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  • Scott Joplin and the Quest for Identity
  • Earl Stewart and Jane Duran

In his innovative work I Wanna Be Me: Rock Music and the Politics of Identity, Ted Gracyk does much to dismantle notions of cultural authenticity and theft as they are currently articulated by some critics. Explaining that such concepts are less monolithic than some have claimed, Gracyk writes:

While popular musicians often "pick up" the music of other cultures, such practices are culturally, politically, and morally complex. In discussing such issues, I hope to show that they are even more complex than is typically thought. Here, I borrow an insight from Michelle Moody-Adams, who argues that prevailing positions in social and cultural anthropology assume that cultures are internally integrated wholes and that each culture is fundamentally a set of self-contained and discrete practices and beliefs. The same assumptions infest discussions of appropriation in cultural studies, folk-lore studies, and ethnomusicology. But these assumptions are highly questionable.1

Gracyk's overall point is that what has frequently been simplified as "theft" or "inauthentic" is not susceptible to such easy formulation; indeed, Gracyk contends there is scarcely such a thing as a pure musical tradition.

Gracyk's sophisticated argument is one, however, that itself admits of gradations and emendations. While it is no doubt accurate that there is very little that might count as artistically or culturally pure (hence, very little that can justifiably be claimed to have been stolen), some work is much more evocative of a cultural point of view than other efforts, and some work is much more centrally located within a given culture and its traditions than other musical work. In this article we shall make the twofold argument that much of the work of Scott Joplin is located in a tradition that is manifestly African derived, and that the composition of such work had, as one of its motivators, the desire to make a cultural statement. Thus, more so than some of Gracyk's exemplars, Joplin's work is strongly culturally attached, and its attachment needs to be duly noted.


The origins of Joplin's work speak to the concerns of the nineteenth century and of the period immediately subsequent to emancipation. Most of [End Page 94] the black leadership of the time was united in its belief that a nationalist art would serve in the reconstruction of the image of African Americans. During the latter part of the nineteenth century many of these leaders saw the spiritual as the ideal folkloric basis for a serious black artistic expression. In music this notion was given strong support as a result of a concurrent interest on the part of European composers in African American music—an interest fed by the aesthetic of romanticism, which encouraged artistic investment in the strange, unusual, primitive, and exotic.

Most classically trained African American composers attempted to comply with the vision of these black leaders by constructing a more or less European-style music tinctured with African American folk elements. The result would be a set of works that to this day has failed to be adopted by the African American community at large.

Scott Joplin tried a different approach. He sought to create an African American musical expression that would be predicated upon an African American vernacular style—ragtime. Joplin essentialized his music in many ways. First, by choosing ragtime as a stylistic paradigm he assured the preservation of black rhythm. Second, to promote continuity and coherence he often employed rhythmic relationships between contrasting sections. Third, he frequently employed African American folk idioms like pentatonicism and call-and-response (antiphony) as interregnal devices in the structure of his melodies. Fourth, to assure an intrastructural linkage with the African American vernacular music of his day, he frequently used phrase structures that were consistent with those employed in folk music, particularly the black spiritual, for example, aaab. In his opera, Treemonisha, he based his libretto largely on black dialect, thus linking it with black literary tradition. These are but a few of the devices Joplin employed to assure a strong cultural essentialism to his music. As a result, Joplin has been acknowledged as one of the great icons of...


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