As a life-long amateur musician interested in musicology, I was surprised to see the subject of today’s post listed in the New York Times as being overlooked by history. It is hard to understand how such a seminal figure in the history of American popular music could be considered relatively unknown, but apparently such is the case. So in an effort to correct that error, it must be said that before Louis Armstrong, before Duke Ellington, before Count Basie, before Cab Calloway, before jazz, before rock and roll, before hip hop and rap, there was the King of Ragtime, Scott Joplin.
He and his music have been featured in a best-selling novel, Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow, and in movies such as The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Even if his name is unfamiliar, at some point most people have surely heard his wonderful syncopated rhythms featured in movies, concerts, and advertising. His compositions are true classics of the popular genre and he deserves recognition as one of the fathers of modern American music.
Joplin’s exact date and place of birth are unknown. It is estimated that he was born between June 1867 and January 1868 to Florence , who sang on stage and played banjo, and Giles Joplin, a violinist. He grew up in the border town of Texarkana, TX and showed his musical gift at an early age. As a child, he learned guitar, the cornet, and sang, but it was his piano playing that drew the attention of a local music teacher, Julius Weiss, who gave him formal instruction in the instrument.
As a teen, Scott left home to work as a traveling musician. He played in bars and dance halls where he absorbed the ethos of new musical forms that grew out of African-American culture and that would eventually consolidate into a whole new American musical genre, ragtime. The distinct, syncopated rhythms of ragtime are unmistakable and Scott Joplin would become its greatest proponent and composer.
In the 1880’s, Joplin settled down in Sedalia, Missouri before traveling to Chicago in 1893 to play in a band at the World’s Fair. After the fair, he returned to Sedalia where he studied music at the George R. Smith College for Negros. He also opened his own piano studio where he taught music and mentored younger musicians. At the time, society in general was wont to dismiss popular music, especially ragtime, as the lowest form of art. Some people even considered it the devil’s work, but Joplin’s classical training informed his compositions and provided a structure for his music that would come to be considered classic. While in Sedalia, he gained popularity playing in local bars like the Maple Leaf Club and continued to play traveling gigs, as well.
In the late 1890’s, Joplin published his first compositions, but the publisher forced him to share credit with another composer. Consultation with a lawyer ensured that he would receive sole credit for his work in future. His timing was excellent for his next published composition would ultimately become the best selling rag of all time. Taking its name from the club in which he had performed, Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag sold slowly at first, but gained such popularity that sales eventually numbered over 1 million copies. He wrote many other ragtime pieces, including The Entertainer, probably his second most recognized piece due to its being the theme song for the 1970’s Newman/Redford vehicle, The Sting. By the late 1890’s, ragtime rode on ever wilder waves of popularity and Scott Joplin was the captain of its ship.
Not content with the success brought by his individually published ragtime compositions, Joplin set his sights on ensuring the genre’s acceptance as the demanding art form it was and on writing full length operatic scores. In 1908, he published a series entitled The School of Ragtime: Six Exercises for Piano, which explained the complexities of ragtime playing and composition. In School, Joplin demonstrated just how serious he was about ragtime as a fully realized, classic art form. He was very clear on how the music should be performed, stating that not all syncopated music that masqueraded under the name of ragtime was genuine and that unless the markings were read correctly, ragtime was not being performed.
His operatic endeavors met with limited success. His first, A Guest of Honor, taken on tour in 1903 left him with great financial losses. Now living in New York, his second, Treemonisha, first performed in 1907, was not given a full staging until years after its creation. The multi-genre theatrical project Treemonisha tells the story of a rural African-American community near Texarkana and is considered a precursor of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. It was given a full staging in 1975, 58 years after Joplin’s death.
Joplin continued to compose and publish until his death in 1917, even forming his own publishing company. After his death, ragtime faded into obscurity, replaced in the hearts of the public by other forms of popular music. It was not until Joplin’s music was used to provide the score for The Sting, that his genius was brought to light and again recognized. In 1976, Joplin received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for his contributions to the arts and for his influence on decades of American popular music. He was the quintessential ragtime man.