scott’s widow reminisces on the ragtime king
by Kay C. Thompson
I first met Lottie Joplin — widow of the King of Ragtime Writers — through a mutual acquaintance, Hot Lips Page. That he could share my enthusiasm for the music of Scott Joplin is an altogether understandable circumstance, for Joplin has long been the admiration of trumpet-playing folk, from the days of Keppard, Perez, Johnson, Oliver and Armstrong. The explanation is quite simple. In the early 1890’s, some years before he turned to piano, Joplin himself played B flat cornet. Later, when he took up ragtime composition, he frequently incorporated trumpet-style passages. As a result, old-timers who played the lead regarded his compositions as embodying the real rudiments of jazz style, and thus they required younger men to master his works in order to win acceptance. This statement of the case may contradict the accounts of other writers. However, it is a fact that King Oliver collected just about every Joplin rag ever written, at one time having the entire lot bound in red leather.
Lottie and I have become good friends. Whenever I am weary of the picayune cats who infest the world of jazz, I find it a richly rewarding experience to call upon her. Since her husband’s death in 1917, she has remained loyal to his memory with a devotion that is both singular and touching. For years — long years before any of the rest of us — she went forth almost daily, doing whatever a lone and courageous woman could to promote wider recognition for Scott’s achievements in the field of American popular music. As she herself has expressed it to me many times: “Scott did it all, and he did it first!”
Today, racked by arthritis and other infirmities, she is confined much of the time to her home. Hence, she is obliged to depend upon others to bring her news of the steadily mounting interest in Joplin and early ragtime. Meanwhile, she continues to maintain herself, as she has done through the years, by operating a theatrical boardinghouse. A large and spacious brownstone affair, located on upper Manhattan’s West 138th Street, her home has served at one time or another as a residence for a long list of stars and attractions. The front parlor and downstairs music room are literally filled to overflowing with autographed photos and other mementoes, some of them decades old.
“Yes,” Lottie once remarked, even Jelly Roll Morton has boarded here. That was back in the 1930’s, though I’d have to check the date; so many celebrities have stayed with me! At the time, I don’t think things had been going too well for Jelly, but we always got along because of his respect for my husband. I don’t know that Scott and Jelly ever met. If they did, it was before my time, but I understand they wrote back and forth.
“In the early 1900’s, Jelly and another man named Porter King were working on a number of their own. Apparently, they got stuck. Anyway, they mailed it off to Scott, asking him to help. Later, when he completed it, Scott mailed it back, but it never got published until years afterward. By then, Scott and Porter King were dead, so Jelly named it after his old friend, calling it King Porter Stomp.
Having heard this same tale from other sources (who, incidentally, are in a position to confirm it), I am more inclined to accept it. Certainly, it would seem to account for a chord progression in King Porter that some people feel sounds very much like one used in Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag. The latter composition preceded the former by a good many years; in fact, Joplin is reported to have played an early version of Maple Leaf in the 1880’s, some years prior to its actual publication. At any rate, having myself had occasion to remark upon the fundamental connection between ragtime and Jelly Roll Morton, I asked Lottie whether she had seen the recent Louis Armstrong issue of The Record Changer, in which, Louis credited Joplin with having been the principal source of Jelly Roll’s ideas, adding that Joplin “originated that stuff. If you played his music and phrased it right, you were swinging way back there.”
“Yes, I read it, and that’s just like Louis. What a fine man he is! And he should know! He listened young, just like he said, and he’s King today, like Scott was 50 years ago. When he talks, that’s royalty speaking.
“These days, I feel indebted to a lot of people. First of all, there’s S. Brun Campbell. He studied with my husband in the 1890’s, and commencing in 1944, he helped things along by writing an article for Esquire. Then he started the idea of a Scott Joplin Memorial at Sedalia, Missouri, where Scott took courses in arrangement, advanced harmony, and things like that. Recently, I saw a letter from Sedalia; at last, the Chamber of Commerce out there is getting interested in the idea.
“There’s other folks, too. Be sure to mention Roy J. Carew. He and a man named Don Fowler did an early article about the same time as Campbell. Then, there’s J. Lee Anderson. He’s been on a real ragtime kick lately, and it seems like he’s mentioned ragtime in nearly every issue of Down Beat for the past year. Yes, Scott has been coming in for lots of good discussion. They even know about him in Europe. Magazines like the London Jazz Journal have been giving him a big play. And you’ve been doing quite a few pieces yourself. Every bit helps, and one of these days the truth will really proclaim itself!”
Turning from the subject of writers, I asked, “What was Scott Joplin like?”
“Well, I didn’t know Scott when he was young. He came out West, while I was raised down in Washington. We didn’t meet until after he came to New York about 1904, when his publishers, John Stark & Son, opened an office here in town. We were married in 1907, and we lived together as man and wife for about ten years until he died. You might say he died of disappointments, his health broken mentally and physically. But he was a great man, a great man! He wanted to be a real leader. He wanted to free his people from poverty, ignorance, and superstition, just like the heroine of his ragtime opera, Treemonisha. That’s why he was ambitious; that’s why he tackled major projects. In fact, that’s why he was so far ahead of his time.
I asked Lottie for her recollections of the period when Joplin was at work on Treemonisha.
“What headaches that caused him! After Scott had finished writing it, and while he was showing it around, hoping to get it published, someone stole the theme, and made it into a popular song. The number was quite a hit, too, but that didn’t do Scott any good. To get his opera copyrighted, he had to re-write it, and later, to get it published, he had to have it printed at his own expense. I suppose one of these days, somebody will get around to producing it. I tried to get it on Broadway for years, and I remember that Earl Carroll once seemed really interested in the idea. If they were to adapt it to the present day theatre, with singers, dancers, and good musicians, it might be a bigger hit than Green Pastures. But things never materialize when you want them to, and next I knew, Earl Carroll had gotten into difficulties over some girl and that bathtub of champagne, and he told me, “Lottie, I guess there’s no chance now!”
“When Scott died, he was composing a ragtime symphony, which he believed would be his most important effort. Unfortunately, he died before he finished it completely, and up to now, I’ve never mentioned it, or showed it to any writer. I felt people wouldn’t understand it. Besides, they would only pester me to death. As it is, every once in a while, someone comes around, wanting to know if Scott left any ‘unfinished’ manuscripts. Well, to get rid of them, I sometimes let them have a few scraps, but sooner or later, I always get after them, and make them bring them back. One reason I don’t have more than I do is that Scott destroyed a lot of things before his last illness. He was afraid that, if anything happened to him, they might get stolen. In those days, there was a lot of that; more than you might think.
One question remained. Now that ragtime was beginning to receive a fuller measure of attention, how did Lottie feel about its future prospects? Would a Ragtime revival be just another short-lived episode, on the order of the recent Dixieland boom?
“I used to wonder sometimes whether Scott would ever receive recognition during my lifetime. You know, he would often say that he’d never be appreciated until after he was dead. But if anyone asked me, I would tell them that Louis Armstrong was right. Scott’s music is still too hard for most modern youngsters. They’ve been raised on all that easy stuff. In fact, that was always my biggest problem, finding musicians who could play as much music as Scott could compose. Of course, today, I’m getting on, and it’s really up to the next generation to discover Scott for themselves. When they do, this time it will be for keeps. You see, the numbers Scott wrote are jazz classics, and the classics never die — they live on forever!”
Note: The above article was published in The Record Changer magazine, dated October 1950, Vol. 9, No. 9, pages 8 and 18, and is reprinted by kind permission of Richard B. Hadlock, owner/publisher of The Record Changer.