Reconsidering Scott Joplin's 'The Entertainer' : The Picture Show The king of ragtime published his hit tune 120 years ago. Pianist Lara Downes believes the piece helped shape the future of American music.

Reconsidering Scott Joplin's 'The Entertainer'

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In 1974, something strange happened. A 70-year-old piano piece made its way to the Top 10 on the pop charts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCOTT JOPLIN'S "THE ENTERTAINER")

FADEL: That's "The Entertainer," written by Scott Joplin. And when this version appeared in the film "The Sting," it became a nationwide sensation for the second time. The first was in 1902, when Scott Joplin's name was synonymous with the style known as ragtime. Pianist Lara Downes is revisiting Joplin's music in a new album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCOTT JOPLIN'S "THE ENTERTAINER")

FADEL: Lara Downes has spent the last few years showcasing the work of overlooked and underappreciated Black composers. And she joins us now. Welcome.

LARA DOWNES, BYLINE: Good morning. It's so good to be here.

FADEL: Good morning. So was that piece, "The Entertainer," how you first discovered Scott Joplin?

DOWNES: It was. My mom took us to see "The Sting." And, you know, like every other kid in America who was taking piano lessons, I wanted to learn to play "The Entertainer."

FADEL: Yeah. I mean, even I - I don't play piano, but I did for a year. And that was one of my assigned pieces.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCOTT JOPLIN'S "THE ENTERTAINER")

FADEL: So let's talk about just how popular Scott Joplin was in his lifetime.

DOWNES: Yeah. Well, he was called the King of Ragtime. Ragtime was the American music of his day. And he was largely responsible for inventing and developing it. And he was intensely popular. It kind of started in 1899, when he sold a tune called "Maple Leaf Rag."

(SOUNDBITE OF SCOTT JOPLIN'S "MAPLE LEAF RAG")

DOWNES: That piece of music got so popular that it's said that they sold over a million copies of the sheet music in his lifetime.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCOTT JOPLIN'S "MAPLE LEAF RAG")

FADEL: And ragtime at that time was considered really cutting-edge music, right?

DOWNES: Right. At the time, mainstream music was very polite. You know, it's kind of 19th century parlor music. And when ragtime went mainstream - and I guess what I mean by that is, when it was discovered by white America - it took over as this kind of national craze.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCOTT JOPLIN'S "MAPLE LEAF RAG")

FADEL: Now, Joplin wrote a lot of ragtime pieces. But he did have this whole other side to his writing, right? And that doesn't really get that much coverage.

DOWNES: Right. This is, to me, such a turn-of-the-century story. Joplin grew up in Texarkana, Texas. And he was born just a few years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. He's one of the first Black Americans to grow up in this kind of new version of America. And it's also an America where all of these different stories and journeys are coming together. And one of those journeys brought a piano teacher, a German Jewish immigrant named Julius Weiss, to Texarkana, which was a lumber town. And little Scott Joplin, who'd been learning how to play the piano on the pianos in houses that his mother was cleaning, encounters this piano teacher and was trained in classical music. So that was his foundation. And that was really at the core of his music making and his ambitions throughout his life. And he ended up writing a ballet and two operas, as well as all of these rags.

FADEL: And I think a lot of people don't know that about him.

DOWNES: We haven't known very much about him.

FADEL: Right.

DOWNES: That's really my impetus with this project.

FADEL: Now, you've got pieces on this album that Scott Joplin wrote for his wife. It's a heartbreaking story, right?

DOWNES: Yeah. Joplin's personal life was pretty sad in general...

FADEL: Yeah.

DOWNES: ...And especially his love life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCOTT JOPLIN'S "BETHENA")

DOWNES: His first marriage broke up after the death of his infant daughter. And then a few years later, he fell in love with this young woman named Freddie Alexander. And they got married. But she died just two months after the wedding. She caught a cold, turned into pneumonia - no modern medicine. After she died, he wrote one of his loveliest, most lyrical pieces of music. It's a waltz called "Bethena," which he wrote in her memory to mourn her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCOTT JOPLIN'S "BETHENA")

FADEL: One of his operas, "Treemonisha," didn't receive its premiere until more than 50 years after Joplin had died. Can you talk about why it wasn't staged while he was alive to present it to the world?

DOWNES: And this was really the great disappointment and the great tragedy of his life, because he tried really hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TREEMONISHA - A REAL SLOW DRAG")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Salut your partner to the drag.

DOWNES: In 1907, he came to New York with the purpose of getting this opera produced and performed. And he spent years trying to get a publisher, trying to find backing, unsuccessfully. In the end, he self-financed sort of a read-through up in Harlem. And it went very badly. You know, it's funny - I've been working for a long time now with the music of Black composers in American music. And I find myself saying over and over again, he was ahead of his time. She was ahead of her time. But that's really the story here. His ambition was to write the first African American grand opera.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TREEMONISHA - A REAL SLOW DRAG")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Listen to that rag.

DOWNES: And you have to realize that at that time, opera was a strictly European art form. So we weren't even ready for an American opera, let alone a Black American opera. And it's an opera that's based on a story of life in the rural South and sort of Black folklore and superstition. So I imagine Joplin coming to Harlem, you know, and trying to find interest in this opera among sort of the Black elite of the time. And it would have been just not an idea that anyone was ready for.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TREEMONISHA - A REAL SLOW DRAG")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Move along. Don't stop. Don't stop dancing.

FADEL: Speaking of ahead of his time, I mean, what happened with "Treemonisha" when it was premiered and presented 50 years after his death?

DOWNES: I mean, I suppose it's kind of a beautiful, happy ending in a way. Joplin received posthumously the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his contributions to American music. It was a long time coming. But there was this full-stage production of "Treemonisha." And, I think, maybe the happier ending is that there's real interest in that piece now, you know, with this new perspective that we have....

FADEL: Yeah.

DOWNES: ...To understand this music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TREEMONISHA - A REAL SLOW DRAG")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) And do the slow...

FADEL: That's pianist Lara Downes. Her new album is called "Reflections: Scott Joplin Reconsidered." Thank you so much, Lara.

DOWNES: Thank you, Leila. It's so fun to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TREEMONISHA - A REAL SLOW DRAG")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Harmonizing).

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