The Tale of the Scott Joplin Edison Cylinder

01 Sep 2000

Below is the history of a curiosity my family and I purchased on eBay back in 2001. It set off quite a lot of arguing among collectors, scholars, and others. While this is only the beginning of the story, I will one day update this with pictures and even a sound recording of the cylinder in question. Now, on to the background on this confounded thing...

-Jim

Email from me to my mother, August 2000

VERY interesting... it's an old phonograph device-type thing. Some song called Uncle Jefferson, with piano by Scott Joplin. It's dated 1896, so it predates the Maple-Leaf Rag & Original Rags!!! I'm not sure how rare this is, but it may be worth buying if it's really that old. 1896! Wow... eBay item 411304422 (Ends Aug-23-00 03:22:40 PDT) - Edison phonograph cylinder with Scott Joplin. Let me know what you think.

Mom answering me:

Yes Yes Yes, I will go in on it , We can give it to Dad as a Christmas gift, Let me know If you want to do the bidding, or should I. I think that is a find, Hope no one else sees it. Have a good day, Love you , MOm

The original Auction Text

Edison phonograph cylinder with Scott Joplin
Item #411304422
Collectibles:Phonographs

Two minute number 8343 in original box new lid, same number on cylinder as lid. Uncle Jefferson song by Billie Golden piano by scott Joplin {USA 1896 on lid} in very good condition no mold although i have not tried it. PLEASE NOTE Payment by cash {secure way} or travellers cheque, any other way $10 bank charge. If in London pay us a visit hundreds of items for sale. Thanks for looking

On Aug-16-00 at 03:27:15 PDT, seller added the following information:
There is a very limited insurance to the USA, i will pack very well but cannot be held liable for any damage to 2 minute wax cylinders. P&P is $12

On Aug-18-00 at 03:06:35 PDT, seller added the following information:
This cylinder came from a very well known reputable collector who has had this for many years, i have played it and there is a piano i have every reason to believe its Scott Joplin but cannot give a garuntee { i do not no S. Joplins playing}. Therefore you must bid on this understanding.

On Aug-19-00 at 01:45:15 PDT, seller added the following information:
IMPORTANT- I am selling this as described as many people have doubted if Scott Joplin made any cylinders, so i will tell you what i know about it i bought a very large lifetime collection {about 1000} in which there were many rarities eg. Edison on cylinder rare opera etc etc from a one of the most informed sources in Europe he has written many books. All the cylinders i have inspected have been correct for the lid, i have tried to phone this person to ask him about it but he must be on holiday i do not know Scott Joplins playing so i cannot be certain SO YOU MUST BID ON THIS description as i cannot be 100% sure so you must take a chance if i can get any information or get permission to reveal the vendors name i will. MAKE SURE IF YOU BID YOU ARE HAPPY WITH THIS AS I CANNOT REFUND ONCE SOLD.

On Aug-19-00 at 02:07:46 PDT, seller added the following information:
Latest i have just spoken to the person i bought the cylinder from he told me he is not a great Jazz fan so he does not no, he aquirred this cylinder from a Roy Smith about 35 years ago he was a great collector of jazz and dance band he has since died. That as far as the trail goes i do not mean to kid anybody you have the complete facts if you decide to bid please NOTE YOU BID ON THESE TERMS NO RETURN NO REFUND any bids taken before this added item can be cancelled.

On Aug-22-00 at 08:41:21 PDT, seller added the following information:
IMPORTANT I HAVE HAD MAIL FROM PEOPLE SAYING SCOTT JOPLIN NEVER RECORDED ON EDISON SO IT IS UP TO THE HIGH BIDDER I HAVE GIVEN YOU ALL THE INFORMATION I HAVE ITS UP TO YOU I WOULD PREFER NOT TO SELL IT BUT AGAIN IT IS UP TO YOU

Trouble arises... Seller emails all bidders:

Subj: S Joplin
Date: 08/23/2000 3:55:41 AM Eastern Daylight Time

Please read all of description as many leaned people say it cannot be Scott Joplin i would rather withdraw it so you really must take a chance or withdraw your bid

In the mean time, we decide to bid anyway...

... and we won the auction.

Seller now attempts to back out, after casting doubt on the whole thing...

Hello I am really sorry but i am in a bad situation ebay was down for 2 hours when the auction closed the item should have been listed for another 24 hours it was not i have asked ebay to write to you as i am getting mail from angry people who wanted to bid on it, this is not your fault or mine of course i will honour your bid if thats what you want {i am a honest dealer of 30 years} as i do not go back on my word but this situation has made it difficult. Once again i apologise for the mess Thanks for your understanding

I tell him no.

Hi David-

I too have been in this situation as a seller, and I have also been in this situation as a buyer. But my own perspective is that not bidding until the end is always an uncertain strategy. If people wait until the end to bid, that's the chance they take. Sometimes eBay goes down, sometimes the net goes down, etc. So, while I feel for them, that's just the way it goes. Next time they won't wait so long. I'm not trying to be cruel, but I too have lost out on more than one auction purchase by waiting until the end and losing a connection. I've been eBaying for a few years as well, and have an excellent feedback rating. I'm a very fair buyer and seller, but this is how I feel in these situations. So, I DO want you to honor my high bid of $76.01. I'm ready to send payment as soon as I know the final amount (including shipping and insurance) and your address.

[And, from there, he gives up on trying to relist it. Sends me a bill for $98, including insurance -- possibly from the U.K., by the way...]

Other eBayers start emailing me

[one such email:] Early on I emailed him regarding the cylinder as I was interested in it as well. I thought it was curious that he was describing it as a Joplin performance on piano. So I asked him where it said that -- on the box or on the waxed cylinder itself. He said it was not on the actual cylinder. That the lid was a new replacement and someone put a paper tag on the lid and typed it saying it was Scott Joplin at the piano. Since the lid was a replacement, and the wax did not say Joplin at all and the paper was attached to the thing I just stayed away from it. I think people may have been angry with him for making it sound like he was sure it was Joplin playing, but NO WHERE was there any real proof. He kept backing off in his successive notes on ebay as I believe, people put pressure on him to retract his statements. My antennae went up. I wasn't angry. I just thought he was, well, scummy. Notice, I didn't say crook, hmmm, I just did.

A year or so ago I was the winner of The strenuous Life. A cover that no one had seen or at least published before. When I finally showed it to Dave Jasen a few months later and he said there was no doubt it was real I felt relief as I had risked a fortune on it.

There was a later Entertainer on ebay about 2 years ago. It comes up often now. It has blue lettering and Joplin's picture. Many people knew it was a later weird edition. I didn't. I thought maybe it could be an unknown original, because of the picture. So, I bid on it. the ragtime community clobbered the seller who was very apologetic. The auction was pulled. The second time it came up we all emailed the buyer who retracted. I see the thing all the time now.

LIke you, I thought the timing was good. In 1896 he certainly was out there playing, arranging, composing, scratching to make a living. And, it certainly would be an outstanding piece, and a coup at $75 if it's real. I'd like to think it's real. And for $75 why not take a chance and do some detective work.

The only stylistic "records" are Joplin's hand cut piano rolls, on CD. I would start there in my comparision. It certainly COULD be real, it's just that it's never come out in any biography, and the people I've spoken to say no cylinders were ever cut of Joplin's pieces. And no one now is alive who could know. So, it remains a mystery to me.

The people to check with would be Trebor Tichenor, Dave Jasen, Dick Zimmerman, Terry Parish, Elliot Adams, Ed Berlin, Terry Waldo, Bob Darch (if he's still around, I heard he was very sick), John Arpin, and probably a host of others who might have an idea and would enjoy hearing it, I'm sure. Ask these guys.

Good luck with the piece! I hope he actually sends it so you can enjoy it!

[another:] Hello Jimdee, I'm told that you recently made an eBay auction purchase of an Edison cylinder of a song called "Uncle Jefferson", sung by Billy Golden, with piano accompaniment by Scott Joplin. That's quite a find, if authentic. Do you care to describe it? Do you have the year? The serial number? I would be interested in anything you have to tell me.
Sincerely, Edward Berlin

[another from Ed:] Well, Jim, I would certainly appreciate a tape of the cylinder, once you get it. It's too bad the label is not original; that adds doubt to authenticity. Still, I would appreciate a copy of whatever you have, including the new label. If the cylinder has any print at all, please relate that, too. I'll pass the information around to others in the ragtime community in hopes of coming to some consensus.

As you have been told, the only samples we have of Joplin's playing are on piano roll, and those are from very late in his life, when he was so ill he could barely play. There is also the question of editing on piano rolls. If the cylinder recording is from the 1890s, I don't know how we can make a comparison. But let's hear, and then decide.

As for the claims that Joplin never made a cylinder recording: I've found enough things about him that were previously unsuspected that I've learned never to be certain of anything.

It's a shame that libraries give so much homage to Kirkus, Choice, and other publishers of capsule reviews. These miniscule articles rarely get beneath the surface. In this particular instance, the reviewer misses the mark in saying that I was "frustrated by the scarcity of evidence". Certainly, many gaps remain, but I was thrilled by the vast amount of new information still available in documents and newspapers.

Thanks for the history. Ed Berlin

[From Ed to others:] Hi all, I've asked for a tape of this cylinder, when Jim gets it, but I doubt that the sound would tell us anything. Does the number 8343 on a 2-minute Edison tell us when & where the cylinder was made? Does anyone else have this Golden recording? What is the likelihood that he would have performed with a black pianist?

[One expert responds:] This is a Feb 1903 black wax 2-minutre recording, and it has been misidentified and misdated by the original owner. Caveat emptor. (in other words, no Jolson). Best, Allen Antique Phonograph Books

[me to Ed:] Well, I assume that he meant "no Joplin" instead of "no Jolson," right? [Ed:] Your guess is the same as mine. Sometimes the fingers don't know what the mind is thinking. I'll foward any other responses I get, but Allen is probably the world's expert on Edison cylinders.

[some other guy weighs in:] Ed, the idea that Scott Joplin is on the cylinder is silly. If Joplin had been at such a record session, how is it that nobody knew of this session UNTIL NOW?

Hiring Joplin to accompany Billy Golden during a session--well, that kind of thing just wasn't done. The Edison company used studio pianists to accompany singers. These pianists were USED to the recording studio and knew exactly what to do, knew the cues, etc. These studio pianists and singers like Golden worked together regularly.

Why hire Joplin? Why go to the trouble of training Joplin (making records was full of tricks)...and then not advertise the fact, or give him credit in company literature? Why hire Joplin to accompany on a non-Joplin tune? The company wasn't much interested in Joplin compositions (only "Maple" had been a hit), so why would the company hire him to accompany Golden? Doesn't add up.

Now, if someone can point out some special reason why we can believe Joplin is on this cylinder, I would love to know that reason. But I hate the thought of someone paying big bucks on ebay due to the bogus claim that Joplin plays on this cylinder.

[Me to EB:] My thinking about this point was that, around 1896 (the "date" on the hand-written label), Joplin would have just finished up a lot of traveling with his Texas Medley Quartette. According to TAPR, the Quartette went from Sedalia all the way out to Syracuse in 1895.

[Ed:] We still believe that, but TAPR is a *very* out-of-date to be following.

[Me:] While his 1899 fame was years off, he nonetheless must have made a lot of musical contacts during those travels, and even began publishing pieces--Please Say You Will, A Picture of Her Face, and soon after, Crush Collision, Harmony Club, etc. Why not advertise the fact of his presence on a cylinder? Well, because he wasn't a household name in 1896. Not as far as I've ever heard, anyway. As I hope you can infer, I'm really not the type to risk money without at least *some* historical documentation on which to base such speculations. I figured it would be worth $100 just to buy myself a research project. Allen's quick answer hurts a little, I'll admit. But, I knew that was a possibility going in. Still, I'd like to contact Allen to find out what else he knows about this cylinder, and what the source of his information is.

[Ed:] His source would be the catalogue me made of Edison cylinders, listing titles & numbers. I've already sent you his website.


And what since then?

Well, not long after all of that excitement, I took it to an antique dealer in St. Louis where I'd seen some Edison cylinder players for sale. I brought along a little tape recorder and was fully prepared to have the guy make a recording for me. But, when he lowered the needle, it indeed sounded like a band and a piano -- but it began to make scratching sounds as though the player wasn't configured properly. I told the guy to stop, as I didn't quite have much faith in his ability to operate the old machine.

From there, we took it home, and it's still in a box. But, one day sooner or later, I'll get to it... I left off a number of old emails, above. But, while most people have written this off as impossible, I think it just may be authentic. I'd give it a reasonable chnce -- say, 25% or so. I don't say that to start any arguments. It's just that, as a collector, I've come across my share of things that people told me did not exist -- such as that full-color, original sheet of March Majestic that everyone said was never released prior to 1920. And yet, there it is, in my collection.

To be truthful, I'm a bit put off by the ragtime collecting community. I find many I've come across to be insufferable, and I really don't know why. Joe Lamb's "The Lost Letter" is another great example. We found it, told some people about it who we thought ought to know, and were basically told that we weren't authoritative enough to know what we had. We were scoffed at, to be frank, by a bunch of idiots. So, as much as 10 or 15 people are going to read this and get their panties in a bunch about it, and will tell me what I have to do and what I don't have to do... I really don't care. I'll get to it in my own time.

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