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Courtesy of Missouri Natural Resources: Ed Berlin Collection
Scott Joplin HouseThis duplex at 2658A Delmar Boulevard at St. Louis was home for a time to the King of Ragtime, Scott Joplin. It was here that he composed his well-known song “The Entertainer,” made famous in the movie The Sting.
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Courtesy of Missouri Natural Resources: Ed Berlin Collection
Scott Joplin House
A Life at the Margins
I work for the Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Missouri, which recently acquired a masterful terra cotta statue by African-American artist Beulah Ecton Woodard. The piece, entitled Maudelle, depicts a renowned African-American dancer who was featured in original works by choreographer Martha Graham. The sculpture now occupies a prominent place in the contemporary gallery of the museum, flanked by some Missouri history paintings and ceramics by Pablo Picasso himself. Its location leaves no doubt that this is a serious work by a serious artist, worthy of its place in the art world.
Maudelle has made me very aware that having a place in the main stream of things, rather than set off to the margins, tells us a great deal about the meaning of our special places. That insight particularly applies to the Scott Joplin House, located at 2658A Delmar Boulevard on the northern edge of downtown St. Louis. The historic house and its famous namesake illustrate the challenges of living life at the margins of the main currents of society.
The main architectural significance of this ordinary duplex apartment, built right after the Civil War and remarkably similar to my grandparents’ old place a mile or so away on Benton Street in north St. Louis, is that it actually survived to tell its tale while nearly all its neighbors succumbed to urban blight. The Scott Joplin House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places during the 1976 Bicentennial year. The State of Missouri acquired the property in 1984, and the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site opened to the public in 1991. It is the only surviving structure associated with Scott Joplin himself, as well as the only Missouri State Historic Site dedicated to African-American history. It is a lonely but eloquent sentinel to Scott Joplin and St. Louis’s ragtime era, reflecting the limited locations available to African Americans for much of the city’s history.
Because few authentic Joplin artifacts remain, the second floor flat where Scott Joplin and his first wife, Belle, lived for about two years at the turn of the twentieth century is decorated with simple period furnishings and lit only by the characteristic gaslights of that time period. A visitors’ center and museum on the first floor of the building focus on Joplin’s life as well as turn-of-the-century St. Louis; a playable parlor player piano presents popular piano rolls from that period, including some cut by Scott Joplin himself.
The Scott Joplin House holds a special place in my personal gallery of special places. I worked on this project back in the late ’70s while employed as a St. Louis city planner and even successfully applied for a National Trust technical assistance grant to aid in its restoration and surrounding neighborhood revitalization. However, a political controversy erupted regarding the appropriateness of an apartment he rented for only a couple of years as a memorial to Scott Joplin, so that it took well over a decade for the project to be realized. In many ways, that delay and questions about the site’s appropriateness symbolize the life of Scott Joplin himself. Although Joplin and his compositions have gradually received increased attention, the man and his house still operate on the margins of the mainstream.
Scott Joplin was born in eastern Texas circa 1867 and raised in the frontier town of Texarkana, which later became the setting for his ragtime opera Treemonisha. His mother, Florence, cleaned houses to buy the young prodigy a piano and music lessons from a local piano teacher, a German immigrant named Julius Weiss. From Weiss, young Joplin received a solid foundation in classical musical forms that fueled his deep ambition. Joplin wanted to combine the forms of classical music with those of African-American music (i.e., spirituals and minstrel songs) to create an original American art form. While Joplin didn’t create ragtime music by himself, by the turn of the twentieth century, he became its best-selling and most well-known composer.
He became a popular entertainer and band leader in the bars, brothels, and saloons that were open to African-American musicians during Jim Crow America, traveling widely across the Midwest by his teens. Although he played in major urban centers, such as St. Louis, and at the momentous 1893 Chicago World’s Fair that boosted ragtime’s popularity beyond its narrow confines, it was Sedalia that helped launch Joplin, who moved there in 1896, to national and even international prominence. Sedalia in the gay ’90s was a thriving railroad and commercial center, a major terminus of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (MKT) line, and a major center for African-American musicians like Tom Turpin. Railroad shops readily hired African Americans for jobs such as porters, and the steady incomes from those jobs fueled a lively urban culture compared to the Southern sharecropping system that spawned the rural Delta blues. The many travelers to Sedalia needed accommodations, and the hotels, cafes, and bars like the Maple Leaf Club attracted entertainers to “the sportin’ life” along Main Street.
In Sedalia, Joplin combined advanced musical instruction with life as an entertainer. He enrolled in formal music classes at George R. Smith College for Negroes and studied music theory, harmony, and composition. While experimenting with increasingly sophisticated musical rhythms, he also composed popular works like the “Maple Leaf Rag” (1899), named in honor of his Sedalia supporters and locale. Local entrepreneur John Stark, who sold pianos and also published sheet music to encourage people to play his pianos, heard Joplin perform at the Maple Leaf Club and eventually published Joplin’s work. Stark sold seventy-five thousand copies of “Maple Leaf Rag” within six months, half a million within a decade; “Maple Leaf madness” seized the rapidly urbanizing nation.
Perhaps it also seized Scott Joplin, because he decided to move from Sedalia to St. Louis, the fourth largest city in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. The Tenderloin District of restaurants, pool halls, and saloons along Market and Chestnut streets, site of Tom Turpin’s famous Rosebud Cafe, had become a national center for ragtime that lured Joplin. He lived in St. Louis for most of the first decade of the twentieth century—the first two years in what is now the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site. The phenomenal success of “Maple Leaf Rag” allowed him to teach and compose instead of constantly perform. He published many important works during this highly productive period of his life, including the now-famous tune known as “The Entertainer.” He wrote an opera (now lost) entitled A Guest of Honor that was set in the Missouri Governor’s Mansion. A Guest of Honor was inspired by Booker T. Washington’s controversial dinner at the Roosevelt White House. The 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition at St. Louis inspired his marvelous (and exceedingly difficult, according to my pianist wife) composition known as “The Cascades.” The St. Louis World’s Fair may have symbolized the peak of ragtime’s popularity, but soon its very steep fall brought Scott Joplin down as well.
Now almost universally acknowledged as the King of Ragtime, Joplin decided to try his fortunes in New York City. However, the times were changing too fast for even this extremely creative composer. His personal and professional fortunes declined in the early 1900s, as his elite syncopations lost favor to the raging rhythms of the new jazz music. In fact, Joplin’s restless creativity may have contributed to his declining fortunes. It made his new compositions incredibly sophisticated and complicated to play by ordinary musicians, while classical music critics continued to reject ragtime because of its African-American roots as well as traditional associations with red-light districts. Joplin spent the last decade of his life trying to publish his folk opera Treemonisha, about a young woman in Texarkana who lifts up her rural neighbors through education and her personal dignity. Denied recognition as a serious artist and now just another lost soul in the Big City, Scott Joplin died of mental illness in 1917. The King of Ragtime was buried in a pauper’s grave that remained unmarked until 1974. And therein lies a tale.
From its isolated vantage on the edge of downtown St. Louis, the Scott Joplin House looks both backward and forward in time. It serves as a reminder of a remarkable man as well as of the high cost of segregation in Missouri life; it also asks us to consider the relationship of African Americans to mainstream American culture. Scott Joplin’s life journey—from Reconstruction era Texas to small-town Sedalia to big cities like St. Louis and New York—mirrors modern America’s search for order between the Civil War and World War I, the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North, and their problematic relationship with the majority white culture. It also begs the question about the future of this relationship.
Just as Louis Sullivan’s ambition to create a uniquely American architecture is embodied nearby in the historic Wainwright Building on Chestnut Street in downtown St. Louis, the Scott Joplin House memorializes Joplin’s quest to create a uniquely American music.
But an America one generation removed from the Civil War was simply unable to make such a cultural leap. W.E.B. DuBois could have been writing about Joplin when he wrote in his classic The Souls of Black Folk of “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” until finally even Scott Joplin’s dogged strength and personal dignity simply gave out.
Ironically, it was the mass medium of film rather than the elite world of symphonic music that brought Scott Joplin back from the grave. The 1974 Academy Award-winning film The Sting featured his composition “The Entertainer,” which rose to number three on the Billboard record charts. People and performers during the ’70s rediscovered Joplin’s challenging but entertaining music; Treemonisha was finally performed and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1976; the Scott Joplin House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places; and the St. Louis Walk of Fame in University City, just a few miles down Delmar Boulevard, awarded Scott Joplin his star.
Perhaps someday classical music stations will play Joplin rags on their regular programming just like they do Strauss waltzes, not just during Black History Month. Maybe someday the Scott Joplin House will be the focal point of a revitalized north St. Louis neighborhood. Hard to imagine, perhaps, but special places often contain such magic for Missouri life. While it’s too late for Scott Joplin, it’s not too late for us. Like my new friend Maudelle, it’s time we give a place to The Guest of Honor.
Written by W. Arthur Mehrhoff