Dancing to a Black Man's Tune: A Life of Scott Joplin

Overview

In the early twentieth century, as Americans enjoyed ragtime, they danced to a black man's tune. In this interpretive biography, Susan Curtis recounts the life of Scott Joplin, the great African American ragtime composer whose musical genius helped break down racial barriers and led America to a new cultural frontier. Born in 1868 to former slaves, Scott Joplin lived at a time when white Americans routinely denied African Americans basic civil rights, economic opportunities, and social standing. In spite of these...
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Overview

In the early twentieth century, as Americans enjoyed ragtime, they danced to a black man's tune. In this interpretive biography, Susan Curtis recounts the life of Scott Joplin, the great African American ragtime composer whose musical genius helped break down racial barriers and led America to a new cultural frontier. Born in 1868 to former slaves, Scott Joplin lived at a time when white Americans routinely denied African Americans basic civil rights, economic opportunities, and social standing. In spite of these tremendous obstacles, Joplin and other musicians created a musical form that was eagerly embraced by white, middle-class Americans. By the early 1900s, many writers agreed that "Negro" music - especially spirituals and ragtime - was the only true American music. As one of the creators of ragtime, Joplin moved between black and white society, and his experience offers a window into the complex forces of class, race, and culture that shaped modern America. Framed by two decisive events in American history, the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1868 and America's entrance into the Great War in Europe in 1917, Scott Joplin's extraordinary life illuminates a crucial period in the evolution of American culture. During those years Joplin lived in a variety of communities, and his experience permits a glimpse into the ways black and white Americans responded to this changing culture in Reconstruction Texas, small-town Missouri, and two important urban cultural centers - St. Louis and New York. Echoing the ragtime music she celebrates, Curtis counterpoints the story of American cultural history with the fascinating events of Joplin's life. Dancing to Black Man's Tune is an engaging, beautifully written portrait of a great American musician and of American culture coming of age.

Though he was born into a time when African Americans were denied basic civil rights and economic opportunities, Scott Joplin's musical form was eagerly embraced by the white middle class. Curtis counterpoints the story of American cultural history with fascinating events from Joplin's life to provide an engaging portrait of the man and the musician. 20 illustrations.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Aiming at a scholarly audience, Curtis, who teaches American history at Purdue, offers a thoughtful and intriguing study of the life and world of ragtime creator Scott Joplin (1868-1917). Lapsing only occasionally into academic jargon, the author ably places Joplin in the context of an emerging biracial society and culture as a man who was denied rights because of his color yet applauded as a musician. The syncopated rhythms of ragtime spoke to an 1890s society loosening its Victorian morals, suggests Curtis, who shows how the black musician's career was boosted nationally by white promoter John Stark, who published the famed Maple Leaf Rag in 1899. Though Joplin's work, including his opera Treemonisha , influenced the emerging culture of the 20th century, divisions within the black cultural community of New York City, Curtis explains, relegated the composer to the fringes during his last years. But Joplin's music remains, she notes, as a prototype of the ``hybrid cultural forms'' that can help knit together a multiracial society. Illustrations not seen by PW . (June)
Library Journal
Joplin's music first came to the attention of most people through the 1973 film The Sting, but aside from the recollections of aging family and friends, little accurate biographical information was available on the composer prior to Curtis's account. Born to freedpeople in Texas in 1868, Joplin was a product of both slave traditions and the promise of Reconstruction. In 1893 he journeyed to Chicago and soaked up the influences that led to the flowering of ragtime music. By 1899, Joplin had composed Maple Leaf Rag, which set the standard for future ragtime compositions. The next decade found him in Missouri, where he continued to compose and teach music. Joplin's final years were spent on the ambitious, autobiographical opera Treemonisha. This scholarly work, concerned with race, society, and culture, is recommended for serious music collections.-Dan Bogey, Clearfield Cty. P.L. Federation, Curwensville, Pa.
Booknews
In this interpretive biography, Curtis American history, Purdue U. recounts the life of the African American composer who helped break down racial barriers by creating a uniquely black musical form embraced by middle-class whites. Joplin's life, framed by two decisive events in American history--the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 and the entrance into the Great War in 1917-- illuminates a crucial period in the evolution of American culture. Includes b&w photos and reproductions. CIP shows the subtitle as A Biography of Scott Joplin. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR booknews.com
From the Publisher

"Dancing to a Black Man's Tune renders Scott Joplin as a man and an artist whose musical genius served as his weapon in the struggle toward a whole America. Susan Curtis's book is more than biography, more than cultural history. It is a skillfully interwoven telling of Joplin's story within the mosaic of America's social and cultural evolution at the turn of the century."
--John Hope Franklin

"If one is to know American culture and the place and trials and tribulations' of African American music in setting the foundation and flavor of American music, Dancing to a Black Man's Tune is, to date, the primary source. . . . This is a book that students of American serious and popular culture should quickly read and place in their libraries."--Journal of American History

"Curtis sets Joplin in his context and evaluates the scope and importance of his contribution to American culture. . . . Especially good in avoiding clichés while discussing the tensions between white commercial demands on Joplin and his desire to compose his more serious music, this is a highly useful book well done."--Booklist

"Curtis has written a fine book with a broad scope, one that needed to be written. . . . Curtis has set impressive standards of historical inquiry in this book, creating a lucid argument about the meaning of Scott Joplin and ragtime."--Gateway Heritage

"What makes this biography truly outstanding is the author's skillful and always sharply analytical exploration of the varied worlds in which Joplin traveled. . . . Curtis has composed an appealing tune of her own--a fine book that deserves a hearty ovation."--Historian

"For those who have fallen in love with Joplin's joyfully syncopated rags . . . or those who simply want to better understand the roots of the black contribution to American music, it is a rewarding read."--Christian Science Monitor

"Dancing to a Black Man's Tune is a much-needed addition. Aside from the general value of placing Joplin's life within the complex and dynamic cultural changes of his time, Curtis introduces or reinforces extremely important, but typically overlooked, facts. . . . This is a significant contribution to the study of Joplin and his music and to the study of American culture."
--Journal of Southern History

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780826215475
  • Publisher: University of Missouri Press
  • Publication date: 7/9/2004
  • Series: Missouri biography Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

 

Susan Curtis is Professor of History and American Studies and Director of Interdisciplinary Studies at Purdue University. She is the author of several books, including A Consuming Faith: The Social Gospel and Modern American Culture and The First Black Actors on the Great White Way, both available from the University of Missouri Press.

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Table of Contents

1 Reconstructing a childhood; reconstructing the nation 19
2 1893 : the Columbian exposition, economic depression, and the embrace of ragtime 45
3 Joplin and Sedalia : the king of ragtime in the queen city of Missouri 68
4 The incorporation of ragtime 98
5 Lost in urban America 129
6 The legacy of Scott Joplin 161
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