More than two decades after the Civil War and when Scott Joplin was a young adult, Booker T. Washington delivered an historic speech that could introduce Joplin’s opera Treemonisha:
I would here remark that one, to get a true idea of the poverty, ignorance and superstition . . . the terrible crime of slavery, the enormity of the work yet to be done for the Negro . . . should leave the towns and rail roads and go miles out into the country on the large plantations where the majority of the colored people are to be found. . . . The whites as a rule have left these plantations, leaving the masses of ignorant blacks with neither guides nor
In words reminiscent of Washington’s, Joplin explained in his Preface to Treemonisha:
The scene of the Opera is laid on a plantation somewhere in the State of Arkansas, northeast of the town of Texarkana and three or four miles from the Red River. The plantation is surrounded by a dense forest.
While watching the Opera Theatre of St. Louis’s stunning 2000 production of Treemonisha, I was struck by the production’s added stage business. In one vignette, Treemonisha, the foundling who had years earlier come into Ned’s and Monisha's lives, sat reading to the plantation children. In another, small groups of children sat with a book among them. Not included in Joplin’s stage directions, these fleeting scenes went straight to the opera’a heart, underscoring the power of education to dispel ignorance and superstition, Joplin’s central theme discussed so clearly in Ed Berlin’s King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era.
Although detailed attention has been focused on the opera’s history, its music, and its theme, another aspect of the opera remains largely unexplored, causing modern audiences to overlook the importance of small but important details that many of Joplin’s black contemporaries would have understood. Yet anyone writing about the opera cannot ignore the general topic of hoodoo superstitions, and writers have treated the topic to varying degrees. For instance, in the August 1962 issue of Jazz Monthly, Ann Charter’s provides a general discussion of the ways Joplin used "Afro-American traditions of dance songs, work songs, religious material and mythological tales to create the first Negro folk opera." In King of Ragtime, Edward A. Berlin goes much further. Discussing the continuing tradition of conjure men, he mentions Charles W. Chestnut’s popular Conjure Woman tales (1899), Cole and Johnson’s Conjure Man song (Stern, 1900), and a 1908 Harlem play by the same name. He quotes relevant lines from the libretto and comments on several specific superstitions included in the opera, sometimes offering detailed discussions such as his thoughts on parallels between the sacred tree under which Treemonisha was found and somewhat similar elements in Wagner’s Die Walkure. He draws upon several valuable sources—and, as always, meticulously cites them--to provide further historic context, thus helping readers better understand possible influences on Joplin’s thinking and his place in cultural history:
In focusing his opera on the struggle between superstitious practices and education in black society, Joplin was not inventing a topic or elevating a peripheral issue; this conflict had been a major concern voiced by educators and clergy working with the formerly enslaved since Emancipation. The conjure tradition was embedded most securely in the South, but as blacks migrated northward they brought along the practices; storekeepers in northern cities, seeing an opportunity, provided packets of magic spells for the gullible. Conjure was viewed by reformers as a degrading holdover from the days of slavery and an obstacle to black progress. Those leading Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later, Hampton University), an institution founded in 1868 to train black teachers, considered the elimination of conjure as a major goal.
In King of Ragtime, Ed Berlin tackles Joplin’s life and his music, incorporating a substantial amount of cultural context to help readers better understand the composer and his accomplishments. We can read King of Ragtime with awe, perhaps several times over, and come away from each reading having learned something we missed the previous times. We can read the second edition alongside the first, to see how knowledge evolves, how early mysteries can often be solved with time and new resources. Ed sets a high bar for other researchers.
Always looking for answers, Ed would be among the first to agree that knowledge of one era can be too easily lost to succeeding generations. Sometimes filling in the gaps can require that we go places that our own backgrounds don’t readily lead us. Sometimes publishing limitations can prevent us from going there.
With my literary background and now nearly twenty years interest in folklore, I naturally view Joplin’s opera with different eyes than does a musicologist. Drawing in part on research presented during a 2002 Scott Joplin Festival symposium session, my next several blog posts will examine hoodoo traditions in Treemonisha, in themselves and within the context of black education in the post-Civil War South. If even a few libretto details take on added significance—perhaps occasionally, momentous significance—for readers familiar with Treemonisha, I will have succeeded.
I am a retired community college professor and the great-granddaughter of composer, orchestrator, arranger, organist, and teacher William Christopher O'Hare.
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