Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival

Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival

Date Observed: First full weekend in June
Location: Sedalia, Missouri

The Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival is an annual musical get-together held in Sedalia, Missouri. Each year, over the first full weekend in June, the event celebrates the life and music of legendary musician and composer, Scott Joplin, whose work is more popular today than it was during his own lifetime.

Historical Background

Born into the musical family of ex-slave Jiles Joplin and free woman Floren Gives in 1868, Scott Joplin was one of six musically inclined progeny. Lore has it that he taught himself to play the piano in the white-owned homes his mother cleaned.

Joplin's early years were spent in Texarkana, Texas. The rest of his youth, through his teen years, brought him finally to Sedalia, Missouri, where he received his first piano instruction from German-born Julian Weiss, whom historians believe planted the seeds for Joplin's career as a composer. Joplin ended up being technically competent on piano, banjo, coronet, and violin, but his talent, ambition, and pride always lay in the realm of musical composition.

Joplin began a professional musical career in the early 1890s, traveling with minstrel shows and playing first coronet with a band called the Queen City Cornet Band. With his brothers, he formed a vocal group known as the Texas Medley Quartette in the mid1890s. He also took jobs as a pianist in various cities, playing in cafes and saloons.

In 1899 his composition The Maple Leaf Rag caught on with the public and led to fame for Joplin. This piano rag, thought by some to be his greatest piece, was named after one of the two Sedalia black gentlemen's clubs at which he performed. His lawyer negotiated a royalty deal on each sale of the piece, guaranteeing him a living - although not a luxurious one - for the remainder of his life. In its first year, only 400 copies sold, but by 1909, the number jumped to a half-million and that rate stayed steady for another two decades. In all, Joplin wrote about five dozen musical compositions, of which 40 or so were piano rags. But in addition to this impressive body of work, he also wrote marches, a ballet, and two operas. One of the operas was lost because its copyright application was never properly recorded. The other, Treemonisha, was a passion that consumed Joplin's life. He only saw it performed once before he died in 1917 at the age of 49. Joplin's death was attributed to mental illness and dementia, but a contributing cause was syphilis.

During his short career, he never received the acclaim he truly was due, as later critics would determine. In 1976 the Pulitzer Committee recognized Joplin for his contributions to American music. The 1973 movie The Sting brought his score of "The Entertainer" to instant popularity and regenerated interest in the ragtime genre. In the minds of many, the name Scott Joplin epitomizes ragtime.

Ragtime is a popular musical style of African-American origin that developed towards the end of the 1800s and remained popular through about 1920. It was characterized by a strongly syncopated, or what some called a "ragged," beat - hence the origin of the term "ragtime." The music is also remembered today as a precursor of yet another uniquely American musical style: jazz.

Creation of the Festival

The first Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival was organized in 1974 by a group of Sedalia ragtime enthusiasts for fellow devotees to gather around their love of the genre. The festival became an annual event in 1980. In 1983 the organizers established the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Foundation. Since then, the festival has grown, a store has been established, and a future goal is to build a museum.

Treemonisha

Treemonisha is one of two operas written by Scott Joplin, which he self-published in 1911. The tale, thought to be a tribute to his mother, is set in a rural, black community in Arkansas. Joplin was a strong believer in the freeing power of education for blacks, a belief he passed along from his mother.

The story line tells how Treemonisha, the only educated person in the community, breaks free from the bondage of ignorance and superstition. The opera conveys Joplin's perspective of the challenges that African Americans faced during the early 1900s and his belief that they could hasten their goal of racial equality by seeking out educational opportunities.

At the time of Treemonisha's creation, an editor at American Musician and Art ran a lengthy review of the score from Joplin's opera in the magazine's June edition, declaring it to be the most American opera ever composed, far more so than Horatio Parker's Mona, which had just won a $10,000 Metropolitan Opera "American Opera" prize. Such high praise did little to aid Joplin in getting his work financed and staged.

Biases against black composers probably played some part in the difficulties Joplin faced in having his dreams realized. In fact, he saw Treemonisha performed just once, informally without costumes or orchestra, before he passed away. However, racial inequities were not the only or even main factors working against Joplin in this endeavor. In many respects, where Treemonisha was concerned, Joplin just may have been too far ahead of his time.

Treemonisha was not a ragtime opera, although it did include a few ragtime pieces; rather, it was a serious opera that paid homage to a wide variety of African-American musical styles, including the blues. For some - even African Americans - music of the sort commonly found in saloons and brothels did not fit in with their vision of operatic undertakings.

In 1974 Treemonisha was finally recognized for the astounding piece of work that it was. Not only was it revived and performed in its entirety, but Tree- monisha also made it to Broadway. Joplin's ambition to be recognized as a serious composer was finally realized more than a half-century after his death.

Observance

About 6,000 people gather every year in Sedalia for what many - despite the size - consider a "folksy" sort of gathering. Sedalia's pride in its not-quite-native-son is evident by the 50-foot vibrant mural of Joplin sitting at his piano prominently painted on a downtown building.

A host of both free and ticketed activities are scheduled during the annual Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival. One consistent event is the annual parade, headed by a horse-drawn surrey and followed by a fleet of vintage automobiles. Parade participants include contestants clothed in period costumes, as well as various government officials. Each year, the route's end is the same: The Maple Leaf Club, the same venue from which Joplin himself entertained nearly a century ago. A "theme rag" (one of Joplin's pieces) is selected each year, around which the festival is planned. Activities run the gamut. There are concerts given by both amateur and professional performers, dance lessons, dinner shows, other meal events, symposia and more. Many of the festivalgoers are repeat attendees and have built up a close-knit camaraderie that often extends beyond their shared admiration of Joplin's music. The festival is considered by many ragtime aficionados to be the premiere event of its kind.

Contacts and Web Sites

"Edward A. Berlin's Website of Ragtime and Scholarship," author of King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era (see under Further Reading)

Scott Joplin International Ragtime Foundation 321 S. Ohio Sedalia, MO 65301 660-826-2271 or 866-218-6258

Sedalia Convention and Visitors Bureau 600 E. Third Sedalia, MO 65301 800-827-5295

Further Reading

Berlin, Edward A. King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Curtis, Susan. Dancing to a Black Man's Tune: A Life of Scott Joplin. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004. Joplin, Scott. Treemonisha Vocal Score. Mineola, NY: Dovers Publications, 2001. White, H. Loring. Ragging It: Getting Ragtime into History (and Some History into Ragtime). Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, Inc., 2005.
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