Viewed as the “King of Ragtime,” Scott Joplin was the foremost composer of the genre in the early 20th century, known for works like “The Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer.”
Who Was Scott Joplin?
Born in the late 1860s somewhere along the border between Texas and Arkansas, Scott Joplin took up the piano as a child and eventually became a travelling musician as a teen. He immersed himself in the emerging musical form known as ragtime and became the genre’s foremost composer with tunes like “The Entertainer,” “Solace” and “The Maple Leaf Rag,” which is the biggest-selling ragtime song in history. Joplin also penned the operas Guest of Honor and Treemonisha. He died in New York City on April 1, 1917.
Scott Joplin’s exact date of birth and location is not known, though it is estimated that he was born between the summer of June 1867 and January 1868. Born to Florence Givens and Giles Joplin, Scott grew up in Texarkana, a town situated on the border between Texas and Arkansas. The Joplins were a musical family, with Florence being a singer and banjo player and Giles a violinist; Scott learned how to play the guitar at a young age and later took to the piano, displaying a gift for the instrument. Julius Weiss, a German music teacher who lived in Joplin’s hometown, gave the young pianist further instruction. Joplin was also a vocalist and would play the cornet as well.
Joplin left home during his teen years and began work as a travelling musician, playing in bars and dance halls where new musical forms were featured that formed the basis of ragtime, which had distinct, syncopated rhythms and a fusion of musical sensibilities. Joplin lived for a time in Sedalia, Missouri in the 1880s and in 1893 he fronted a band in Chicago during the World Fair. He later settled in Sedalia again while continuing to travel, with the waltzes “Please Say You Will” and “A Picture of Her Face” becoming his first two published songs.
Writing Huge Hit: ‘Maple Leaf Rag’
Joplin studied music at Sedalia’s George R. Smith College for Negroes during the 1890s and also worked as a teacher and mentor to other ragtime musicians. He published his first piano rag, “Original Rags,” in the late 1890s, but was made to share credit with another arranger. Joplin then worked with a lawyer to ensure that he would receive a one-cent royalty of every sheet-music copy sold of his next composition, “The Maple Leaf Rag.” In 1899, Joplin partnered with publisher John Stark to push the tune. Though sales were initially slight, it went on to become the biggest ragtime song ever, eventually selling more than a million copies.
Joplin focused on composing more ragtime works, with the genre taking the country by storm and Joplin earning acclaim for his artistry. Some of Joplin’s published compositions over the years included “The Entertainer,” “Peacherine Rag,” “Cleopha,” “The Chrysanthemum,” “The Ragtime Dance,” “Heliotrope Bouquet,” “Solace” and “Euphonic Sounds.”
Joplin was intensely concerned with making sure the genre received its proper due, taking note of the disparaging comments made by some white critics due to the music’s African American origins and radical form. As such, he published a 1908 series that broke down the complexities of ragtime form for students: The School of Ragtime: Six Exercises for Piano.
Joplin also aspired to produce long-form works. He published the ballet Rag Time Dance in 1902 and created his first opera, A Guest of Honor, for a Midwestern tour in 1903. The production was shut down due partially to the theft of box-office receipts, with Joplin ultimately dealing with great financial losses.
By 1907, Joplin had settled in New York to work on securing funding for another opera he had created, Treemonisha, a multi-genre theatrical project which told the story of a rural African-American community near Texarkana. A precursor to George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Treemonisha was presented in 1915 as a scaled-down production with voice and piano, but would not receive a full-stage treatment for years to come.
Final Years and Legacy
Joplin continued to work on various musical forms and formed his own publishing company with his third wife, Lottie, in 1913. By 1916, he had started to succumb to the ravages of syphilis, which he was thought to have contracted years earlier, and was later hospitalized and institutionalized. Joplin died on April 1, 1917.
Ragtime would enjoy a resurgence during the 1940s, and then in the ’70s became a hugely popular classical genre that also entered the U.S. consciousness via film—”The Entertainer” became the theme song for The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Joplin’s Treemonisha was also fully staged in 1975 on Broadway. The following year, Joplin received a special posthumous Pulitzer Prize, honoring the man who shaped a genre that influenced decades of music.