BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA Sun-Times Columnist
I've been on an insane Scott Joplin bender for two weeks now. I woke up two Saturdays ago thinking about ragtime and didn't even wait to get out of bed -- I downloaded 37 different rags straight into my iPod and have been obsessively playing them all over and over and over again ever since.
There's the "Country Club Rag," "Paragon Rag," "Fig Leaf Rag," "Pine Apple Rag," "The Heliotrope Bouquet," "Maple Leaf Rag," "Elite Syncopations"; the list literally goes on and on. A few days later, I sent my piano teacher a hysterical e-mail begging him to teach me "The Entertainer" at my next lesson.
My favorite comment last week was, "Why are you listening to the ice cream truck music?" The honest answer is: I don't know.
But I do know this: I'm not a fan of "Months." You know, National Sweet Potato Month, National Foot Health Month, National Hispanic Heritage Month, National Tickling Month. There are so darned many of them that they no longer impart meaningful information -- not like they really should, certainly not how they were intended to.
For instance, February is National Black History Month. Sure, I remember learning about George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglass and Rosa Parks during my school years, but after that I didn't get much more in the way of continued awareness of that aspect of February.
Imagine my surprise -- and embarrassment -- when last week while blathering on about Scott Joplin, I decided to do a quick Web search for images of him, I uttered: "Scott Joplin was black?!" The answer was "Duh."
All right, so sue me. I've been hearing his music my entire life, been actively studying music for more than 21 years, have played orchestrated versions of his most popular tunes in various musical groups, mangle "The Entertainer" during my evening piano practice, and I just did not know Scott "the King of Ragtime" Joplin was black.
In my own defense, I'll tell you it never ever occurred to me to care one way or the other about this remarkably talented composer's color or race. But his story is so amazing I can't believe it isn't taught in elementary schools along with that of Revolutionary-era hero Crispus Attucks, pioneer Jean-Baptiste-Point du Sable and beauty entrepreneur Madame C.J. Walker.
I certainly can't do justice to his complete narrative here -- visit the Web site of the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Foundation for a wonderful account -- but I will say that it would have been enough that he was born with perfect pitch, taught himself the piano as a child, then the cornet and a bit of violin, and created an enduring and much-beloved part of American musical history for which he was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.
But to have done all that starting out black in Texas circa 1870 -- sneaking practice on the pianos of the white people his mother cleaned house for as the result of an absentee ex-slave father -- is nothing short of amazing. He even did some chop-honing here in Chicago in the late 1890s with a band that played for visitors to the World's Fair who didn't mind getting their drinks in the seedier parts of town.
The classic 1973 Robert Redford/Paul Newman caper movie "The Sting" repopularized Joplin's music but, frankly, it's high time for another resurgence of interest in Scott Joplin; which is closer to the spirit of what "National Months" are all about: awareness of all the awesome things we should know.
So during this, the last week of Black History Month, I'm celebrating -- and making it up to ol' Joplin -- by jauntily pounding out "The Entertainer" and being grateful that every day brings a new opportunity to learn something new and interesting.