In 1903, on Locust Street in St Louis, Missouri, two Americans found themselves engaged in complex and fateful negotiations with European culture. One was Scott Joplin, black 'King of Ragtime' and already the famous composer of 'Maple Leaf Rag', 'The Entertainer', 'Peacherine Rag' and 'Elite Syncopations'. (The other can be caught up with later.) The son of a former slave, born in 1868, the year of the ratification of the 14th Amendment, which began the struggle for equal treatment under the law for black Americans, Joplin was a quintessential child of his time. By 1903, he had been in St Louis for two years. After a sojourn in Sedalia, Missouri, whose Maple Leaf Café had inspired his most famous composition, his move to the city confirmed a series of significant developments in African-American music. Ragtime had first begun to make its presence felt at the Chicago World's Fair (the Columbian Exposition) in 1893, where, at what Susan Curtis perceptively calls a significant 'frontier of modern culture', the music of black Americans offered serious competition to the classical music of Europe. Despite an economic depression, people flocked to the 'midway' and the sporting house districts where it flourished. By the turn of the century, ragtime was thriving from coast to coast and more than a hundred rags were in print as sheet music. 'Maple Leaf Rag' had turned out to be a phenomenal bestseller. Published in 1899, it sold half a million copies in ten years and made Joplin a nationwide reputation.
LRB 26 January 1995 | PDF Download