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MMD > Archives > April 1998 > 1998.04.01 > 09Prev  Next

Irving Berlin, Scott Joplin & 'Treemonisha'
By Ed Berlin

Robert Perry asks in Digest 980330:

> I once heard that Scott Joplin believed that Irving Berlin had stolen
> part of 'Treemonisha' for this piece ['Alexander's Ragtime Band'].
> Does anyone know anything more about this?

Rudi Blesh & Harriet Janis, in writing They All Played Ragtime, had
interviewed several people who had told this story.  However, finding
it implausible, they made only an indirect reference, saying that
Joplin was becoming paranoid and accused Tin Pan Alley super-stars
of stealing from him.

What they knew was that Joplin's widow, Lottie, spoke of Joplin taking
the score of Treemonisha around to publishers, and one stole a theme
and turned it into a big hit.  Joplin then altered the theme before
publishing it.  He copyrighted it in May 19, 1911, two months after
the copyright of 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' (March 18, 1911).

Another story, told by members of the family of John Stark (Joplin's
early publisher), was that on hearing 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' Joplin
yelled out "That's my tune!"  This story was also related to me by
Trebor Tichenor, who had learned it from Stark's grandson (the one who
owned the Maple Leaf Rag contract, subsequently sold to James Fuld).

Trebor and I agreed at the time that the story didn't seem right:
Berlin's music did not sound at all like Joplin's; also there is no
indication that they knew each other; it is not likely that Berlin
could have heard the opera prior to its publication.

I came upon a few more similar stories, such as: Joplin gave the music
to Berlin, who held onto it for a few weeks, and then gave it back
saying that he could not use it.  None of the stories spurred me to
actively research the issue.

Then I read Ian Whitcomb's biography of Irving Berlin.  In it Whitcomb
suggests that Berlin and Joplin may have passed each other on the
staircase of the building occupied by Ted Snyder Music (for whom Berlin
worked, at the time).  I know that Whitcomb puts fictional embellish-
ments around much of his "nonfiction," and so I asked him about that
point.  He admitted it was purely speculative, but based on the fact
that Ted Snyder Music and Seminary Music (Joplin's main publisher in
New York) were in the same building.

I hadn't noticed that.  Curious about the firms, I checked out the
business records in the city archives.  I found that Ted Snyder Music
was owned and operated primarily by Henry Waterson and Ted Snyder.
(There was another partner for a while, but he was then bought out.)
Crown Music, also in the building, was a distributor who, as revealed
by Stark's business ledgers, was a major purchaser of Joplin rags.
Crown was also owned by Henry Waterson, and a *Herman* Snyder.  And
Seminary Music was owned by Mary Waterson and Mary Snyder!

The three companies were really one.  Joplin dealt with Seminary, which
had the same management as Ted Snyder and Crown.  That gave the stories
plausibility.  Joplin, trying to find a publisher for his opera, would
have gone to Seminary.  And Irving Berlin was working there.  They
probably did know each other, and Berlin had the opportunity to hear
the music before it was published.

Reviewing the various stories, I found a statement by Joplin's friend
Sam Patterson that Berlin had stolen from Joplin's "Mayflower Rag"
(which is not a known Joplin title) and his "Real Slow Drag".  The
latter is the final number in Treemonisha, and I realized that there
was a similarity between the "Marching Onward" section and the verse
of "Alexander."

Just a similarity; not exact.  But then, Lottie had said that Joplin
had changed the music before publishing it, so we don't know what
Joplin's original theme was.  Even after the initial publication of
the opera, Joplin changed the theme again.  He re-issued "A Real Slow
Drag" and altered "Marching Onward" so that it is even more distant
from "Alexander."

Additional contemporaneous evidence relating to this incident is in two
magazines of the time.  In the American Musician and Art Journal of
November 1911, a columnist mentions that Joplin was looking for Berlin,
and that he was angry about something.  And in Green Book Magazine of
April 1916, Berlin was interviewed and he denies that a black man had
composed "Alexander."

Those are the facts.  We can reasonably draw from them that Joplin
believed Berlin was guilty of plagiarism.  But the case against Berlin
is not quite so clear-cut.  He probably had heard the Joplin melody,
but this does not mean that he consciously copied it.  We all know how
easy it is to pick out a melody, unaware that it is not original.

(As a student in a music theory class, I had once written a small
composition that I was very proud of.  But on playing it in class,
I was met with laughter.  I had inadvertently used a theme from
Beethoven's First Symphony.  The instructor then compared my develop-
ment of the theme with Beethoven's, thereby demonstrating that only
one of us was a genius.)

Finally, the success of "Alexander" was based more on the chorus than
on the verse, and probably more on the lyric and rhythm than the
melody.  Berlin may have inadvertently copied Joplin's theme, but I
don't think he stole a hit from Joplin.

Ed Berlin

 [ A well-substantiated article, Ed.  Many thanks.  -- Robbie

(Message sent Wed 1 Apr 1998, 18:17:01 GMT, from time zone GMT-0500.)

Key Words in Subject:  Berlin, Irving, Joplin, Scott, Treemonisha

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