Wesley Gill stood in the rain holding an umbrella last Saturday as he looked at a small bronze plaque at St. Michael’s Cemetery in East Elmhurst, Queens. Violets sprouted around it, and its inscription read: “Scott Joplin. American composer. November 24, 1868 — April 1, 1917.”
Mr. Gill, 65, had driven in from Pittsburgh to attend the annual springtime concert honoring Joplin, the king of ragtime, at the cemetery that afternoon. “I come to this concert every year to pay respect to him,” he said. “I don’t remember the first time I heard ragtime, but it has always been part of my life. What drew me to it was its happiness.”
But he was also aware of the tragedy of Joplin’s grave. Joplin died penniless, and he was buried with a man and a teenage girl in a plot that went unmarked until 1974. “I was sad the first time I saw the grave,” said Mr. Gill. “I knew it would be small, but it was so small that it was disappointing. I respect him more than any other composer. He should have a big monument.”
Mr. Gill walked up the wet road to a little chapel where other Joplin enthusiasts had gathered. Several gripped walking sticks as they sat in the aisles. The members of a barbershop quartet adjusted their boater hats and a six-piece band featuring a clarinet and an upright bass prepared to play. The foot-tapping swing of ragtime was soon flowing from the chapel to the cemetery outside.
St. Michael’s Cemetery has hosted this tribute concert to Scott Joplin every spring for the last 14 years, and the composer would have probably been delighted by the spectacle. He popularized ragtime, an early form of American music combining classical European harmonies with syncopated African rhythms, in the late 1800s with his hit, “Maple Leaf Rag” — the sheet music sold half a million copies, and the song became a soundtrack to the Gay Nineties. In 1907 he moved from St. Louis to New York City, arriving as a famous composer. But he died a decade later at the age of 49, destitute in an asylum on Wards Island as ragtime was fading in popularity.
Joplin predicted that his music would one day be critically recognized, but the acclaim he has been bestowed in death may have shocked him. He is ingrained in American folklore, immortalized on postage stamps and honored with a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. And ragtime experienced an unlikely revival in the 1970s after the Academy Award-winning movie “The Sting” featured his music prominently and a version of his song “The Entertainer” reached No. 3 on the Billboard chart.
The St. Michaels concert typically takes place on a sunny lawn, and free barbecue is usually served, but last weekend’s weather repelled all but the devoted. “We’re ragtime lovers,” said Mary E. Doran, 76. “Rain doesn’t stop us.” She described how she became smitten by ragtime. “The year is 1951,” she said theatrically. “A lonely kid is growing up in an Irish family. Ted Mack’s “Original Amateur Hour” comes on. I can still hum the solo. The whole thing caught me and never let go.”
“Scott Joplin’s story is tragic,” she continued. “He was cheated. He was segregated. You name it. Buried in a pauper’s grave here with two people.” She stopped herself. “Oh, Scott,” she said tenderly. “I don’t want to say anything to besmirch you. But you made your mistakes.”
Sona Kludjian, a newcomer, raised an observation. “I’m disturbed there are no black people here,” she said. “Doesn’t that seem strange?”
It’s hard to know what Scott Joplin would have made of this gathering in a Queens cemetery a century after his death. Despite the happy tenor of his music, his life was difficult and marked by adversity.
“People always commented that he never smiled,” said Edward A. Berlin, who wrote the biography “King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era,” and helps organize the concert. “One of his best friends was a stage comedian and said, ‘I used to crack jokes and I could never get a smile out of him.’”
Joplin was born near Texarkana, Tex., in either 1867 or 1868; his father was a former slave and his mother was a maid. He taught himself the piano as a child on the old instrument of a white family in his neighborhood, and he left home in his early teens to become a traveling musician on the honky tonk and brothel circuit lining the Mississippi River.
Ragtime was being born in these smoky saloons across the Mississippi Valley, but the genre did not thrive until Joplin composed “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1899. It was more sophisticated than rags before it, and the tune sparked a national sensation. Hundreds of rags were soon being written, and a publishing industry hungry to capitalize on the trend formed overnight.
Joplin became famous and New York soon called out to him. When he got to Manhattan in 1907, Tin Pan Alley was already filled with imitators of his work, and the Wanamaker department store had referenced “Maple Leaf Rag” in a newspaper ad. Living on West 29th Street, he finished his ambitious three-part opera, “Treemonisha,” in 1911.
It told the story of a plantation heroine, Treemonisha, who defeats a mystic who is keeping his followers enslaved through ignorance. The opera was an allegory about improving the African-American condition through education, but investors were not interested in it. Joplin became obsessed with bringing the opera to life and spent most of his money trying to do so. It received one informal performance, at a theater hall in Harlem, with few in attendance and Joplin playing the piano himself.
Jazz was starting to supplant ragtime in popularity by 1917, and Joplin had become ravaged by syphilis he contracted as a young man. Losing control of his hands and suffering from dementia, he was committed to the Manhattan State Hospital on Wards Island. He died in the asylum two months later, and was interred at St. Michael’s Cemetery that April.
Joplin was forgotten, and ragtime became an obscurity of Americana. Fifty years passed before the Joplin renaissance occurred. “Treemonisha” was finally staged in 1972 to critical acclaim, and “The Sting” catapulted his music into the spotlight. The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers honored his grave with plaque in 1974, and he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his contributions to American music in 1976.
But Joplin fever eventually subsided and interest in his grave faded with it. By 2004 the site seemingly had no visitors when a director at St. Michaels named Ed Horn was rummaging through old articles about the cemetery and rediscovered it. Determined that Joplin be honored more regularly, he conceived of the concert. Last year, a bench was also installed near the plaque. “The grave used to get no foot traffic,” said Mr. Horn. “Now people come asking us for directions to it.”
The band finished playing around 5 o’clock. They had performed hits like “Wall Street Rag” and lesser-known tunes like “Bethena” and “Weeping Willow.” The band’s leader eventually announced: “Who wants to go take a walk in the rain?” Thus what has become a curious Queens springtime tradition took place: the crowd rose from their seats and started walking down the road leading to Joplin’s grave.
The plot sits at the far corner of a field beneath an arched tree. A member of the procession, Michael Katsobashvili, 43, considered Joplin’s legacy. “King Oliver died destitute and is buried in the Bronx,” he said. “Jelly Roll Morton died penniless. These are the fathers of our American music. They are our Mozarts. But they were only lionized later. They died in misery.”
A circle formed around the grave and the barbershop quartet performed a mournful a cappella from “Treemonisha” called “We Will Rest Awhile.” It is sung by field workers eager to take a break from their labor. The quartet’s harmonious voices rose through the mist. “We will rest awhile,” they sang. “We will rest awhile because resting is very fine.”
The crowd left and people started driving back home in the rain. Joplin’s grave was lonesome again. But the devout will be back again next year to keep him company.
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