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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And now a story of another pioneering pianist.

(Soundbite of ragtime piano)

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here's a ghost story that just might be true. It's about the great composer Scott Joplin. We first heard this story from a novelist, who heard it from somebody else. The writer, Tananarive Due, says the story inspired her latest novel, Joplin's Ghost. It started years ago when she visited a city where Scott Joplin had lived.

Ms. TANANARIVE DUE (Writer): I was on one of my very first book tours in the City of St. Louis, and there were only a couple of people there. One of them was the curator of the Scott Joplin House in St. Louis. And he proceeded to tell me very sober faced stories about his encounters with what he was convinced was the ghost of Scott Joplin: a man standing by the window. When the curator turned around they tried to tell him it was closing time, all of a sudden the man was gone. That story really stuck with me. And I asked myself, why would there be a ghost at the Scott Joplin House?

(Soundbite of ragtime piano)

INSKEEP: The house in St. Louis was preserved because Scott Joplin was once among the most popular American songwriters. He was the son of a former slave, whose Ragtime music swept the nation more than 100 years ago.

(Soundbite of ragtime piano)

And it resurfaced in the 1970s with the soundtrack from the movie The Sting.

(Soundbite of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer")

Okay. Now, we are not about to tell you that Scott Joplin's House is really haunted, but we are going to find out how Scott Joplin might, in a manner of speaking, haunt a piano. To get there we have to learn about Joplin, just as Tananarive Due started learning after she heard that ghost story.

Ms. DUE: I even wrote in my journal that night a little about the encounter; Joplin's Ghost would be a great name for a story. But at that point, I didn't know the rest of the piece, until I learned a little bit more about Joplin's tragic life.

INSKEEP: What was tragic about his life?

Ms. DUE: Part of the tragedy was an artist who felt that he was constrained and could not follow his muse and win the respect and admiration of the world, which is what all artists want. That was probably his deepest sorrow. But he also had syphilis, without proper treatments for that during that period. He had three wives, the second of whom died very tragically only a few weeks after they were married, at a very tender age. Actually, she got sick while she was touring with him, and then, boom, she was dead.

(Soundbite of ragtime piano)

INSKEEP: Are there recordings of Scott Joplin playing?

Ms. DUE: No. No, no, no. There are not.

INSKEEP: Yet there may be a way that we can still listen, as if he sat down to a piano today.

Mr. Trebor Tichner (Music Collector): This is Maple Leaf Rag roll-played by Scott Joplin issued in 1916.

INSKEEP: That's a St. Louis music collector named Trebor Tichner. We reached him at his house, which has a player piano. He was holding a piano roll, a long scroll of paper, a copy of one that might have been made by Scott Joplin himself. Joplin would have played a piano that punched tiny holes in the paper. The roll in Tichner's hand was likely edited, improved after the performance. But when he feeds it into the piano and the machine starts to spin...

(Soundbite of roll spinning)

INSKEEP: ...you hear one of Joplin's greatest songs, as though he is at the keyboard.

(Soundbite of Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag)

INSKEEP: It would be hard to prove that Scott Joplin really made the piano rolls that bear his name. Experts disagree sharply, though Tichner says that after he found these rolls in 1959, he located a friend of Joplin's who was still alive.

Mr. TICHNER: And I played two of the rolls for him, he said, well, yeah, he said, you got the right rolls, and he thought that they sounded a lot like Scott Joplin.

INSKEEP: Even skeptics think that another roll on Tichner's collection might come from Scott Joplin. The reason is that the playing on that piano roll is so poor. This roll two was made in 1916 as Joplin was dying from syphilis.

(Soundbite of ragtime piano)

Mr. TICHNER: The rhythm is very uneven. You know, he's very unsure of the phrasing and so forth.

(Soundbite of ragtime piano)

But he got through it all.

(Soundbite of ragtime)

INSKEEP: The sound of a player piano alive with Scott Joplin's music inspired a thought from that novelist Tananarive Due.

Ms. DUE: It is almost like having a ghost in the room. It was an eerie sensation watching these keys move up and down by themselves.

INSKEEP: Did you eventually get to the Scott Joplin House, the house that you were told was haunted by his ghost?

Ms. DUE: I did get to the house, and it's a magical experience. As you walk up the stairs, that's where you start to feel the sense that Joplin lived here, because like my character in the book, I touch the railing, which is just a rude pipe, and you know his hand touched that pipe. And that's one of the few things you can actually say that about with certainty. But the windows he stared out of were there; the banister was there; it was the kitchen where he sat with his wife. And I really asked myself why he would haunt this place, and I think if there was a ghost, I think it was because that was a time in Joplin's life when he was filled with a great deal of promise.

INSKEEP: Scott Joplin's furniture is gone from that house in St. Louis, Missouri. Many of the facts of his life are gone too. One of his biographers points out that many details are in dispute. What remains is the music that he wrote and maybe, just maybe the traces of Scott Joplin's hands on the keys of a player piano.

(Soundbite of ragtime piano)

Tananarive Due's novel is Joplin's Ghost. You can read an excerpt and listen to the Joplin piano rolls just by cranking up your computer and going to npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne.

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