A Sunday Morning’s Ruminations: 100 Years Ago Yesterday, Scott Joplin Died — Alone, In The Squalor Of A New York Insane Asylum…

I’ll not dwell on the heart-breaking details of his death, but I will say his remains were forgotten, in an unmarked grave for nearly 70 years, until the Redford-Newman movie “The Sting” brought his “The Entertainer” new currency, and ragtime, a new (if rather fleeting) following.

No, I’ll focus on his contribution to American music. Already an impressive composer and musician, in 1893 he attended the Chicago Columbian Exposition and World’s Fair — and became a popular sensation, with his new music-form — called rag. In many ways, he was the first true American “rock star” — as his Maple Leaf Rag went on to eventally sell one million copies (of the sheet music — as recordings, and phonographs, were then still largely available only to the wealthy).

By 1907, he was living in New York, and was among the artistic forces that sparked the Harlem Renaissance. He was an artistic pioneer in every sense of that word. In fact, all of the history of Jazz music owes much — of her roots, really — to the innovations Scott Joplin unleashed upon a diverse, wonder-struck (but largely urban) American audience.

So it is that I am — in my middle years — regularly thunderstruck — by how so many people were, by sheer force of will, and gritty determination, able to create history-changing lives — when they started with so much less, at birth, than so many of those of us today. It is, I think, an enduring lesson for us all: when it comes, do grab the moment — and make it count.

Indeed — his end (at just 49) was searingly tragic, and his candle snuffed, far too soon — but what a life he led. And he too was in many ways — a refugee. An American refugee, from the Jim Crow south (of Texarkana, Texas) — escaping his parents’ earlier life of being born into bondage — and joining the second wave of the Great Migration, north and east. Now you know.



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