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The Strenuous Life of Scott Joplin: Ragtime Composer Review by Joshua GoodmanAuthor: Gail Masinda
When I was given the chance to review the book The Strenuous Life of Scott Joplin: Ragtime Composer by Gail Masinda, I was excited to learn more about the life and art of man whose genius was never fully appreciated in his lifetime. While his compositions became prominent during the brief era of ragtime, his popularity faded around the turn of the century, and it was decades before his music was rediscovered. He lived in a challenging time for African Americans, dealing with the aftershocks of the Civil War and the ingrained racism and segregation that permeated the culture. The son of an emancipated slave, he struggled to overcome his disadvantages and persevered, leaving a legacy of music and eventually being recognized as the master of his genre.
This softcover book is written in a storyboard format, containing full-color cartoon-style illustrations and historical photos. Throughout the pages, there are links to the author’s website, Maestro Heights, which is an online museum that provides greater depth of information, as well as audio and video clips related to each topic. Because of the book’s design, it is best to read the material with a computer, tablet, or smartphone nearby to explore the online exhibits. There are six sections in the book providing a short synopsis of Joplin’s life and music, and individual episodes that were considered notable, plus a resources section that includes a bibliography and credits. The Strenuous Life of Scott Joplin is available through a variety of retailers and can be found on Amazon.com for $12.86.
Each section of the book explores various parts of Scott Joplin’s life and career. Section One is a brief biography, describing his personal story. Section Two uses a Q & A arrangement to discuss “Maple Leaf Rag,” which is his most famous work. Section Three tells the story of a publicity stunt that turned deadly but provided inspiration for a piece that used musical composition to tell the story. Section Four describes how a politically and socially important event inspired an opera that was unfortunately lost to time. Section Five recounts his later career, including what he considered his most ambitious and important work, as well as the tragedy that followed him. In Section Six, the book talks about the awards and memorials that have accumulated over time, which he unfortunately never knew about.
This is not a narrative-style biography, but a broad overview of the life and accomplishments of a truly talented composer. Because of its construction, this book would be both a useful addition to a typical home library and enrichment material for history or music appreciation classes. Homeschools and traditional schools alike could benefit; however, due to the abundant use of online links for so much additional information, it is better geared toward home or homeschool use. The Strenuous Life of Scott Joplin appears to be intended for younger children of kindergarten through lower elementary ages, but anyone could learn a great deal from it. Visual learners will appreciate the colorful layout and illustrations, and auditory learners will benefit from having the book read aloud as well as checking out the sound clips on the website. Ideally, this book would be an interactive “together” experience, with a parent reading it with a child or children and exploring the online exhibits on the website to dig deeper into the content. It is short enough that it can be read in one sitting, but the format would allow for taking each section separately. Alternately, if used as a class supplement, a teacher could have their student or students delve into each chapter in detail using the internet and have a conversation about the information, or even write about what they find and their thoughts on it. In a music class or music appreciation setting, the audio clips and sheet music of Scott Joplin’s piano pieces, as well as the segments of his opera “Treemonisha” can be explored in-depth and discussed.
We read this book over the summer, and as our boys are older, they found it a bit beneath their level. They are not allowed unsupervised access to the internet, so they found the reliance on online links to be a little frustrating and considered the book to be incomplete because of it. In reading through and checking out the website, I learned quite a bit, but we all agreed that because of its full-color cartoon illustrations, non-linear chapter organization, and sound-bite construction using links to online pages, it seems to be geared toward the younger audience. I loved the fact that it explored the life of a more obscure historical figure whose life still deserves to be acclaimed. It is especially important as a lesson to children that Scott Joplin was a person who overcame adversity to become a master of his art and craft.
I would recommend The Strenuous Life of Scott Joplin: Ragtime Composer to parents and teachers of younger children who wish to engage them in a one-on-one or small group setting. Older children may find it a bit simple as a stand-alone book but may also enjoy the online exhibits. I applaud this study of the life of an obscure historical character whose life and achievements should be far more appreciated than they are. It is vitally important that attention is drawn to the examples of perseverance and determination of minorities both in history and in modern times, and that their contributions to the advancement of humanity be celebrated.
-Product review by Joshua Goodman, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, August 2020