Scott Joplin – African American Composer Who Became King of Ragtime

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Portrait of Scott Joplin. First published in St. Louis Globe-Democrat newspaper, June 7, 1903.

Scott Joplin was born poor and black, two major hurdles at a time when racial prejudice widespread. He nevertheless wrote some of the most memorable music of his era.

In a very real sense Scott Joplin’s career is a triumph of genius and perseverance over adversity. At his peak around 1900 Joplin helped create and popularize a form of music called “Ragtime.” Finally the young composer conceived the idea of a grand folk opera he eventually called Treemonisha. The opera was a failure, and Joplin died not long after. But his work revived in the 1970s, and continues to be poplar today.

Scott Joplin’s Early Years

Scott Joplin was born in Texas, probably in 1867, though no one knows for sure. The “official” date of November 24, 1868 is now known to be false. His father, a former slave, was a laborer. When Scott was still very young the family moved to Texarkana, which straddles the Texas-Arkansas border.

According to tradition, young Scott first had access to a piano in the house where his mother worked. Supposedly he taught himself the rudiments of the keyboard and how to play. His was a raw, undeveloped talent, and luckily a German-born local music teacher by the name of Julius Weiss was prescient enough to recognize it. Weiss taught the youngster an appreciation of the European music tradition, particularly opera.

Joplin and Ragtime Music

In the 1880s a teenaged Joplin moved to Sedalia, which would be his home base for much of his career. He didn’t always stay in Sedalia, however, since his life was basically the peripatetic life of an itinerant musician Joplin worked in a minstrel troupe, played cornet in a band, and went to Illinois around the time of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

It was at this time a raw, primitive musical form called “jig piano” was evolving into Ragtime. It combined the scale, key, and harmony of white culture with the rhythms of the black tradition. Joplin took the form and made it is own. In the 1890s he still hadn’t mastered musical notation. but Joplin persevered, and the result was an outpouring of memorable rags for the next decade

The Maple Leaf Rag

In 1899, with the help of Sedalia lawyer Robert Higdon, Joplin managed to contact music store owner and publisher John Stark and persuade him to publish the composer’s latest work. This was Maple Leaf Rag, by common consent the greatest and most famous piano rags of all time. Ironically, sales were slow at first, mainly because Stark was a small publisher, and the piece of hard to play. Only 400 copies were sold the first year, not much considering Joplin was given only one cent royalty per copy. But sales improved, and by 1909 about a half-million copies were sold. Maple Leaf Rag gave Joplin a modest income for the rest of his life, though he was far from rich

The Folk Opera Treemonisha

Over the next decade, roughly 1900-1910, Joplin was at the peak of his creative powers. No less than nineteen rags, marches, and waltzes flowed from his creative brain. But as the years passed, he became more and more involved with the idea of a folk opera. Treemonisha’s story is set in a rural black community in Arkansas. African Americans were originally slaves, and were only freed from bondage by the Civil War. In Treemonisha Joplin says, via musical allegory, that black people are still in bondage, chained by heavy shackles of ignorance and superstition. Only education can provide the ultimate freedom.

Scott Joplin’s Later Years

Joplin self-published Treemonsha in 1911, but his ultimate goal was to have a full scale, completely staged performance. He was never able to get enough money—or backers—to fulfill his dream. Joplin managed to get one or two partial performances done, but the basic failure of the project was a bitter pill to take.

By 1916, Joplin was feeling the debilitating effects of tertiary syphilis, which he probably contracted twenty years earlier. Scott Joplin died in a mental hospital on April 1, 1917, aged about fifty.

Revival of Scott Joplin’s Work

By the 1920s, if not earlier, Joplin’s work fell into obscurity. He was forgotten, and Ragtime was no longer popular. But in the 1970s, aided by the sound track of the popular film The Sting, Joplin gained a new popularity. The Pulitzer Committee awarded Joplin a posthumous prize in 1976 for his contribution to American music.

Sources:

  1. Edward A. Berlin, King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and his Era (Oxford, 1994)
  2. Same author Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History (Oxford, 1980)