Dancing to a Black Man9s Tune: A Life of Scott Joplin. By Susan Curtis
(Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1994). xx + 265 pp. Illustrations.
Notes. Bibliography. Index. $26.95.
King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era. By Edward A. Berlin (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1994). xiii + 334 pp. Illustrations. Maps.
Appendixes. Notes. Selected Bibliography. Index. $25.00.
The life and contributions of Scott Joplin, an African-American musician
of major prominence, remain a subject of importance and study. Two noted
scholars, Edward A. Berlin and Susan Curtis, have taken different approaches in researching the literature and seeking new information about a musician
whose place and prominence in American history continue to take shape.
In the introduction of her book, Curtis indicates that three approaches
have been useful in helping to explore the difficult problem of understanding
music and its meaning in the past. She identifies these as musicological, cultural, and sociological. Interestingly enough, Berlin approaches his research
and presentation primarily from a musicological and cultural perspective
while Curtis's approach is more sociological and cultural in context. By contrast, the two authors accentuate the significance of Joplin and his musical
contributions by focusing on different perspectives of the same subject.
Berlin uses musical compositions as his referent, analyzing their content and
associating their publication and performance with events occurring in
Joplin's life. Curtis, on the other hand, takes periods of time and places the
music of Joplin within the context of other historic events that shaped
Both authors underscore the genius of Scott Joplin and emphasize the
significance of his musical contributions to American society then and now.
Both books make for interesting and informative reading.
In Dancing to a Black Man's Tune, Curtis recounts Joplin's life and
examines the social milieu of which he and his music are a product. Using
two historical events—the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment to the
Constitution (1868) and America's entrance into World War I (1917)—as the
time frame coinciding with the life span of Joplin, Curtis focuses on sociological and cultural issues as a means of giving perspective to the music that
this composer-teacher-performer created.
The book is organized into six chapters, each covering time spans when
Joplin's life took on new dimensions of meaning and changes of significant
import occurred in the American society. These reference points set the
backdrop in which Joplin's music and musical activities are discussed. In
addition to her narrative, Curtis provides an expansive amount of footnoted
materials and bibliographical references.