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Monday, November 13, 2023

November 13, 2023: AmericanStudying the Blues: Scott Joplin

[150 years ago this week, the great W.C. Handy was born. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Handy and other icons of the Blues, leading up to a special weekend post on some contemporary Blues greats!]

On the musical and the cultural legacies of the hugely influential composer.

I’ve written before about the unavoidably cross-cultural origins of rock and roll in America, the ways in which the histories of even an individual hit song (much less artists, groups, recording studios, and so on) were connected to African American blues singers, Jewish American songwriters, European American guitarists and performers, and so on. When it comes to the origins and history of the blues and jazz in America, on the other hand, there’s a far more close relationship between the musical genres and a particular American community: African Americans, and specifically the artistic traditions and legacies present within that community as of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet while a history of the blues and jazz thus cannot ignore or minimize these communal and cultural connections, neither should it focus on such cultural or historical issues at the expense of an engagement with the genres’ musical influences, innovations, and importance.

An excellent case in point is an analysis of Scott Joplin (1868-1917), the “King of Ragtime Writers” and perhaps the single most influential predecessor of 20th century blues and jazz music in America. Joplin was without question an African American artist, one strongly influenced by his heritage, his North Texas family and late 19th century upbringing, and contemporary African American artists such as Ben Harney. Yet I would argue that we don’t need to know any of that to appreciate Joplin’s titanic talent and the success and significance of his works: from the most famous, such as “The Maple Leaf Rag” (1899) and “The Entertainer” (1900); to his longer works, such as the opera A Guest of Honor (1903, inspired by Booker T. Washington’s 1901 dinner with Teddy Roosevelt!); and including works that have been almost entirely forgotten, such as the moving ragtime waltz “Bethena” (1904), written after the tragic death of his second wife only 10 weeks after their wedding. Indeed, I think Joplin and classical composer Aaron Copland make for a very compelling, complementary pair, highlighting the early 20th century development of an American music that was both unique and in conversation with international traditions and trends.

Yet at the same time, an analysis of Joplin’s musical mastery and legacy doesn’t have to—and shouldn’t—mean an elision of his cultural and racial influences and themes. Take his final, never fully performed opera, Treemonisha (1910). Set in 1884, on a former slave plantation in the Texarkana/Red River region of Joplin’s childhood, the opera’s title character is a young African American woman who is taught to read and helps her community resist a band of wicked conjurers. If that story and its themes are in conversation with contemporary African American artists like Charles Chesnutt, Joplin’s musical choices in the opera were likewise among his most informed by African American traditions and styles, from spirituals and the blues to a call-and-response sequence. There are many possible reasons why the opera was never fully published or performed in its era (and was lost until a rediscovery in 1970), but among them might well be the fact that it links Joplin’s musical talents to his cultural and racial heritage and perspective far more fully than many of his other works. Understanding Joplin isn’t solely about such links, but we should certainly remember them as well.

Next Blues icon tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Blues figures or contexts you’d highlight?

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