Doug has more fascinating information for our readers in part three of his series, “Celebrating Black Inventors and Innovators.”
Henry Blair was a farmer and inventor who became only the second black man to receive a U.S. patent for the mechanical corn planter in 1834. Though there is limited information about his early life, it is known that he was never enslaved (which determined his eligibility to apply for a patent since slaves could not apply for a patent with the U.S. government). He also ran his own commercial farming business despite the fact that he could not read or write. He received his patent on October 4, 1834 in Glen Ross, Maryland. His design for the corn planter favored a wheelbarrow with a compartment that dispersed seed. Rakes attached to the back were dragged over the seed covering them with soil. Blair’s invention produced a more efficient way to plant crops and made labor easier for farmers.
William H. Richardson made improvements to the baby buggy, for which received a patent on June 18, 1889, producing the first reversible baby carriage. Opposite of the original baby carriage design by Englishman William Kent in 1773, William’s design allowed for the bassinet to be turned facing the person operating the carriage. Changes were made so that the wheels would be able to turn individually, allowing the carriage to turn at a smaller radius of 360 degrees. He also designed the carriages to have the shape of a basket instead of a shell, like it was originally. Thanks to Richardson, strollers became more affordable and middle-class families were able to acquire them in the 1900s. He definitely made things a bit easier for parents and babysitters!
John Albert Burr worked as a field hand in Maryland during his late teenage years after he was freed from slavery by the Emancipation Proclamation. His talent was recognized by wealthy black activists who made it possible for him to take engineering classes at a private university. He then went on to use his mechanical skills to service farm equipment and ended up moving to Chicago to become a steelworker. Later, in 1898, he filed his patent for the rotary lawn mower while living in Agawam, Massachusetts. His design helped limit clogs of grass and made it easier to cut closer to walls and fences. He also designed instruments for mulching, sifting, and dispersing grass clippings. His patent was finalized on May 9, 1899.
I remember hearing ragtime for the first time at age five during my first trip to Disneyland, along Main Street where they pipe in early 20th century music and I have been a fan ever since, particularly of Scott Joplin, the “king of ragtime,” one of the greatest American composers in history.
Early Life of Scott Joplin
Scott Joplin was born in either 1867 or 1868 in Texas to Giles, a former slave, and Florence Joplin, who was born a free woman. By the time he was five, Scott Joplin’s family had moved to the Texas side of Texarkana. Both of his parents played music, so it was little wonder the young Joplin showed musical brilliance. He would practice piano at the homes where his mother, who cleaned houses for a living, worked. Joplin’s father knew being a musician would mean a rough life for his son, especially being Black, so he was completely against his musical education while his mother encouraged it. This led to the end of the Joplin’s marriage.
There are a lot of holes in Scott Joplin’s life story. However, we know he eventually taught music in Texarkana until the late 1880s when he began traveling as a musician playing in bars and brothels. These were some of the few places where Black musicians could find steady work. He traveled to Chicago in 1893 for the World’s Fair and eventually moved to Sedalia, Missouri in 1894 where he studied at George R. Smith College. Here, he learned to write music and became a piano teacher.
Ragtime: The Rock-n-Roll of Its Time
Ragtime was not invented by Scott Joplin but he did popularize it with his clever and upbeat compositions. Ragtime was born out of African folk music which had syncopated rhythms, that is, music that has unpredictable beats. This was revolutionary at the time. The name “ragtime” is due to the music having “ragged time.” Ragtime as a genre had been around for some time but it didn’t become nationally popular until the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 when it became “main stream.” Young people, especially, loved the music and doing the Cake Walk to ragtime. More traditional audiences believed Ragtime was corrupting the minds and morals of American youth.
Joplin’s Rise to Fame
According to one account, while playing at The Maple Leaf Club a man named John Stark, who was a publisher and owned a music store, approached Joplin to ask if he was interested in selling sheet music of his original compositions. Joplin agreed but only if he received royalties from sales, not a flat-out fee as was the custom at the time. The men agreed at a 1% royalty per sheet music sold, a very smart move by Joplin who insured himself a somewhat steady source of income. His first published piece with Stark, “The Maple Leaf Rag,” sold over one-million copies in 1899 making it one of the first – if not, the first – hit song in American music history.
The First All African-American Opera
Scott Joplin was more than a ragtime musician and composer, and he wanted to prove his talents beyond the genre that made him famous. He apparently wrote a piano concerto, a symphony, an opera called “A Guest of Honor,” and a musical. Sadly, the manuscripts to these works didn’t survive so we will never know the joys of hearing this music. However, his dream project completed in 1911, an opera he called Treemonisha was published, but not with a lot of financial and emotional pain.
Treemonisha was seen as controversial at the time for its social message: it was the story of a Black woman who leads her community out of ignorance through knowledge and education. Joplin could not find anyone interested in publishing the work, so he paid for it himself, a very costly endeavor. Further, getting the opera funded proved impossible as it was an expensive undertaking, and there was very little interest in sinking money into an all-Black opera. The most Joplin could manage was a read-through performance in 1915 in Harlem, with Joplin playing the score on the piano: no costumes or sets. The performance did not impress possible financial backers who attended.
Heartbroken, financially ruined, and suffering from syphilis induced dementia, Joplin died on April 1, 1917 at the age of 48. The king of ragtime, one of the greatest American composers to ever live, was buried in an unmarked grave.
The 1970s saw a ragtime and Joplin revival. Composer and musician Joshua Rifkin recorded and released Scott Joplin Piano Rags in 1970. In 1973 the soundtrack for the movie The Sting featured multiple Joplin compositions. Although the film took place in the late 1930s, not at the height of the genre’s popularity, ragtime was used due to the lightheartedness and humor expressed in the songs. Joplin’s “The Entertainer” hit #3 on the Billboard pop charts in 1974, seventy-two years after it was first written.
In 1972, sixty-one years after Joplin’s death, Morehouse College and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra joined forces for the first full staging of Treemonisha. This truly American opera is a magnificent musical blending of spirituals, folk, and ragtime. For his contributions to American music, Joplin posthumously received the Pulitzer Prize in 1976. His unmarked grave was finally given a marker in 1974.
If you haven’t taken the time to truly listen to Scott Joplin’s music, play it and let your ears capture all the wonderful dancing notes as they take you through a captivating musical journey. Scott Joplin was an American genius, one who should be celebrated, studied, and listened to year-round.
(Below you can see a clip of the Houston Grand Opera’s staging of Treemonisha. This is the final number, “A Slow Rag.” One can hear the clear sounds of Americana in this piece. A full performance is available on YouTube. Keep scrolling for a bonus video.)
Villa Finale’s collection contains several mechanized musical instruments, a couple of them contain rolls featuring ragtime. This is Villa Finale’s reproducing piano playing “Egyptian Rag” by Percy Wenrich, 1910.)
Doug Daye is back with a great post during Black History Month: a profile of Nina Simone. Do enjoy!
When I was a teenager, I remember going to a Black History program that was put on at Abilene Christian University, in my hometown of Abilene, TX. The song “Feeling Good” started to play during a brief intermission and I instantly fell in love with the song. It was so poetic and the singer’s voice was so haunting. I looked at my program to see if the song and artist was listed and I found that it was Nina Simone. I did not know much about her at the time, but later I learned more about her life. She was a well-respected musician and singer who put out prolific blues ballads like “I Put A Spell On You” and songs for liberation during the civil rights era such as “Four Women” and “Young Gifted and Black.” With her sultry voice and her powerful storytelling, Nina Simone was a jazz icon whose legacy is still honored to this day.
Early Life and Education
Born in Tryon, North Carolina on February 21st, 1933, Eunice Kathleen Waymon was a gifted prodigy. She started playing piano by ear at the age of three! Her parents, recognizing her talent, provided opportunities for her to play piano in church where her mother preached. She went on to study classical music with an English woman by the name of Muriel Mazzanovich where she developed a love for classical artists such as Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, and others. After Waymon graduated as valedictorian from high school, her community raised the funds for her to attend Julliard in New York City before she applied to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. However, she was denied admission to the institute because of her skin color. This and other events growing up in the Jim Crow south inspired her to speak out against racial discrimination.
While teaching music to local students, Waymon auditioned at the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where she soon gained recognition. To hide the fact she was singing in bars from her mother, she changed her name to Nina Simone. She was later signed to King Records after being recognized after a performance in New Hope, Pennsylvania. During a recording session in 1956 she sang “My Baby Just Cares For Me” which had been covered by other jazz artists such as Nat King Cole. This song launched Nina’s career and it was later used in a commercial for Chanel perfume in the 1980s. She went on to move to New York City where she was signed to Copix Records and gave various live performances. She was a featured artist at the famous Newport Jazz Festival and had other great successes.
Nina Simone also used her songs to speak out against racial injustice. Her song “Mississippi Goddam” was banned in the South but she did not let it deter her. Violent events during the Civil Rights Movement inspired her to use her music to condemn racism. By putting out songs like “Strange Fruit” and “Four Women,” Nina took risks by using her voice as a platform for liberation at a time when many artists were reluctant to do so.
With a long rewarding career behind her, Nina Simone passed away in April 2003. Many artists paid tribute to her including Patti Labelle and Ossie Davis, who attended her memorial service, and Elton John who sent flowers.
Nina Simone’s Childhood Home Tour
With funding efforts from the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, the World Monuments Fund, and Preservation North Carolina, Nina Simone’s childhood home has been saved from demolition. This was done as the beginning of an ongoing effort to preserve Nina Simone’s early life and legacy for future generations. The National Trust website features a virtual tour of her home where viewers can get a glimpse of her humble beginnings.
View the virtual tour and learn more about funding efforts here:
Doug is back to give us his impression of another great museum in the United States: The American Jazz Museum in Kansas City. Enjoy taking this short trip with us!
The weather remains on the slightly cooler side, so what better way to enjoy going out for a stroll to take in the colorful, falling leaves, while listening to Billie Holiday sing jazz classic “Autumn In New York.” Of course, in San Antonio, the trees stay green year-round so it may be hard to take pleasure in the season but, hey, it’s fun to dream! Learn more about jazz artists like Billie Holiday at the American Jazz Museum!
In 1997, the American Jazz Museum officially opened in Kansas City, MO, in the historic district of 18th and Vine, which had been revitalized due to efforts by the community and city investments. The museum’s opening served as a momentous occasion in Kansas City’s history by helping to build on the heritage of the 18th and Vine District, which historically was a thriving community built by African Americans in the midst of segregation. Its grand opening ceremony featured many notable artists including Al Jarreau, Dianne Reeves, Tony Bennett, Harry Belafonte and more! It is the only museum that is dedicated to preserving the legacy and achievements of jazz music and works to educate the public on its significance.
The museum offers many captivating exhibits and online activities as well! There is so much to see and do!!
Main Jazz Exhibit – Explore displays featuring many jazz artists such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker, while looking at the vibrant neon signs that make it seem like you’re strolling around the city at night!
Jazz In Film: John H. Baker Jazz Film Collection – Learn about jazz music’s influence in the film and TV industry by exploring early jazz artists that made significant achievements in the industry.
The Blue Room Jazz Club – Named after the historic 1930s street club, this serves as a venue for well-known and local artists while showcasing displays of the great jazz artists of the past and present!