A Quick One, In Ragtime

The cemetery is a fine spot for the curious to wander, and you will often be rewarded with a genuine curiosity. Odds are you didn’t know that a superstar of the turn of the last century, the “King of Ragtime,” who made his name in St. Louis, wound up in an unmarked pauper’s grave in western Queens.

Beginning with the smash hit success of “Maple Leaf Rag,” in 1899, Scott Joplin went on to be a popular and prolific composer of ragtime, the syncopated synthesis of African American dance music and European classical and marches. His music was an important foundation for jazz, and by extension, every other pop form of the Twentieth century, but he’s mainly known nowadays due to a brief ragtime revival sparked by the movie soundtrack album for 1973’s The Sting, that featured several Joplin tunes (including “The Entertainer,” which peaked at number 3 in the Top 40 singles chart). His reign was short lived. The ragtime fad didn’t last long and Joplin’s fame wouldn’t either. Institutionalized for dementia caused by syphilis, he died in 1917 at the age of 49 in the Manhattan State Hospital on Ward’s Island and was buried anonymously in St. Michael’s Cemetery, East Elmhurst, Queens.

Each year St. Michael’s puts on a free concert to honor Joplin, and we have attended many times. The cemetery is a little tricky to get to on public transportation, so it is usually a small affair, a few dozen locals and fans, a band, free hamburgers and hot dogs. This year marks the centennial of Joplin’s death, and the turnout was much bigger than usual, probably because of better publicity. The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra was the perfect choice for this one hundredth anniversary of Joplin’s death. The Paragons were eleven pieces strong and the program was mostly Joplin rags with a few other timely selections to provide some context.

Joplin’s grave bore no marker until 1974 when ASCAP donated a simple bronze plaque. This year a memorial bench was dedicated as a somewhat grander tribute. Your Grade “A” Fanciers, of course, had other ideas about paying homage to the great musician. We were joined in a toast to Scott Joplin by our friends Gabrielle and Scott.

We devised an honorary drink for the occasion and named it The Maple Leaf Rag. Shooting for something that might have been downed at the turn of the century, this was composed with an Old Fashioned in mind, and it wasn’t too far a fetch that we'd add some maple syrup to salute Joplin’s first big hit. The Amaro Sfumato adds a little smoke for a barroom of the period, and a garnish of toasted walnut lends a trace of woodsy-ness and some tannins to counteract the sweet maple. Gab reminded us that walnut wood is used on pianos, which suited us swell.

The Maple Leaf Rag Cocktail

Advance prep:
• Toast as many walnut meats as drinks you will be serving
• Dissolve maple syrup 1:1 with hot water and let cool

Drink ingredients:
2 1/2 ounces rye, or a combination of Canadian whiskey and rye
1/4 ounce Amaro Sfumato Rabarbaro
2 teaspoons maple syrup dilution, or to taste
Dash Angostura Bitters
Dash Fee’s Old Fashion Aromatic Bitters
Shake lightly with ice and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a cocktail cherry and a toasted walnut. (Alternatively, this could be built as an Old Fashioned, in the namesake glass over ice.)

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After the concert we took a moment to visit another ought-to-be-famous resident of St. Michael’s. Just down the lane from Joplin is the modest grave of another African American legend, the man they called “the Black Edison,” Granville T. Woods.

Born a freeman in 1859 in Columbus, Ohio, Woods was an electrician and inventor with 60-odd patents to his name. One invention, a multiplex telegraph, spurred a lawsuit from Thomas Edison challenging its patent. When Edison lost he offered to make Woods his partner, but was turned down. His work was also crucial to the development of electric trolleys and third rail transit systems. His remarkable life is way too crammed with accomplishment to recount here. We should pause a moment to remember him and consider how paltry this simple marker is as a testament to his legacy.

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