Scott Joplin (1868-1917)
Scott Joplin, commonly known as the “King of Ragtime” music, was born on November 24, 1868, in Bowie County, Texas near Linden. Joplin came from a large musical family. His father, Giles Joplin was a musician who had fiddled dance music while serving as a slave at his master’s parties. His mother, Florence Givens Joplin, born free and out of slavery, sang and played the banjo, and four of his brothers and sisters either sang or played strings.
Joplin’s talent was revealed at an early age. Encouraged by his parent’s, he became extremely proficient on the banjo and gained an interest for playing the piano. After Joplin’s parents purchased a piano for the family, he taught himself how to play the instrument so well that his piano playing became remarkable. Joplin soon began playing for church and local social events. By age eleven, while under the teachings of a German music teacher named Juliuss Weiss, Joplin was learning the finer points of harmony and style. As a teenager, he played well enough to be employed as a dance musician.
In 1884, Joplin left home and traveled the Midwest for some time as an intinerant pianist playing in saloons and brothels. He settled in St. Louis a few years later and continued his studies. He found employment there in the city’s prostitution district playing as a cafe pianist.
Joplin left St. Louis in 1893 and performed at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He left there in 1894 and arrived in Sedalia, Missouri, where he spent the next year or so entertaining the patrons of a private club on the second floor of a saloon by the name of “Maple Leaf Club.” In 1895, Joplin continued his studies at the George R. Smith College for negros where he soon published his first composition, the song Please Say You Will. From there, Joplin toured with an eight member Texas Medley Quartet across the country all the way up to Syracuse, New York. This Quartet disbanded in 1897 and Joplin organized another group, the Seda Quartet, which performed off and on during the next few years.
In 1899, Joplin composed the Maple Leaf Rag. This song soon became the most popular piano rag of the period. It brought Joplin popularity, which inspired him to compose several more original rags.
Joplin headed for New York in 1907 where he continued composing music and began instructing others in music. He son sought a publisher for one of his most famous operas Treemonisha. During this time, though, it never reached any success. This opera did not actually reach popularity until some 60 years later. New York proved to be stimulating for Joplin’s creative mind. There he published many ragtime jewels, on right after another.
In 1916, Joplin’s career came to an abrupt end. Joplin contracted syphilis and began suffering the terminal effects of this disease. He suffered from paranoia, dementia, penalization, and other symptoms. In the latter part of 1916, he was admitted to Manhattan State Hospital, a mental hospital, where he would never leave until he passed away on April 1, 1917. After his death, Joplin’s body was buried in the Astoria section of Queens, New York in St. Michael’s Cemetery.
In Joplin’s many years of composing, he was never actually
acknowledged as the great composer that he really was. There just was not any opportunities for black musicians during those times to have their music heard by anyone in the serious musical world. Joplin’s music received recognition posthumously as a result of the revival of ragtime music in the 1970’s, as well as during its popularity in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
Throughout his entire life, Joplin was mostly influenced to increase his musical skills by his mother and father, both being musicians themselves. More than type of influence upon himself, Joplin was one to place the influence on others. His works sparked the writings of his contemporaries, all those who studied with him, and all those who studied his music.
Joplin led in the development of the music genre known as ragtime, which was a unique blend of European classical styles combined with African American rhythm and harmony. Throughout his lifetime, Joplin published some 60 compositions of which 41 were piano rags. Through his unique styles, he had developed the piano rag and American folk operas. He was mostly successful for his fusion of the Afro-American folk tradition
with European art music forms and techniques.
Joplin wrote many great works of art. A few of his most popular works, which mostly gained their popularity many years after his death would include The Great Crush Collision, Maple Leaf Rag, The Entertainer, Ragtime Dance, and Treemonisha.
In late 1896, Joplin composed one of his first compositions called The Great Crush Collision. It was inspired by a spectacular railroad locomotive crash staged near Waco, Texas in September 1896.
Maple Leaf Rag became Joplin’s most popular rag. It secured him a modest lifetime income from royalties and earned him the name “King of Ragtime.” Completed in 1899, this rag was named after a dance hall where he had worked back in 1895 named Maple
The Entertainer, completed in 1902, proved to be one of Joplin’s other most famous works. This piece brought him unprecedented popularity and fame after his death when it was
used in 1974 in the award-winning film The Sting.
Ragtime Dance was completed by Joplin in 1902. This rag was written to act as a type of preliminary sketch for a following ragtime opera composed shortly thereafter named A Guest of
Joplin published one of his greatest operas in May 1911 called Treemonisha. Treemonisha consisted of a 240-page manuscript which was written for the use of eleven voices and piano accompaniment. This piece became the first grand opera composed by an African American. In 1976, Treemonisha won the coveted Pulitzer Prize.
The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie, 20 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1980)9: 708-709
Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, ed. Nicolas Slonimsky, 7th ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1984)1135-1136
Biographical Dictionary of Afro- American and African Musicians, ed. Eileen Southern, (Connecticut: Greenwood Press)220-222
Dictionary of American Negro Biogarphy, ed. Rayford W. Logan, (New York: W.W. Norton and Co.)369-371