Photo from the 1972 Atlanta Treemonisha pre-performance. (Sedalia Ragtime Archive)
March 29, 2019
Goin’ Around with Treemonisha
Imagine the privilege of sitting a few rows behind Eubie Blake on the night of January 28, 1972, and watching his whole body move to the music of Scott Joplin at the Atlanta premiere of Treemonisha, orchestrated by T.J. Anderson. Eubie was kind enough to autograph my program that night and again at a reprised performance with William Bolcom’s orchestration on August 15, 1972, at the first Wolf Trap Farm’s Filene Center. (Yes, the Center that burned in 1982.)
The story of Treemonisha encapsulates Joplin’s own story in a way and is the great drama of ragtime lore. Readers of TST undoubtedly know the story well or at the very least a Wikipedia version. Therefore, I won’t detail too much about the opera itself but rather, I’ll blow off the dust and share some of my experiences with Joplin’s opera and how my wife and I with 5-year-old son John happened to be in those seats for the Atlanta premiere.
Karen and I moved to Sedalia in 1965 right after we were married. She was just finishing her nursing program and was ready to begin her career. With her diploma securely in hand, I was about to return to college to complete my teaching degree having dropped out when my mother died and to get married. As I wrapped up my bachelor’s degree, I simultaneously began work on a master’s in history and fate decreed that I would be Dr. Alfred E. Twomey’s graduate assistant. An avocational interest of Dr. Twomey was grand opera. When it came time to select a thesis topic, he suggested that since I was from Sedalia, I should write about Joplin’s lost opera or his known opera, Treemonisha. I look back on that moment in 1968 and realize now how much that question attested to Dr. Twomey’s depth of knowledge about American opera and composers. And so, began my interest in Sedalia ragtime and Joplin’s operatic works.
By the time I finished my graduate work in 1971 I was so involved in the dream of a great ragtime event in Sedalia that the paper my adviser suggested had gone by the wayside and I wrote (rather poorly) on an easier topic, “The Impact of Darwin’s Theory of Biological Evolution on Nineteenth Century Anglican Theology.” (Stay with me, as I’m prone to this type of digression.)
With degree in hand I began teaching in the still segregated African-American Hubbard Elementary School in Sedalia. In the midst of my ragtime research I read of the upcoming New York Public Library publication of Joplin’s collected works and the January 1972 premiere of Treemonisha in Atlanta. My sainted principal, Mrs. Dorothy Kitchen, arranged for me to have two personal days and my family was blessed to be able to attend the premiere.
Morehouse College was one of the sponsors of the event and they held a workshop and lecture the afternoon before the concert. I arrived just in time to hear a most distinguished panel discuss the opera and then to hear Rudi Blesh describe the life of Scott Joplin.
The panel was a gathering of ragtime authorities. Carman Moore lead the discussion and was just beginning his distinguished career there at Morehouse. Max Morath, Eubie Blake, T.J. Anderson, Vera Lawrence, and William Bolcom set forth on a lively discussion about Joplin’s opera and the significance of the premiere. Anderson and Bolcom, I have always felt, were to become victims in what I fear was another unfortunate tale of the opera. But that’s story for another time.
I want to share some thoughts about attending the premiere Joplin had dreamed would occur in his lifetime. I was so excited to be at the hall that night and when I discovered a door to the house untended an hour before the doors were to be opened, I took the liberty of going in. I found the cast on stage for final notes and recognized Katherine Dunham from seeing her at East Saint Louis appearances. She was giving last minute suggestions in her role as Stage Director and Choreographer. Dr. Wendell Whalum was addressing the chorus as the opera’s Music Director. I tried to act like I was supposed to be there as a photographer. However, my little Instamatic camera gave me away and I was gently asked to leave by a remarkably kind usher who seemed to sense my near manic excitement and awe at simply being there.
Someday I would like to get the question of the three dueling orchestrations straightened out in my head. But that aside (along with the awful copyright issues that intruded on the opera’s triumphant appearance) my total lack of musical acumen, allowed me to find all three of the instrumental versions delightful. The three “premieres” were most memorable. Watching Eubie and buoyed by the additional enthusiasm of the audience at the first Atlanta production, made the experience unforgettable. I nearly lost the story as I was caught up humming the previous musical pieces in my head as it went along. I wasn’t disappointed that there were no discernable ragtime pieces. It was all just so filled with joy. When the mood was dark there was always the reemergence of that joy and I’ll always hear Aunt Dinah’s horn and feel the dancing that ended Act Two.
I had met Eubie Blake after the Morehouse panel the day before and had asked him and others about coming to Sedalia if we were to have a Joplin ragtime festival. Amazingly, when I went to him at intermission, he recalled our conversation the day before and repeated that he had performed all over the world, but he had never played Sedalia.
By the last number, the audience, after thunderous applause, joined Robert Shaw’s orchestra humming “A Real Slow Drag” as we left the Great Hall. We drove through the night to get back home but all I remember about that drive was replaying the music in my head and lamenting that Joplin hadn’t known the feeling I had experienced that evening.
I discovered that another version of the opera was to be presented at Wolf Trap Farm in Washington, D.C. in August 1972, so the first thing I did when we returned to Sedalia was order tickets. I had used all of our disposable income on the Atlanta trip, so I also had to begin figuring out how to fund a pilgrimage to D.C. at the height of tourist season. We paid for that one for several years.
The rest of the 1971-1972 year at Hubbard Elementary School went quickly for me. When I shared my dream of a Sedalia ragtime festival with my 8th grade students, I spotted Melinda Poole sketching my picture with a light bulb over my head.
I had purchased inexpensive tickets for seating on the grass at Wolf Trap. We were fortunate to have nice weather since we weren’t to be under the Filene Center canape. There was something different and exhilarating about listening to the opera outside under the stars. The music was more familiar the second time and I picked up a lot more of the story.
(And speaking of Joplin’s story, Susan Atilla is writing a thoroughly researched blog on the influence of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Philosophy on Joplin and his opera. I should think from what I have read, it should easily qualify for a Ph.D. should she be in a University program. The well documented and researched paper is at www.sueattalla.com/blog/category/treemonisha)
After a great confusion over hotel reservations we did the usual tours tourists endure in the nation’s capital. (The next time I was in D.C. in 2015, I was astonished to recall how much freedom we had had on our first visit compared to the constant queues, checkpoints and searches in the post 9/11 era.)
But then we delighted in seeing Treemonisha again and appreciated being more familiar with the story. There was such a party-like atmosphere about the pre-concert picnics on the lawn and everyone near us seemed quite well informed about Joplin’s music. I wish I had taken names that evening but I never imagined I’d be writing an article about the experience, nearly fifty years later.
At an intermission I found Eubie Blake again seated among some very distinguished friends. Mrs. Jouette Filene Shouse, the benefactor of Wolf Trap’s Filene enter, was hosting Eubie in the Presidential Box. A number of Nixon cabinet members were also there with him.