemporary Music Festival in Knoxville, TN. During his studies in Louisville, he was the recipient of the Gerhard Herz Music History Scholarship and was employed at the Dwight Anderson Memorial Music Library where he did archival work for the unique Grawemeyer Collection which houses scores, recordings, and documentation for over five thousand entries by the world’s leading contemporary composers. Previously, Jackson graduated summa cum laude from the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, LA. Then, from 2014 to 2016, Jackson served as director of the successful chamber music series, Abendmusik Alexandria. He has remained a concert annotator and organizer, co-directing the annual Sugarmill Music Festival. The scholarly writings he has produced for this festival have even attracted the attention of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. Aside from his studies, he is a composer, choral singer, and award-winning nature photographer. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at www.JacksonHarmeyer.com.