Location: Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina
Title of Song: Original Rags
Composer: Joplin, Scott
Arranger: Daniels, Charles N.
Publisher: Carl Hoffman
Year & Date: 1899, Kansas City, Missouri
Collection/Call Number/Copies: Music #B-940
Historic American Sheet Music Item #: b0940
An older African-American man bends down to collect a scrap of orange-dotted fabric. Although he gazes at the viewer directly, spectacles conceal his eyes. His lips are exaggerated by orange ink and a corncob pipe sticks out of his mouth. He seems to be collecting rags in front of a dilapidated house and tossing them into a large sack. The sack itself is patched with an orange-dotted rag, and it is large enough to almost conceal the man’s lower body. Dots of black ink on the ground blend into the etch marks on the man and the dog next to him. Due to the nature of the lithographic medium used, ink seems to splatter up onto the side of the house.
Exaggerated lips were a feature of African-American caricature during this period. Here this visual stereotype is abstracted and stylized by means of color; the man’s lips match the lettering of the title, the dog collar, and the flashes of orange on the rags. His spectacles almost look like “shades,” concealing his eyes as he coolly regards the viewer. A sign on the front of the house refers to the composer, Scott Joplin, “picking” the song. Indeed, the man carefully extracts the rags from the dirty ground to add to his collection, gesturing toward the musical style of Ragtime, itself a collection of styles, including jigs, quadrilles, bamboulas, blues, spirituals, and minstrel songs. Thus the cover image is a derivative play on words – the image of the rag denotes the musical style of the same name. But it could also be argued that the song title, “Original Rags,” equates the depicted process of selecting “rags” from a dilapidated setting with the process of musical innovation. The name Ragtime comes from the phrase “ragged time,” and this cover illustration interprets that idea literally, offering up a muddy, “ragtag” scene, when, in reality, the music itself was carefully composed.
Scott Joplin (1868?-1917)
Scott Joplin was a composer and pianist, who began working in St. Louis, Missouri as a pianist at John Turpin’s Silver Dollar Saloon in 1885. He was so prolific and successful in writing rags for the piano that he came to be known as the “King of Ragtime.” Born near Texarkana, Texas, to a former slave from North Carolina and a free African-American woman from Kentucky, he was a precocious child whose talent was recognized at a very young age.
After elementary school in Texarkana, he traveled to Sedalia, Missouri, and attended Lincoln High School. He built an early reputation as a pianist and gained fame as a composer of piano ragtime during the 1890s. Joplin was essential in the articulation of a distinctly American style of music.
Minstrelsy was still in vogue when Joplin was a teenager performing in vaudeville shows with the Texas Medley Quartette, a group he founded with his brothers. Joplin was among the musicians who went to the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893, playing night spots close to the fair. Afterward, he returned to Sedalia, the “Cradle of Ragtime,” accompanied by the pianist Otis Sanders. He taught piano, banjo, and mandolin to musicians like Arthur Marshall, Scott Hayden, and Sanford B. Campbell. In the years after the turn of the century, the piano replaced the violin in popularity. Playing ragtime on the parlor piano became all the rage in the U.S. and Europe.
Classic rag soon became defined as an instrumental form, especially on the piano. Ragtime or Rag– from “ragged time”– is a genre that blends elements from marches, jigs, quadrilles, and bamboulas with blues, spirituals, minstrel ballads, and “coon songs.” Its defining rhythm, based on the African bamboula dance pattern, renamed “cakewalk” in America, is also heard in early spirituals. While Rags were published before Joplin’s “Original Rags” in 1899, he must be credited with defining the classic concept and construction of ragtime and with rendering dignity and respectability to the style. He died at New York State Hospital in 1917. Sixty years after his death, he began to receive numerous honors, including the National Music Award, a Pulitzer Prize in 1976, and a U.S. Postage Stamp in 1983.
(Source: African American Lives, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Cambridge University Press, 2004)