Scott Joplin died in 1917, aged around 50, after a career as “the King of Ragtime” that soared for a good many years but sputtered near the end when his personal life and health collapsed. In the early seventies, however, Joplin had a triumphant posthumous comeback. First, in 1971, pianist and musicologist Joshua Rifkin released two very influential LPs of Joplin’s piano rags for Nonesuch Records. These flourished in the classical market, and other major recordings soon followed. Then in 1973, Joplin’s music and themes were used throughout the soundtrack of a very successful motion picture, The Sting.
I’m not sure which of those two I encountered first, but both certainly played a part in introducing me to ragtime, and I’ve been playing rags on and off ever since. One of my favorites is ((song-name=Gladiolus Rag)), a more reflective and evolved piece than the famous ((song-name=Maple Leaf Rag)) that launched Joplin’s career, and a little less infectious, but almost identical to it in structure. It’s also one of the more approachable rags for those who are new to the form.
I look now at the well-worn book of Joplin’s complete works that has been following me about for the past several decades, and it makes me think. That I really should be able to play these better by now. No panic, though: Josh Rifkin did them extremely well and I still have his records.
At about the turn of the millennium — the most recent one — I devoted a fair amount of optimistic effort to cultivating my finger-picking skills on the guitar. This led me to investigate the famed branch of guitar picking known as “Travis style”, which is named for Merle Travis, but apparently was not invented by him; many now suspect the Earl of Oxford. What struck me was that Travis-picking is just piano ragtime transplanted to the guitar, with a steady bass pattern played against a syncopated treble constructed much like the right hand of any classic rag by a composer like Joplin. I don’t suppose this observation would be helpful to anyone else, but for me it made the guitar style more approachable.
((song-link=just_the_moon)) is not a Scott Joplin rag in character, structure or even time signature, but I think the piano arrangement owes a considerable debt to many hours whiled away in the company of that music. As for playing it Travis style on the guitar, I think it would work, but I’m afraid I’ve rather lost touch with the instrument. If you try it, let me know how it goes.