US – Death of Marvin Hamlisch – A Day To Remember Him, But Also To Remember Scott Joplin – 7 August 2012

I’m drawing your attention to the New York Times obituary for the composer Marvin Hamlisch in an attempt to show all the rest of America’s newspapers what they _should_ have said:

“Mr. Hamlisch’s first love was writing for theater and the movies. His score for ‘The Sting’, which adapted the ragtime music of Scott Joplin, made him a household ubiquity in 1973.”

That’s right. Hamlisch, an accomplished composer whose many other film credits as well as stage credits and popular music credits are quite long, did not “write the score” to The Sting alone. Indeed, “adapted” isn’t even a strong enough word. He _arranged_ the music of Scott Joplin for orchestra. To say “Marvin Hamlisch wrote the score to The Sting” is kind of like saying Walter Kaufmann wrote Faust because he translated Goethe from the German.

At least the New York Times acknowledges that Scott Joplin, one of the greatest American composers, was the author of the music in The Sting. It is a measure of the extent to which the US continues to deny African-Americans their just place in the country’s history that most American newspapers said it was Hamlisch who “wrote the score” to The Sting, while completely bypassing Joplin in the article.
In truth, Hamlisch owed his celebrity to Scott Joplin. Before The Sting came out in 1973, he was not well-known. Granted, he also came out that same year with The Way We Were, which was much more his own original material. But still, if you asked most people, they would tell you “Oh, he’s that guy who did the music in The Sting.” Whatever respect I have for Hamlisch, that always rankled me. Scott Joplin was the guy who did the music in The Sting.

On the other hand, it should be noted that Hamlisch was not just some predatory “white guy” profiting off of music written by an underappreciated black artist (e.g., Elvis Presley and Big Mama Thornton). Hamlisch’s arrangement of Joplin’s music for The Sting sparked a renewed interest in Joplin’s work. It is often said that there wasn’t a piano player in the 1970s who didn’t have the sheet music to The Entertainer in the piano bench somewhere. In that respect, he may have been more like Paul Simon, another “white guy” marketing himself and his own music, but also familiarising us in the process with the underappreciated musical culture of artists coming before him.

I will miss Marvin Hamlisch, but let’s also take a moment to remember Scott Joplin, to whom Hamlisch owed a great deal of his success, and who many of us know as well as we do owing to the promotion of his work that Hamlisch did.

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