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NYC Music Trail: Scott Joplin's Grave Site

by Jake Neher
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Scott Joplin's grave.
Jake Neher, WFUV.

The King of Ragtime's grave went unmarked until the 1970s.

Scott Joplin lived anything but a quiet life. The "King of Ragtime" - as he'd later be called - started making a name for himself while performing in brothels across the country.

He wrote pieces many critics call "revolutionary." They include famous ragtime tunes like "Maple Leaf Rag" and "The Entertainer." But with all the "sites of sound" along the New York City Music Trail, the one honoring Joplin is the only one that's almost always silent.

When Joplin died of syphilis in a New York City mental hospital in 1917, he was penniless and largely forgotten. In fact, his grave at St. Michael's Cemetery in East Elmhurst, Queens went unmarked for decades. Standing next to Joplin's grave marker (which was finally installed in the 1970s), St. Michael's spokesman Ed Horn explains it was a group burial for three people.

"These were people who were truly indigent," Horn says. "People had a hard time to just pay for what the costs were."

Biographer Edward Berlin says Joplin came to New York in 1907 to finance his second opera, "Treemonisha". Joplin never came close to the level of popularity he reached while writing ragtime tunes with his operas. Berlin says, although Joplin's time composing ragtime was extremely important and progressive, when the son of a former slave tried to break into "high art," there was little-to-no interest from the white elite. Even in New York City, Joplin could find no one to finance or publish Treemonisha.

"He published it on his own," Berlin says, "which would have cost him quite a bit of money. He probably used all of his money just on getting the opera published."

The plot of Treemonisha centers on a black female lead, who lives in Joplin's hometown of Texarkana, Texas. She struggles to promote education within her community while opportunists seek to exploit rampant ignorance amongst the town's lower-class residents.

The composer would die before ever seeing a full production of the opera. But the 1970s saw a major Joplin revival, capped by the release of the movie "The Sting," which used his music for much of the film's score.

It was during this revival that Treemonisha was finally staged in full, and later had a critically acclaimed run on Broadway. It even won Joplin a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.

Today, St. Michael's remembers Joplin annually with a free concert and barbecue. Ed Horn says about 500 people show up every year for the music, as well as the free hot dogs and hamburgers.

Note: This is Part Four in WFUV's series on the New York City Music Trail. There are dozens of spots all over the five boroughs that embody the city's rich musical heritage. In 1992, the NYC Grammy Awards Host Committee and the city decided to map them. The NYC Music Trail includes legendary "sites of sound" like Carnegie Hall, the Apollo Theater, Tin Pan Alley, CBGB, and Lincoln Center. But all this week, we're visiting some of the places on the trail that likely haven't crossed your radar yet.

Tomorrow, we end our series at the Bronx corner where 1950s and 60s pop icon Dion DiMucci polished some of his biggest early hits. You can hear each installment live on WFUV 90.7FM at 7:40AM and 3:30PM.

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Gallery

Scott Joplin's grave at St. Michael's Cemetery in Queens.
Scott Joplin's grave at St. Michael's Cemetery in Queens.
St. Michael's Cemetery spokesman Ed Horn at Joplin's grave.
Joplin's grave. The date of birth on the marker is incorrect. The exact date is not known.
Scott Joplin.
Treemonisha sheet music cover, 1911.

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