Saturday, June 5, 2010

Scott Joplin House

When I first started poking around for fun things to do in St. Louis, I came across a really great site called This site originally inspired me to get the most out of this amazing city. It is full of really useful information about upcoming events, interesting attractions, and it has a list of the top 25 things to do in St. Louis. Of course visiting the Arch was number one, but the list was surprisingly diverse and interesting. Now if you know anything about me, its that I have a thing for lists. Make me a list and I will accomplish so much more than without one, and this list acted as a great jumping off point for my own list. We have something like 46 or 47 things to do in St. Louis this summer. One by one, we are checking them off.

This Wednesday we checked off number 23: Play Scott Joplin's ragtime tunes at the composer's historic home. That's right, Scott Joplin himself once lived in the heart of downtown St. Louis where it is believed that he wrote some of his most famous works including the Maple Leaf Rag and the Entertainer. Needless to say, this was something we could not miss.

The Scott Joplin House is the only historic house that made the list of top 25 things although St. Louis has several homes on the National Register of Historic Places. It is the second historic home that we have visited where very little details are known about the person's life outside of the body of work they left behind, the first being the Edwin Carter House in Breckenridge, CO. What I find most interesting about these places is the insight they give you into how history actually works. When you hear someone's life story, while visiting some historic place, you take it for granted, but when there is no life story, you wonder why, and then you get a glimpse of the info historians use to piece together the past. The problem with Scott Joplin is that certain courthouses burnt down and marriage records and other such documentation was lost. Furthermore, the only reason people even knew he lived in that house was based on one existing document in a phone book, listing him as Musician, and placing him on Delmar Blvd. I found it so interesting that this whole museum existed only because of one little line in an old phone book. If it hadn't been for that, there would be no Scott Joplin house.

Another thing I thought was so interesting was that Scott Joplin married three times and there isn't a single known picture of any of his three wives. Isn't that crazy? In our day of digital photography, online albums, and facebook tagging, the idea that not a single picture exists of any of his three wives is so foreign. Only six photos of Scott Joplin himself have survived. Since no one knew the legacy that the king of rag time would leave behind, none of his original belongings are around, and the house has been restored to "period". At first, I thought that was disappointing, but you know what, an old stove is an old stove whether or not Scott Joplin ever warmed his feet by it. Touring his house, I really got a feel for what life was like back then, the iron especially was crazy, we have it so easy nowadays. And the washing machine...oh boy.

One interesting insight our tour guide gave us was about the way taxes worked back then. You would be taxed for how many rooms your residence had as well as how many doors you had. Many doors were designed to be more of windows that opened really wide, rather than actual doors, in an early form of tax evasion. Some things never change.

As we ate breakfast that morning, we played a bunch of youTube videos of people playing his ragtime tunes. Unfortunately, I didn't have any memorized and didn't know how I would actually accomplish number 23 on the list which clearly doesn't state "visit the Scott Joplin home" but rather, "play Scott Joplin's ragtime tunes". Problem solved when we came into the ground floor's main room where they have a wonderfully cooperative player piano and an enormous collection of various ragtime pieces to stick in the middle and play. By pumping the pedals on the floor, the piano literally played itself. The piano was open so that the gears and inner workings were visible to all. It was a lot of fun to play.

Here's a video of me giving it a spin, if you look very carefully, you can actually see that my fingers never touch the keys...

I tried to do some tricky camera work, a la Miley Cyrus in The Last Song, (not that I ever saw it...ok, second day in theaters), so that you might actually buy into the illusion.

Success! It was a nice way to start the morning.

Here was what I took away from this experience.

1. Greatness is almost never appreciated at the time.
2. You have no idea what your legacy will be once you are gone.
3. Never believe what you have done is a failure, time casts a different shade of light on the past.

Scott Joplin died of syphilis in near poverty as he spent all his money trying to get his rag time opera Treemonisha off the ground. Kind of depressing. Gutzon Borglum and Eero Saarinen never lived to see the completion of their biggest projects. It seems like a recurring theme in the sights that we have gone to see that one lifetime isn't long enough to accomplish one's full potential. But the monuments that stand to this day seem to say that this fact shouldn't discourage us from trying.
If we were rich, we might have left with this Scott Joplin doll. As it is, we only bought a magnet.


  1. I like you bow Korteny! :)

  2. Very interesting stuff about Scott Joplin.

  3. That's some rockin' tie dye!