Texas music is as diverse as its people. Nineteenth-century immigrants to Texas from the American South, from Mexico, and Europe, shaped a variety of sounds unmatched anywhere else in the United States. Southern blues and ragtime, Mexican orquesta, the waltzes and polkas of Central Europe, all took root, thrived, and were transformed into the rich musical legacy of the state. In this first segment of a new series on the legends of Texas music, the WWW Ranch, in cooperation with the Texas Music Museum, profiles eight Lone Star musicians, all influential in creating the unique sounds of Texas music.
THE EARLY YEARS: 1900-1930
The series begins at the turn of the century, when the first Texans emerged as songwriters on the national stage, recorded on player pianos, and stood as performers in front of primitive recording horns. Texarkana’s Scott Joplin helped create the ragtime style that ruled popular music in the early years of this century. In the twenties, a few Texans became best-selling, trend-setting recording artists. Vernon Dalhart and Eck Robertson were among the creators of country music, recording years before the more famous Carter family. Black blues singers Blind Lemon Jefferson and Sippie Wallace recorded some of the earliest “race” records and established an influential Texas blues tradition. In the twenties and thirties Narciso Martinez and Lydia Mendoza created a distinctively Tejano sound that lives on today. And finally, Bob Wills emerged as the king of Western swing. By the early thirties, nearly all of the dinstinctively Texas genres we know today, from Tejano conjunto to Western swing, were well established.
Scott Joplin (1868-1917)
Birthplace: Linden, TX
Influenced: Irving Berlin, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Eubie Blake, Taj Mahal
Other Sites: The Scott Joplin International Ragtime Foundation
“Maple Leaf Rag,” published in 1899, was the first million-selling piece of sheet music ever, certainly the first written by a Texan. The catchy tune’s creator, Scott Joplin, became “the king of ragtime” in the first years of the new century, turning out dozens of sophisticated rags and even a couple of operas and a ballet, all in the ragtime idiom.
Joplin was born in 1868 near Linden in northeast Texas, but grew up in Texarkana. The son of former slaves, Joplin learned to play the banjo by the age of seven. His mother worked as a maid in the household of a Texarkana attorney, and young Scott loved to improvise on the family’s piano. Around 1880 Joplin began taking free music lessons from a German immigrant who was a tutor to lumberman R.W. Rodgers’ children. By the end of that decade Joplin had left Texarkana and worked his way to St. Louis as an itinerant pianist, playing the newly popular “ragged time” music in saloons and brothels along the way. After entertaining the visitors to Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, Joplin moved to Sedalia, Missouri, home base for his Texas Medley Quartette, where he entered the local “College for Negroes” and studied piano and theory.
On a visit to Kansas City Joplin showed some of the pieces he had written to a publisher, who in 1899 brought out the “Maple Leaf Rag,” (named after the Maple Leaf Club, where Joplin entertained back in Sedalia). That sheet music, which sold an astonishing 1 million copies, launched Joplin’s national career. Many other great rags followed, including “The Entertainer,” “Elite Syncopations,” “The Easy Winners,” “The Chrysanthemum,” and “Magnetic Rag,” before the ragtime craze was replaced by other forms of Tin Pan Alley pop. Between 1899 and 1916 Joplin also recorded many of his tunes on rolls for the reproducing pianos that were a mainstay of wealthier middle class parlors.
But Joplin was ambitious for his large-scale ragtime-influenced classical compositions, a ballet and two operas. Unable to find financial backing, Joplin paid for a full production of his opera Treemonisha, which flopped. Friends said that Joplin’s death in 1917, officially due to advanced syphilis contracted in his wild youth, was brought on in part by the public’s rejection of what he considered his best work. The titles of his great rags are familiar now because Joplin’s music was rediscovered in the 1970s by such pianists as Joshua Rifkin and popularized on the soundtrack of The Sting, the classic film starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford as a pair of con men. In the mid-seventies Houston Grand Opera also revived Joplin’s masterpiece, Treemonisha, in a spectacular production that was recorded and widely distributed. Joplin received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for that opera in 1976, and is credited with the first grand opera created by an African American. by Chester Rosson (April 1997)
Eck Robertson (1887-1975)
Birthplace: Delaney, Arkansas
Influenced: all later country fiddlers, also Bob Wills and New Lost City Ramblers
Country fiddlers have always been plentiful in Texas, but the acknowledged early master was Amarillo’s Eck Robertson, who had the self-confidence to persuade a hard-nosed New York Victor Records exec to record him in 1922. His versions of the classic “Sallie Goodin,” “Turkey in the Straw,” and “Arkansas Traveler” were not only the first Country tunes recorded, but they also set the standard for decades to come.
Born in Delaney, Arkansas, in 1887, Alexander Campbell Robertson came to Amarillo, Texas, with his parents at the age of three. The persistent story that he skinned a family cat to make his first fiddle is probably apocryphal, but he did somehow manage to get expert on the guitar, banjo, and fiddle by the time he left home at the age of 16 to tour with a medicine show in Indian Territory before Oklahoma became a state. With the advent of silent films Robertson played at theaters dressed in Western getup and became known as the Cowboy Fiddler. In June, 1922, after an engagement at an Old Confederate Soldiers reunion in Virginia, Robertson persuaded fellow fiddler and former Confederate soldier Henry