Saturday, September 18 2021’s Smile of the Day: The Maple Leaf Rag

On this Day:

In 1899, Scott Joplin was granted a copyright for his “Maple Leaf Rag”, one of, if not the, most famous ragtime compositions, by the US Copyright Office.

The “Maple Leaf Rag” (copyright registered on September 18, 1899) is an early ragtime musical composition for piano composed by Scott Joplin. It was one of Joplin’s early works, and became the model for ragtime compositions by subsequent composers. It is one of the most famous of all ragtime pieces. As a result, Joplin became dubbed the “King of Ragtime” by his contemporaries. The piece gave Joplin a steady if unspectacular income for the rest of his life.

Despite ragtime’s decline after Joplin’s death in 1917, the “Maple Leaf Rag” continued to be recorded by many well-known artists. The ragtime revival of the 1970s brought it back to mainstream public notice once again.

The “Maple Leaf Rag” is associated with the city of Sedalia, Missouri, although there is no record of Joplin having a permanent residence there before 1904. Joplin arrived in Sedalia in 1894 as a touring musician and stayed with the family of Arthur Marshall, who later became one of Joplin’s students and a ragtime composer in his own right. Joplin played as a solo musician at dances and at the major black clubs in Sedalia, among them the “Maple Leaf Club”. It is possible that the rag was named after the Maple Leaf Club, although there is no direct evidence to prove the link, and there were probably many other possible sources for the name in and around Sedalia at the time.

Although there were hundreds of rags in print by the time of the “Maple Leaf Rag’s” publication, Joplin was not far behind. His first published rag was “Original Rags” (March 1899). The “Maple Leaf Rag” was already known in Sedalia prior to its publication in 1899; composer and pianist Brun Campbell claimed to have seen the manuscript of the work in or around 1898.[5] Prior to its publication, Joplin anticipated that the piece would be a success—he told Arthur Marshall that “The Maple Leaf will make me the king of ragtime composers”.

The exact circumstances which led to publication of the “Maple Leaf Rag” are unknown, and there are versions of the event which contradict each other. After approaching several publishers, Joplin signed a contract with John Stillwell Stark on August 10, 1899 for a $0.01 royalty on all sales of the rag, with a minimum sales price of $0.25. The “Maple Leaf Rag” was published between August 10 and September 20, 1899, when the United States Copyright Office received two copies of the score.

The rag was reissued in 1900 or 1901 with a new cover showing a green maple leaf and a photograph of Joplin. In 1903, Stark issued a “Maple Leaf Rag Song”, an arrangement of Joplin’s music with words by Sydney Brown.

“Maple Leaf Rag” is a multi-strain ragtime march with athletic bass lines and offbeat melodies. Each of the four parts features a recurring theme and a striding bass line with copious seventh chords. The piece may be considered the “archetypal rag” due to its influence on the genre; its structure was the basis for many other rags, including “Sensation” by Joseph Lamb.

It is more carefully constructed than almost all the previous rags, and the syncopations, especially in the transition between the first and second strain, were novel at the time.

Generally, the piece is considered difficult; one must have very good coordination in the left hand to perform the piece successfully, particularly for the trio, which involves leaps of two octaves. When it was first published, it was considered significantly more difficult than the average Tin Pan Alley and early ragtime sheet music common at the time.

“Gladiolus Rag”, a later composition by Joplin, is a developed variant of the “Maple Leaf Rag” showcasing Joplin’s increasing musical sophistication, and is usually played at a somewhat slower tempo. In addition, the first strain of Joplin’s “The Cascades”, “Leola”, and “Sugar Cane” are modeled on the structure used in the composition.

The composition starts in the key of A-flat major and changes to D-flat major during the first part of the trio, then modulates back to A-flat major.

There have been many claims about the sales of the “Maple Leaf Rag”, for example that 1 million copies of the sheet music were sold in the composer’s lifetime, making Scott Joplin the first musician to sell 1 million copies of a piece of instrumental music. Joplin’s first biographer Rudi Blesh wrote that during its first six months the piece sold 75,000 copies, and became “the first great instrumental sheet music hit in America”. However, research by Joplin’s later biographer Edward A. Berlin demonstrated that this was not the case; the initial print-run of 400 took one year to sell, and under the terms of Joplin’s contract with a $0.01 royalty would have given Joplin an income of $4, or approximately $124 in current value. Later sales were steady and would have given Joplin an income which would have covered his expenses; in 1909 estimated sales would have given him an income of $600 annually (approximately $17,282 in current prices).

In addition to sales of sheet music, it was also popular in orchestrations for dance bands and brass bands for years. Joplin failed to repeat the success of Maple Leaf Rag, with none of his other famous rags (such as “The Entertainer”) garnering as much popularity as the Maple Leaf Rag did. The royalties earned by the sheet music sales did provide Joplin with a steady income for the rest of his life, however.

Soon after the publication of the “Maple Leaf Rag”, the earliest recordings of the rag took place; band leader Wilbur Sweatman recorded it onto a Phonograph cylinder a year later, but there are no known copies which have survived. The earliest surviving record of the rag comes from the second known recording of the rag by the United States Marine Band from 1906.

While Joplin never made an audio recording, his playing is preserved on seven piano rolls for use in mechanical player pianos. All seven were made in 1916. Berlin theorizes that by the time Joplin made these recordings he may have been experiencing discoordination of the fingers, tremors and an inability to speak clearly, symptoms of syphilis, the disease that took his life in 1917. The recording of “Maple Leaf Rag”, on the Aeolian Uni-Record label from June 1916 was described by biographer Blesh as “shocking … disorganized and completely distressing to hear”. Berlin notes that the “Maple Leaf Rag” roll was “painfully bad” and likely to be the truest record of Joplin’s playing at the time. The roll, however, does not reflect his abilities earlier in life.

The song was a selection in the White Star Line songbook in the early 1900s, and could have possibly been played aboard the RMS Titanic during its ill-fated maiden voyage in 1912.

The tune continued to be in the repertoire of jazz bands decades later, with artists such as the New Orleans Rhythm Kings in the 1920s, and Sidney Bechet in the 1930s giving it up-to-date adaptations, maintaining a timeless quality to it. As an indication of its persistent popularity and recognition, it was performed on phonograph records six times in each of the three decades after its first publication. In 1930, it was featured in the gangster movie classic, The Public Enemy. “Maple Leaf Rag” was the Joplin piece found most often on 78 rpm records.

In November 1970, Joshua Rifkin released a recording called Scott Joplin: Piano Rags on the classical label Nonesuch, which featured as its first track the “Maple Leaf Rag”. It sold 100,000 copies in its first year and eventually became Nonesuch’s first million-selling record. The Billboard “Best-Selling Classical LPs” chart for September 28, 1974 has the record at number 5, with the follow-up “Volume 2” at number 4, and a combined set of both volumes at number 3. Separately both volumes had been on the chart for 64 weeks. The album was nominated in 1971 for two Grammy Award categories: Best Album Notes and Best Instrumental Soloist Performance (without orchestra), but at the ceremony on March 14, 1972, Rifkin did not win in any category. In 1979 Alan Rich in the New York Magazine wrote that by giving artists like Rifkin the opportunity to put Joplin’s music on disk Nonesuch Records “created, almost alone, the Scott Joplin revival.”

A 8-bit version of the music is used in the 1983 Bally Midway arcade game Domino Man as background music.

The “Maple Leaf Rag” is still a favorite of ragtime pianists, and has been described as an “American institution… still in print and still popular”. As the copyright has expired, the composition is in the public domain. It appears in the soundtracks of hundreds of films, cartoons, commercials, and video games. In 2004 Canadian radio listeners voted it the 39th greatest song of all time.

In Joplin’s will, he requested that “Maple Leaf Rag” be played at his funeral. When preparations were being made, however, his wife did not allow it because she did not think it was a proper funeral song. She later admitted regretting that decision her whole life (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

What is it when you spill your drink all over your piano?  Rag time…

Second, a Song:

Per TJaep on Here is the Maple leaf Rag, recorded on Pianola Roll and actually played by Scott Joplin.  This piano roll was apparently found in the wrong box on Ebay and turned out to be a long lost Joplin recording.  

This is a MIDI re-creation from that piano roll.  This is a bit of history since music recording at this time was just in its infancy.  The piano roll is as close to hearing a true Scott Joplin performance  of his most famous piece  I hope you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day:

“It is never right to play ragtime fast.” – Scott Joplin

Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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