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“Maple Leaf Rag”

Posted by purplemary54 on April 14, 2013

One of the great American contributions to world culture is Jazz, and one of the earliest forms of Jazz was Ragtime music.  It became popular around the turn of the century, a roughly twenty year period from about 1897 to about 1918.  The name “Ragtime” came from the syncopated rhythms that were drawn from African-American music of the time.  (Wikipedia gets into a lot more detail about the origins and styles here.  Very informative.)  I’m not a musician.  I can’t read music, or understand any of the theoretical underpinnings of composition.  Of course, many of the practitioners of Ragtime were similarly musically illiterate, but they still managed to create some of the finest music in American history.

Probably the most famous Ragtime composer is Scott Joplin.  He never enjoyed much fame during his lifetime, and died mostly forgotten.  But his music and style are instantly recognizable.  I think a lot of people are like me, and discovered Scott Joplin through the movies.  Marvin Hamlisch used Joplin’s “The Entertainer” as part of the score for 1975’s The Sting (it became a hit single as a result).  And Joplin was one of the historical figures E.L. Doctorow fictionalized in his novel  Ragtime, which was subsequently made into a film in 1981.

While “The Entertainer” is probably the most famous Joplin composition today, during his lifetime it was the “Maple Leaf Rag,” a song which at one time was selling approximately half a million copies per year.  That’s a lot for the early 1900s; hell, that’s a lot for now.  That tells me that just about everyone who listened to music somewhere in the United States at some point listened to “Maple Leaf Rag.”  Because of a smart deal Joplin and his lawyer made when the song was published, Joplin got a penny per copy sold–not a fortune, but it provided a steady income, something no working musician ever turns down.

Scott Joplin was a wonder.  The music sounds very simple on one level, but I feel that simplicity is deceptive.  Like I said before, I don’t understand a lot about actually playing or composing music, but there’s depth to this.  It’s dynamic, filled with the signature syncopation that keeps listeners on their toes.  There’s also some serious emotional depth to these songs.  They seem very jaunty and bouncy on the surface, thanks to the syncopation.  But there’s also a touch of melancholy running just under the surface.  Not quite sadness or depression; not quite anger.  It feels like a rueful, wistful resignation to me.  Just enough to temper the cheerful rhythms, sort of like a musical reality check.  It’s what makes this music still seem so alive nearly a century after Joplin’s death.


9 Responses to ““Maple Leaf Rag””

  1. poppies said

    Really nice description of the melancholic thread running through this music, I don’t think many people catch that.


  3. I’ve been thinking about Joplin for a while. Need to dust my Joplin album. It makes me want to Peabody all day

  4. free penny press said

    What a great post.. I learned some new things about Joplin!!

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