Scott Joplin

Composer Scott Joplin

The “King of Ragtime,” during its heyday in the 1890s-1910s, Joplin published more than 40 rags, and also composed two operas.

Vital Statistics
Between July 1867 and mid-January 1868, probably in Texas
New York City, April 1, 1917
20th Century
Performed As:
During Lifetime:
“Jim Crow” segregation laws are passed throughout the southern states of the U.S, and the Supreme Court ratifies those laws with its Plessy vs. Ferguson decision (1892). African-Americans are prevented from voting, in most instances, throughout the U.S., and President Woodrow Wilson (elected in 1912) segregates the capitol buildings in Washington D.C. Thousands of “Sundown towns” across the U.S. take steps to forbid and prevent African-Americans from residing there.
Biographical Outline
  • Hardscrabble Life, 1870s: Joplin's parents move to Texarkana (border of Texas and Arkansas). Scott is the second of six children. His mother gets him the opportunity to learn piano in a white family's home where she works, and a German immigrant named Julius Weiss gives him classical piano lessons.
  • On His Own, 1880s: He likely begins life as a traveling musician. In 1891, a newspaper reports that he is a member of a minstrel show troupe visiting Texarkana. He establishes himself in the town of Sedalia, Missouri.
  • World's Fair, 1893-1898: Ragtime is introduced to European-Americans at the Chicago World's Fair. Joplin plays cornet and leads a band (probably outside the actual fairgrounds). In 1894, he returns to Sedalia, takes classes at George R. Smith College, plays and sings with some local ensembles, and plays piano – traveling as far as Syracuse, New York, where he has two early songs published.
  • Publishing Breakthrough, 1899-1902: Joplin plays piano at the Maple Leaf Club in Sedalia and teaches younger pianists like Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden. In 1899, he writes The Maple Leaf Rag. Instead of selling this song outright, he signs a royalty contract with its publisher, John Stark. The piece sells half a million copies by 1909, making Joplin the “King of Ragtime.” In 1901 he moves to St. Louis to concentrate on composition and publishes several more famous works, like The Easy Winners (1901) and The Entertainer (1902).
  • Operatic Ambitions, 1903-1907: In 1903, Joplin finishes his first opera, A Guest of Honor, probably about the visit of Booker T. Washington to President Theodore Roosevelt's White House. He tours the opera through the Midwest. However, someone steals the receipts of the performances leaving Joplin without money to pay the performers. At an African-American boarding house in Pittsburg, Kansas, Joplin's score and some personal belongings are confiscated. The score is now lost. Joplin publishes more of his great rags, such as The Cascades (1904).
  • New York and More Opera, 1907-1911: Arriving in New York, Joplin sets to work on a second opera, Treemonisha. He publishes a few more rags, but Treemonisha is rejected by the firms he solicits. He publishes the 250-page score himself in 1911. Although a few excerpts of the opera are performed, Joplin never sees a staged production of his great work.
  • Last Years, 1912-1917: Joplin forms his own publishing company, which brings out Magnetic Rag (1914), his last published composition. He continues to write large-scale scores, including, apparently, a musical and several orchestral works, but these scores have not survived. Suffering from tertiary syphilis, Joplin is hospitalized in 1917, then transferred to a mental institution, where he dies.
Fun Facts
  • Strong and Silent: Joplin, said everyone who knew him, was quiet, withdrawn, and spoke little. He seemed sad. History is also almost silent on Joplin: We have none of his letters, no diary, almost no records of the first 25 years of his life, and sketchy evidence after that. None of his unpublished music has ever been recovered.
  • Helping Hand: Joplin was a generous teacher, as well as composer, and his students included many of the most gifted pianist/composers in the ragtime world – Arthur Marshall, Scott Hayden, Louis Chauvin, and James Lamb (who was white). He collaborated with several of them, as on Heliotrope Bouquet, a beautiful work written with Chauvin.
  • Family: Joplin had three marital relationships: Belle Jones accompanied him to St. Louis, but the couple broke up after their infant child died. In June 1904, he married Freddie Alexander, to whom he had dedicated Chrysanthemum: An African-American Intermezzo. She died six months later, of pneumonia. Around 1911, he married Lottie Stokes, who ended up managing his financial affairs and helping to run his publishing company.
  • Irving Berlin: Joplin's New York publisher, Seminary Music, shared an office with Ted Snyder Inc., where Irving Berlin was a partner. The firm was one of those that rejected Treemonisha, but Joplin claimed that one strain of Berlin's mega-hit ragtime song, Alexander's Ragtime Band, was lifted from a number in his opera.
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Explore the Music
  • Classic ragtime (about 1898-1920) is based on the march (bands like John Philip Sousa's being at the height of their popularity in that period), and sometimes on popular dances. It uses distinctive syncopations, not conventionally “swung” rhythm. It is usually said that the term ragtime derives from these syncopations, or “ragged” rhythms. But one scholar has suggested that it comes from handkerchiefs (rags), which were held high to announce a dance.
  • Joplin's respect for concert music showed not just in his compositions but also in his rags. In The School of Ragtime, a set of graded exercises meant to help home pianists master the difficult music, Joplin distances his compostions from the oral traditions and improvisatory style of some of his contemporaries: “[My works] have been harmonized with the supposition that each note will be played as it is written.” His intent here, and throughout his career, was to raise the social status of the music from “mere” dance music to fine art.
  • Stung by the Ragtime Bug: Stung by the Ragtime Bug: There were a couple of ragtime revivals in the 1940s and '50s, but Joplin's popularity was resuscitated when pianist Joshua Rifkin (advised by composer William Bolcom, who later released his own Joplin album) recorded Scott Joplin: Piano Rags (1971), which eventually became Nonesuch's first million-selling album. Then came the movie The Sting (1973), which prominently featured Joplin's music in Marvin Hamlisch's arrangements.

    Sensing a revival, classical record labels released a number of recordings of the rags, and a production of Treemonisha was mounted in 1976, which made it to Broadway and was recorded. Original rags began to appear: Bolcom, for example, has written more than 20 rags, of which the most famous is the Graceful Ghost (1970), and his opera, McTeague includes ragtime. E.L. Doctorow's great novel Ragtime (1975) deals partly with the struggles of an African-American ragtime pianist of Joplin's era. It was made into a film (1981) and a popular musical (1998).

    The revival of Joplin's ragtime also helped renew the reputations of ragtime and “stride” pianists who were directly influenced by Joplin's music — Eubie Blake (who was still alive in the 1970s), Thomas “Fats” Waller, and Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton among them. Joplin was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976, and his portrait graced a postage stamp in 1981.
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