African American Song Writers
In the 19th century, African-American tunesmiths struggled to have their compositions published.
The institution of slavery had only ended during the Civil War, and it would take years before business opportunities—musical and otherwise— would become within the reach of freemen of color.
The first prominent black American songwriter was James “Jimmy” Bland who penned such long-lived hits as “Oh! Dem Golden Slippers” and “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane” in 1879 and 1880, respectively, and now considered standards. Bland’s best-known song is “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” his 1878 that became the theme song for the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Bland wrote more than 600 songs, but just 50 or so were ever published.
Piano Rolls and Sheet Music
Remember, this was decades before recording and radio, and even piano rolls wouldn’t become popular until 1909. So, after Congress approved the process of copyrighting music in 1831, the only way a 19th century songwriter could score a hit was by selling sheet music, and earning a few pennies for each copy sold. That meant securing the services of publishers who could have the charts printed and marketed. Sheet music routinely sold for between 25 and 60 cents, roughly $6 to $10 in 21st century money.
In those days, if a family wanted to hear a popular new song, they would buy the sheet music allowing those able to read music and play an instrument to recreate the most popular compositions of the day in their own homes. As a result, such sheet music hits were dubbed “parlor songs.”
Twentieth century musicologist/ composer Alec Wilder identified James Bland as the black composer who “broke down the barriers to white music publishers’ offices.”
Born in 1854 in Flushing, New York, Bland found music publishers in Boston such as White, Smith, & Company and John F. Perry & Co., who would publish his songs.
Bland continued his musical career in England from 1881 to 1901 often billed as “The Prince of Negro Songwriters.” Meanwhile, other black composers in the United States slowly began to follow his footsteps to get their tunes published and sold to middle-class customers.
After the turn of the 20th century, Scott Joplin rose to international fame as the King of Ragtime, before dying on April 1, 1917, in New York City. He was 49 years old.
The first published rag was written by a white man, San Francisco-born songwriter Theodore Havermeyer Northrup. His “Louisiana Rag” a.k.a. “The Pas Ma La Rag” was published in early 1897 by Thompson Music Co. of Chicago.
St. Louis tavernkeeper Tom Turpin is credited with the first published rag by an African-American. Though originally composed in 1892, a year before ragtime’s introduction to the world at World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Turpin’s lively “Harlem Rag” was published later in 1897 by Jos. W. Stern & Co., of New York City.
Texas Medley Quartette
In the early-1890s, however, the young Scott Joplin worked in a touring ensemble named the Texas Medley Quartette. His biggest hit, “Maple Leaf Rag,” would not be published until a half-decade later, in 1899.
Born in 1868 in the northeast corner of the Lone Star State, Joplin was 25 years old on Sept. 13, 1894 when the Quartette performed at Bethany Baptist Church, at East Washington Street east of Orange Street, in Syracuse, New York.
Still developing the syncopated piano style that would later bring him fame and fortune, young Joplin made his living with the Texas Medley Quartette, which specialized in “Southern plantation and jubilee songs.”
Early versions of the group dating back to 1884 included Joplin’s brothers, Will and Robert, according to biographer Janet Hubbard-Brown, author of Scott Joplin: Composer. For its first 10 years, the “Quartette” often ballooned to eight members, as when they summered at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, in 1893. There Joplin led the group, taught them the songs and accompanied them on piano and cornet.
The touring group—which featured first tenor Pleasant Jackson, baritone Richard Denson, basso Grant Miner, and Joplin on second tenor—toured the Great Lakes’ region and the northeast from 1892 to 1895 and traveled as far south as Texas from 1895 to ’97.
Joplin biographer Edward Berlin describes the foursome as savvy publicists. “The Quartette routinely began its visit to each city with a visit to newspaper offices where they gave a brief display of their singing talents,” Berlin wrote in his book, King of Ragtime. They performed for churches for a fee, he reported, and for tips in hotel lobbies or busking in parks or on the street.
Professionally managed by agent Oscar Dame in St. Louis and the Majestic Booking Agency, the Quartette targeted markets such as Cedar Rapids, Omaha, Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland, and Boston. A Cleveland newspaper review published in August 1894 praised the Quartette’s “delightful harmony.”
The vocal group specialized in folk tunes, cakewalks, minstrel songs such as Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” and current novelties like “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow” by prolific British music hall songwriter Joseph Tabrar. In other words, they’d perform popular material of the day.
But they also sang a few original songs composed by Scott Joplin including two sentimental waltzes, “Please Say You Will” and “A Picture of Her Face.”
First Published Work
The Texas Medley Quartette’s versions of those pieces so impressed several Syracuse businessmen that they arranged for Joplin’s first publications in 1895.
“Please Say You Will” with piano accompaniment was published by M.L. Mantell, in Syracuse, on Feb. 20, 1895 (a second copy was recorded Dec. 28, 1898), and “A Picture of Her Face” was published by the Leiter Bros., in Syracuse, on July 3, 1895.
M.L. Mantell was a jeweler who also sold music instruments including pianos at 129 North Salina St. in the Salt City. The Leiter Brothers—Louis and Herman—operated a multi-level music store on the 300 block of South Salina Street.
A partial sheet of “Please” appears on the back of another tune published by Mantell in 1895, “Pleasant Beach Two-Step” by Phillip Lederman, written in honor of the Pleasant Beach Resort on the western shore of Onondaga Lake.
The title page of “Please Say You Will” credits words and music to Scott Joplin of the Texas Medley Quartette. It’s archived at the Special Collections Research Center at Syracuse University’s Bird Library.
Whether Mantell or the Leiters attended the Quartette’s Bethany Baptist performance in 1894 remains unknown, but they somehow became aware of Joplin’s songs and thought highly enough of them to get them copyrighted and printed.
Biographer Edward Berlin calls “Please Say You Will” an “inconsequential first effort by a young composer…a fully mature sample of the sentimental parlor song of the 1890s. Though not sufficiently distinctive to attract special attention, it is thoroughly professional. the melody has grace and balance, the harmonies are more imaginative and chromatic than most songs of the type. In going to the minor mode in the middle of the verse in which the lover admits being false, Joplin has music express the text.”
Listening to it today, you can hear that “Please Say You Will” is a stately waltz with a bittersweet bridge, clocking in at slightly more than two minutes. “A Picture of Her Face” is a slightly jauntier tune in three-quarter time with a wistful, tinkling piano bridge. When vocalized, it’s full of yearning. The Quartette had been singing “A Picture” for at least two years, as confirmed by a printed review of the group’s December 24, 1893 performance in Milwaukee.
Hubbard-Brown calls the two songs “tearjerkers.”
Piano-wise, Joplin’s strong left hand rhythms are evident on these early compositions though they lack the distinctive syncopation which would characterize his later ragtime hits.
Were they also Rags?
Biographer Susan Curtis suggests that in performance Joplin may have actually been ragging these tunes but simply lacked the skill to properly write down the unconventional rhythms.
“The absence of syncopation in those [printed] compositions may have been a consequence of Joplin’s not having learned how to notate that rhythm for it was not until his return to Sedalia, Missouri [in 1896 or ’97] that he enrolled in music courses at George R. Smith College for Negroes,” Curtis wrote.
In 1896 Joplin had three “pieces” published in Temple, Texas, including the railroad smashup-inspired “The Great Crush Collison March.”
Joplin’s monster hit, “Maple Leaf Rag,” was published by John Stark in Sedalia, Missouri, in 1899. Over the next 18 years, Joplin composed dozens of rags, a ballet and two operas. He also penned a music manual, The School of Ragtime, in 1908.
In 1907, Joplin moved from Missouri to New York City, where he died on April 1, 1917.