This year marks the centennial anniversary of ragtime innovator Scott Joplin’s death, on April 1, 1917. The big news of the day was America’s involvement in the Great War, not the passing of a once-popular composer. Joplin’s funeral was a quiet affair, with scant notice in the press. The maestro had requested that his most famous composition, “Maple Leaf Rag,” accompany the service, but his widow deemed such joyful music to be inappropriate. Lottie Joplin regretted that decision for the rest of her life.
His music—and ragtime in general—lay dormant through the 1920s and ’30s. But Joplin’s syncopated, intricate creations, such as “Sunflower Slow Drag,” “Elite Syncopations,” “The Entertainer,” “The Cascades,” and, of course, “Maple Leaf Rag,” continue to regale us.
A Gateway to Ragtime
Snippets of the old style ran through popular songs and jazz tunes, many of which placed “rag” in the title. Country-blues guitarists recorded simplified ragtime forms: Mississippi John Hurt based “My Creole Belle” on a section of “Creole Belles” by J. Bodewalt Lampe and George Sidney; Reverend Gary Davis cut an abbreviated version of “Maple Leaf” called “Make Believe Stunt.” Indeed, by the time of its resurgence in the late ’60s and ’70s, many acoustic pickers were playing real ragtime—David Laibman, Eric Schoenberg, Stefan Grossman, Duck Baker, Guy Van Duser, Ton Van Bergeyk, Lasse Johansson, and others. And Dave Van Ronk deserves special mention for recording “The St. Louis Tickle” in 1963. (Current fingerstyle great Mary Flower even has an instructional DVD devoted to ragtime guitar.)
As Joplin reigned during the music’s heyday, he reclaimed the throne upon its return. Though “Maple Leaf Rag” was at no point forgotten, it was again a popular gateway to the genre. “It’s a song that people like when they hear it,” fingerstylist Pat Donohue says. “I’m always looking for those.”
“Maple Leaf Rag” was published in 1899 by John Stark and Son of Sedalia, Missouri, where Joplin lived at the time. The composer was guaranteed one cent per copy. Stark boasted that “Maple Leaf Rag” sold more than a million copies, “and no abatement of demand,” though it’s not proven those numbers were met in Joplin’s lifetime. Nonetheless, the royalty from this composition alone provided Joplin with a comfortable base income.
While “Maple Leaf Rag” was not the first ragtime instrumental published, it was the most musically ambitious for the day.
“Maple Leaf Rag” was widely beloved. At a White House soiree during Theodore Roosevelt’s administration, the president’s 17-year-old daughter, Alice, asked the director of the U.S. Marine Band to play Joplin’s piece. When the director pleaded ignorance, Alice assured him that “the Boys” played it often for her, and the request was met. In fact, the U.S. Marine Band made one of the earliest recordings of the song.
While “Maple Leaf Rag” was not the first ragtime instrumental published—that would be William Krell’s “Mississippi Rag” in 1897—it was the most musically ambitious for the day. Most rags were divided into three strains, or sections, whereas “Maple Leaf Rag” has four. The melody takes surprising twists and turns and the bass part is equally felicitous.
Joplin’s musical sophistication would prompt him to move beyond ragtime, to ballets and operas, an ambition Stark tried to dissuade. In his final years, he was debilitated by tertiary syphilis and an exasperating struggle to stage his 1911 opera, Treemonisha. The closest he came was a barebones recital in 1915 at Harlem’s Lincoln Theatre, where he provided the orchestration on piano.
The 1970s Resurgence
Ironically, it was a classical music label that helped revived Joplin and ragtime. In 1970, Nonesuch Records released Joshua Rifkin’s Piano Rags by Scott Joplin, which became a tremendous success. Rifkin recorded two more albums of Joplin music, and other prominent musicians followed Rifkin’s tack. Director George Roy Hill chose “The Entertainer” as the theme to his 1973 Depression-era movie, The Sting. Though the choice of ragtime was a bit anachronistic, Marvin Hamlisch nevertheless won an Academy Award for best-adapted score and his rendition of the theme song climbed the radio charts.
Joplin was proven to be a fingerpicking source on The New Ragtime Guitar, recorded in 1971, featuring guitarists David Laibman and Eric Schoenberg. The backstory behind the album, producer Sam Charters explains in the liner notes, involved Laibman’s lonely struggle to master the idiom. “He couldn’t really do what he was trying to do—which was to play complete piano rags,” Charters writes. “But he was trying like hell.”
Dave Van Ronk suggested breaking the songs down into parts for two guitars. Laibman’s cousin Schoenberg was learning ragtime, so they joined forces. The opening piece was “Maple Leaf Rag.” Laibman had learned it from Keith Matthews, a stride piano player, while studying at Ruskin College, in Oxford, England.
“He played a version of ‘Maple Leaf,’ which is the basis for the one I did with Eric Schoenberg,” says Laibman, now an author, occasional ragtime recording artist, and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Brooklyn College. “That version is a little bit corrupted. It’s kind of a Dixieland transcription of it. Only later did I hear the real ‘Maple Leaf,’ from Joshua Rifkin, who has a real accurate, vigorous version. And I got much more into Joplin after listening to that.”
Adapting Joplin for Guitar
The arrangements on The New Ragtime Guitar influenced more than a few guitarists, including singer/songwriter and National Fingerpicking Champion Bob Evans, who shares his interpretation of “Maple Leaf Rag” here. It covers strains A and B, then reprises the first, following Joplin’s structure though leaving out the final two strains. Even though shortened, it’s still a rousing, effervescent rendition that can be viewed on YouTube.
The piece was written in the key of AH, but Evans plays it in the more guitar-friendly key of A, with a capo at the second fret causing it to sound in B, a step and a half higher than the original key. (If you’d like to play the piece in AH, tune your guitar down a half step, and don’t use a capo.) “It’s sort of a general challenge when you’re doing the piano rags to find a key that fits,” Evans says. “One that lets you get a lot of that alternate bass happening while still being able to get up and down the neck. So you tend to move out of the standard chord shapes.”
Among other challenges specific to “Maple Leaf Rag” is negotiating the four octaves of ascending A-minor arpeggios in the A section. Evans explains, “We just don’t have that [wide of a range] on the guitar. So you’ve got to find different ways of working around the problem. And everybody does it a little bit differently.”
As indicated in the notation, in bar 8, Evans’ solution is to top off the A-minor flight with a pair of harp harmonics on strings 1 and 2. This precludes scrambling up the fretboard to hit the highest notes. To cop those harmonics, begin by playing the fifth-fret notes conventionally, with a first-finger barre. At the same time, with that finger held in place, sound each harmonic by lightly touching your picking hand’s index finger 12 frets higher (at fret 17), directly above the fretwire, and pick the notes with that hand’s thumb. If you’re playing the harmonics properly, they’ll sound clearly, an octave above the fretted notes.
Compared to other versions posted on YouTube, Evans’ arrangement is light and airy; it exudes a breeziness brought about by open strings and an avoidance of too much barring. This is exemplified in the second strain’s shimmering float of high notes descending out of the V chord (E7). Some players start this passage with a three-note barre. Evans avoids the barre, staggering the high fretted notes against open strings, conjuring a celestial, harp-like effect.
Joplin wanted pianists to adhere to the score; guitarists, given the impossibility of conforming to this directive on their instruments, clearly enjoy some leeway. “When I was arranging it back then [in the mid-1970s] I was a little more literal, especially when I worked from the piano score,” Evans says about his early attempts to arrange ragtime. “Now I would take a more interpretive approach.”
“You learn right away that you can’t literally transcribe from piano to guitar,” adds Laibman, who plays the rag in drop-D tuning, in the key of D major. “It’s a bit like translating poetry. You have this tension between reproducing the letter and reproducing the spirit. And if you want to do it right you have to sometimes aim for the spirit.”
If you’re looking to learn more about playing ragtime guitar, here are a few instructional videos and books to get you raggin’.
Fingerstyle Ragtime Guitar, Mary Flower (maryflower.com)
The Guitar of Blind Blake, Woody Mann (guitarvideos.com)
Playing the Classic Rags of Scott Joplin, James Scott and Joseph Lamb, David Laibman (guitarvideos.com)
This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine. The music for “Maple Leaf Rag” is only available in the print edition.