Editor’s note: The historical photos in this story feature a variety of dances inspired by 20th century music.
I must have been 7 or 8 when I first heard “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin in the movie The bite. It would have been to the historic Castro Theater in San Francisco, where my mom used to take us for double matinees of old movies on weekday afternoons. We called it “homeschooling”.
Like just about every other piano student in America, I started learning to play “The Entertainer”. Everyone was playing there. The sound of this piece, played hesitantly and unevenly, with stumbles over the delicate parts, is etched in my memory. My friend Helga can still sing the melody with the fingering her piano teacher assigned to her: 1-2, 1-5, 1-5, 1-5, 2-3-4-5-2-3-4- 1-3- 2. And the jingling version of the song from my neighborhood ice cream truck pushed the song into my head even more, signaling the sound of summer.
Joplin wrote “The Entertainer” in 1902, at the dawn of a new century. That year, President Theodore Roosevelt cruised the streets of Hartford, Connecticut, in an electric automobile, the first movie theater opened in Los Angeles, and JC Penney opened its first store in Kemmerer, Wyo. Writers John Steinbeck and Arna Bontemps, composer Richard Rogers and photographer Ansel Adams were all born in 1902, destined to define a new artistic era.
Leaving his own indelible mark on the 20th century, Joplin was an innovator whose deceptively irregular rhythms and nuanced harmonic language helped define the trajectory of American music in an age of rapid change and flux. His short life (he died before the age of 50 in 1917) is almost a case study in the transformations of his time. He was born in northeast Texas just four years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, one of the first black Americans born into the promise of freedom. A born musician, Joplin absorbed a wide range of influences, from the plantation melodies his parents played on the fiddle and banjo, to the classical training he received from a generous local piano teacher. By the time Joplin was a teenager in the 1880s, he was making a living as a traveling musician, shaping an entirely new American sound.
Joplin became the “King of Ragtime”, a pioneer of a genre that forever changed American culture. It exploded onto the scene in 1893, thanks in part to the World’s Columbian Exposition, a massive fair in Chicago visited by some 27 million people. While the fair itself was secluded, the saloons, cafes and brothels surrounding the fairgrounds echoed with the melodies of traveling ragtime musicians, including Joplin, who was there with his own band. the St. Louis Expedition described this new national craze as “a veritable call of nature, which powerfully stirred the pulse of city dwellers”.
Ragtime introduced mainstream America to the simple but radical trick of syncopation in rhythm – that displacement of rhythm that causes propulsion, a swinging of the hips, a feeling that anything can happen. Joplin’s innovations in ragtime laid the foundation for much of 20th-century American music: first blues, jazz, and swing, then R&B and rock-and-roll. Nothing would ever be the same again.
And now, as I revisit Joplin’s legacy with a new album of his piano music – yes, including that famous piece I learned so long ago – I see him standing at a crossroads. . He was a product of his time, with ambitions beyond him. His music is a total embrace of everything he was made of and a vision to do something new. He spent his life bumping into lines of color as his work crossed them. He invented and innovated because he had to. It’s a central motif in American music, a truth that I take for granted as my lineage and my heritage. And in the end, I choose to see it as something liberating and unintended transformative. This is how hybridization happens, how adaptive novelty fuels change, how new languages are invented.
(Part of this essay originally appeared in the liner notes to Lara Downes’ album, Reflections: Scott Joplin Reconsidered.)
To listen “The artist”
Over the years, musicians from diverse backgrounds have put their own stamp on “The Entertainer.” I’ve rounded up some of my favorites – and some crazy versions – in this playlist. There’s the old-fashioned fiddle elegance of Itzhak Perlman, the jazz piano virtuosity of Marcus Roberts and a folksy treatment from guitarist Dave Van Ronk.Take it a step further, try the trippy rendition of dub/reggae artists Sly & Robbie, or the nostalgic bluegrass-tinged harmonica of the legendary Larry Adler.
And me? Last year, when I picked up the score to start planning my Joplin album, I saw something I hadn’t noticed before. Joplin dedicated “The Entertainer” to “James Brown and his Mandolin Club”. So I reimagined this timeless song in duet with mandolinist Joe Brent, bringing Joplin’s vision to be reflected through the prism of our own time.
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