Progress and Piano Professors
While white women were pushed to the margins of the Fair, the contributions of African-Americans to the story of American progress were not simply marginalized; they were erased. Not for nothing was the Fair nicknamed the “White City.” Only European-derived culture and achievements could be displayed in those gleaming neo-classical buildings. Visitors to the Fair could see Africans themselves displayed on the Midway in Dahomey Village, one of the living ethnological villages whose purpose was to set the utopian vision of progress in the adjacent White City into sharper relief.1 But no African-Americans were on the Fair’s planning commissions; no building was dedicated to the progress they had made since the abolition of slavery. There was a “Colored American Day,” analogous to other special “Days” at the Fair arranged to boost attendance. Antonin Dvořák, who was summering that year in Spillville, Iowa, conducted his Eighth Symphony and other works on Bohemian Day, for example. African-American musicians Harry T. Burleigh and Will Marion Cook (both of whom studied with Dvořák at the National Conservatory in New York) joined poet Paul Laurence Dunbar for a program on Colored American Day at which Frederick Douglass also spoke. Otherwise, African-American participation was unofficial and undocumented.
It is generally believed, based on oral traditions, that several “Piano Professors,” as they were called, playing music that would soon be known as “ragtime,” performed either on the Midway or at various establishments in the neighborhood of the Fair. Despite a lack of written documentation, scholars concur that Scott Joplin, the “King of Ragtime Writers,” was probably one of these Piano Professors. Ragtime has been called the first indigenous American musical style. Joplin established the ragtime form in his “Maple Leaf Rag” of 1899, which also became his biggest hit. Joplin composed over forty other rags after “Maple Leaf,” including the “Cascades” Rag inspired by the 1904 St Louis Fair commemorating the Louisiana Purchase, which he definitely did attend.2
The World’s Columbian Exposition closed over 125 years ago, on October 31, 1893. Little of the physical Fair remains today. The buildings of the White City, which were never intended to be permanent, are all gone, except for the Fine Arts building, now the Museum of Science and Industry. Besides its name, the Midway survives only as a wide grassy strip on the University of Chicago campus. The legacy of the Fair remains, however, in perhaps unexpected places. If you’ve ever ridden on a Ferris Wheel or enjoyed the midway at a county fair; drunk Welch’s grape juice or eaten Cracker Jack (both introduced at the Fair); recited the Pledge of Allegiance (written for the Fair’s Dedication Day ceremonies) or sung the fourth verse of “America the Beautiful” (with its reference to “alabaster cities”), you can thank the Chicago World’s Fair.
The Fair also left a musical legacy. Concert-goers who attend classical performances still mostly hear the music of dead European males, although, after being mostly forgotten after her death in 1944, Amy Beach has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. Similarly, ragtime faded in popularity in the early twentieth century (although not before it influenced jazz), but experienced a revival in the 1970s, especially after the 1972 movie The Sting used Joplin tunes in its soundtrack. (For a time, it seemed that every piano student in the land was playing an arrangement of “The Entertainer.”) The issues raised by the experience of music at the Chicago World’s Fair—what to play, who should play it, how do you get an audience to come hear it, and how do you pay for it—are familiar to every classical music organization today.
For Further Reading:
Berlin, Edward A. King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and his Era. New York and Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994.
Curtis, Susan. Dancing to a Black Man’s Tune: A Life of Scott Joplin. Columbia and London: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1994.