Edward A. Berlin’s meticulously researched King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era is a welcome addition to the growing literature on American popular music. Berlin, a noted musicologist whose Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History (1980) established the writer as one of ragtime’s preeminent scholars, sets an ambitious agenda in King of Ragtime. First and foremost, Berlin aims to set the record straight on Joplin, separating the man from the legend, assessing his accomplishments as well as his failures.
Berlin’s foil is the pioneering work of Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, They All Played Ragtime (1949). While a still valuable resource, largely because Blesh and Janis based their book on interviews conducted with actual ragtime veterans, the authors never really question or cross-check their subjects’ stories, a particularly egregious shortcoming given the frailties of human memory and the tendency to “rewrite” history so as to promote one’s place to a more prominent position. Another problem is the authors’ partisanship which ends up distorting its subject by privileging ragtime above other African American inflected musics such as swing and bebop. More serious is the fabrication of “facts” and “dialogue” that Blesh and Janis apparently added in order to construct more compelling or complete stories. Thus, while still shedding much light on the temper of the decades bracketing the turn of the century when ragtime reigned, They All Played Ragtime must ultimately be categorized as a kind of fictionalized history comparable to the facts-cum-fiction docudrama biographies produced routinely by the film and television industries.
In contrast to the avid fandom of Blesh and Janis, Berlin, who has an earned Ph.D. in musicology, brings the research skills of a trained historian to his task. Most important, Berlin has done the hard work of checking the record by carefully scrutinizing the public archives and newspapers of the period in order to document Joplin’s actual comings and goings. As a result, readers are given a much clearer idea of the peripatetic lifestyle lived by Joplin during his early professional years as he moved from his home of Texarkana, Texas, to Sedalia, Missouri, “the cradle of ragtime,” to such bustling Midwestern cities as St. Louis, Missouri, and, eventually, on to New York City. Readers also come to appreciate the subtle intricacies of ragtime as a specific and idiosyncratic musical form. Thanks to Berlin’s copious musical examples and clear explanations, even a nonmusician comes away with an enhanced appreciation of ragtime’s syncopated and pianistic nature, where deftly executed “off-beat” right-hand figures dance playfully over metronomic “oom-pah, oom-pah” bass lines.
Like other members of the new generation of popular culture historians who are squeezing the ballyhoo and press agentry out of their fresh and scrupulously researched chronicles of American music and movies, Berlin never claims more than his facts allow. For example, in his quest to precisely establish Joplin’s date and place of birth, Berlin, in spite of having combed the public records in and around Texarkana, can only narrow Joplin’s birth date to within a year of November 24, 1868, the standard but inaccurate birth date assigned the composer. Though perhaps a relatively minor point, the pains taken to ascertain the correct date are emblematic of Berlin’s persistent detective work and his unwillingness to rush to judgment. “Gaps remain,” he states in the preface, “for every answer that I might provide brings its own host of new questions.”
As Berlin’s saga unreels, it becomes clear that Joplin was the right man, at the right time and place. Indeed, improvements in the technology of printing suddenly made possible the inexpensive mechanical reproduction of sheet music which, in turn, made possible the phenomenon of Tin Pan Alley. Located in the heart of New York City’s bustling show-business district, Tin Pan Alley engineered a promotion and marketing of popular music that reached unprecedented heights. Nevertheless, it was an enterprising white music dealer in Sedalia, Missouri, named John Starks who first brought Joplin to the public’s attention. Having fallen in love with the lively syncopations of ragtime emanating from the town’s brothels and show tents, Starks took a chance with an unknown African American and...
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