|June 1867 - January 1868
|April 1, 1917
New York City, New York
Scott Joplin (January 1868 - April 1, 1917) was an African-American composer and instrumentalist who became the leading exponent of ragtime music. Ragtime combined African-American syncopation and folk melodies with European classical conventions to create an original American musical style recognized as a precursor to jazz. Joplin is considered the "Father of Ragtime" by many, not because he invented the style, but rather due to the refinement and unprecedented popularity of his ragtime compositions.
In an era when African-American music was known largely through demeaning minstrel shows in which white entertainers performed in blackface, and most American instrumental music was derivative of European classicism, Joplin emerged as a ground-breaking musical innovator. Joplin (along with Louis Moraeu Gottschalk, with whose music he was undoubtedly familiar) was one of the first American composers to look to America's musical heritage as a resource for formal compositions. Joplin particularly sought to bring recognition and respect to African American cultural contributions, and he composed operas, a symphony, and a piano concerto based on the musical characteristics of ragtime.
With the rival of interest of ragtime in the 1970s, Joplin's contributions have come to be recognized as a milestone in the development of American music. One of his most notable pieces, "The Entertainer," was popularized by the film, The Sting. Joplin remains the best-known ragtime figure and is regarded as one of the three most important composers of Classic Rag, along with James Scott and Joseph Lamb.
Joplin was born in East Texas, near Linden, to Florence Givins Joplin and Giles (sometimes listed as "Jiles") Joplin. His date of birth was thought to be November 24, 1868, but new research based on a census taken in 1870 places his birth date around one year earlier. Joplin was the second of six children, having three brothers and two sisters. Both of his parents were musically talented. His father, a farmer and a former slave, played the fiddle and his mother sang and played banjo, creating for Scott an early exposure to music and rhythm.
Around 1871, the Joplin family moved to Texarkana, Texas. His father left soon after and Joplin's mother began cleaning homes to support the family. Scott was able to practice on the pianos of some of her employers and received lessons for free from a German music teacher who heard of his talent. These lessons gave Scott a well-rounded exposure to European classical composers, as well as the basics of musical theory and harmony. His early education would fuel his ambition to create a "classical" form of ragtime. By 1882, his mother had purchased a piano.
Joplin studied under many piano teachers, and when his mother died in the late 1880s, he left home to become a professional musician. As a teenager, he played in churches, bars, and brothels—the only places a black musician could perform in late-nineteenth century America.
Joplin's musical talents were varied. He joined, or formed, various quartets and other musical groups while traveling around the Midwest. In the Queen City Concert Band he played the coronet, and was also known to be part of a minstrel troupe in Texarkana around 1891. Joplin organized The Texas Medley Quartette, and helped them sing their way back to Syracuse, New York. His performances became popular with some New York businessmen in Syracuse, and they helped him with publishing his first two songs, "Please Say You Will" and "A Picture of Her Face."
As he traveled the South, Joplin absorbed both black and white ragtime. Ragtime evolved from the old slave songs and combined a syncopated and varied rhythm pattern with the melody. "Ragging" of songs was especially popular with dance music, and some dances were often called "rags." When not traveling, Joplin made his home in Sedalia, Missouri, where he moved in 1894. There he worked as a pianist in the Maple Leaf and Black 400 clubs, which were social clubs for "respectable black gentlemen." He also taught several local musicians, among them were Scott Hayden and Arthur Marshall, whom he would later collaborate with on several rags.
Around 1896 Joplin attended music classes at George R. Smith College in Sedalia, an institution for African-Americans established by the Methodist Church. Unfortunately, the college and it's records were destroyed in a fire in 1925, so there is no record of the extent of his education there. It is accepted that his abilities in music notation were still lacking until the end of the 1890s.
His inabilities did not stop him, however, for in 1896, Joplin published two marches and a waltz. Two years later he succeeded in selling his first piano rag, Original Rags, a collaboration with arranger, Charles N. Daniels, and publisher, Carl Hoffman.
By 1898, Joplin had sold six pieces for the piano, and in 1899, Joplin sold what would become his most famous piece, Maple Leaf Rag, to John Stark & Son, a Sedalia music publisher. Through these publishers Joplin met and befriended Joseph Lamb, whose famous Sensations (1908) was published after Joplin's recommendation. Joplin received a one cent royalty for each copy of "Maple Leaf Rag" and ten free copies for his own use, as well as an advance. It had sold nearly half a million copies by the end of 1909 and has been estimated that Joplin made $360 per year on this composition in his lifetime.
Joplin left little doubt as to how his compositions should be performed: As a precaution against the prevailing tendency of the day to up the tempo, he explicitly wrote in many of his scores that "ragtime should never be played fast." According to Joplin biographer Rudi Blesh:
Joplin's injunction needs to be read in the light of his time, when a whole school of "speed" players … were ruining the fine rags. Most frequently felled by this quack-virtuoso musical mayhem was the Maple Leaf Rag. Joplin's concept of "slow" was probably relative to the destructive prestos of his day.
Maple Leaf Rag boosted Joplin to the top of the list of ragtime performers and moved ragtime into prominence as a musical form. With this success, Joplin began to devote all his time to composition and teaching. Joplin's prolific output elevated ragtime into preeminence as a popular music form at the turn of the century. His sophisticated compositions, presented a "subtle balance of polarities, continuity, and repetition of melody and rhythm, much the same combination of energy and lyricism as in the marches of his contemporary, John Philip Sousa," wrote William J. Schafer and Johannes Riedel in The Art of Ragtime: Form and Meaning of an Original Black American Art.
With a growing national reputation, Joplin moved to St. Louis, Missouri, in early 1900, with his new wife, Belle. Between 1900 and 1903 in St. Louis, he produced some of his best-known works, including "The Entertainer," "Elite Syncopations," "March Majestic," and "Ragtime Dance."
Joplin is also remembered for composing the ragtime opera A Guest of Honor, in 1903, which boldly portrayed a dinner between Booker T. Washington and President Roosevelt at the White House, in l901, putting African-Americans on equal footing with other white Americans. The score to A Guest of Honor is lost.
Treemonisha, one of Joplin's award-winning operas, became a great success posthumously. It brought to light the situation of African-Americans of his day, and affirmed that education was the only way to overcome ignorance and superstitions. He was a great advocate of education.
Joplin had several marriages. Perhaps his dearest love, Freddie Alexander, died at age twenty of complications resulting from a cold, just two months after their wedding. The first work copyrighted after Freddie's death, Bethena (1905), is a very sad, musically complex ragtime waltz. After months of faltering, Joplin continued writing and publishing sheet music.
Joplin wanted to experiment further with compositions like Treemonisha, but by 1916, he was suffering from the effects of what would prove to be terminal syphilis. He suffered later from dementia, paranoia, paralysis, and other symptoms. Despite his ill health, he recorded six piano rolls that year—Maple Leaf Rag (for Connorized and Aeolian companies), Something Doing, Magnetic Rag, Ole Miss Rag, Weeping Willow Rag, and Pleasant Moments—Ragtime Waltz (all for Connorized). These are the only records of his playing recorded, and they are interesting for the embellishments added by Joplin to his performances. The roll of Pleasant Moments was thought lost until August 2006, when a piano roll collector in New Zealand discovered a surviving copy. It has been claimed that the uneven nature of some of Joplin's piano rolls, such as one of the recordings of Maple Leaf Rag mentioned above, documented the extent of Joplin's physical deterioration due to syphilis. However, the irregularities may also be due to the primitive technology used to record the rolls, although rolls recorded by other artists around the same time are noticeably smoother.
In mid-January 1917, Joplin was hospitalized at Manhattan State Hospital in New York City, and friends recounted that he would have bursts of lucidity in which he would jot down lines of music hurriedly before relapsing. Joplin died at the hospital on April 1, 1917, near the age of 50. He was buried in St. Michael's Cemetery in the Astoria section of Queens, New York.
Joplin's death did not make the headlines for two reasons: Ragtime was quickly losing ground to jazz and the United States would enter World War I within days. Joplin's musical papers, including unpublished manuscripts, were willed to Joplin's friend and the executor of his will, musician and composer Wilber Sweatman. Sweatman generously shared access to them, yet few inquired as Joplin's music had come to be considered passé. After Sweatman's death in 1961, the papers were last known to go into storage during a legal battle among Sweatman's heirs; their current location is not known, nor even if they still exist.
There was, however, an important find in 1971: A piano-roll copy of the lost Silver Swan Rag, cut sometime around 1914. It had not been published in sheet-music form in Joplin's lifetime. Before this, his only posthumously published piece had been Reflection Rag, published by Stark in 1917, from an older manuscript he'd kept back.
Even at the time of publication, Joplin's publisher, John Stillwell Stark, was claiming that Joplin's rags had obtained "classical" status and "lifted ragtime from its low estate and elevated it to the level of Beethoven and Bach". Later critics, such as David A. Jasen and Trebor Jay Tichenor, also gave credit to Joplin as an important innovator:
He combined the traditions of Afro-American music folk music with nineteenth-century European romanticism; he collected the black Midwestern Folk rag ideas as raw material for the creation of original strains. Thus, his rags are the most heavily pentatonic, with liberal use of blue notes and other outstanding features that characterize black folk music. In this creative synthesis, … the traditional march became the dominant form, and the result was a new art form, the classic rag—a unique conception which paradoxically both forged the way for early serious ragtime composition, and, at the same time, developed along insular lines, away from most other ragtime playing and composing.
Ragtime is also recognized as a precursor to jazz, with such as pianist-composer Jelly Roll Morton adapting ragtime with improvisations and more blue notes to contribute to the emergence of jazz. After Joplin's death, his music and ragtime in general waned in popularity as new forms of musical styles, such as jazz and novelty piano emerged. However, a number of revivals of ragtime have occurred since.
In the early 1940s, many jazz bands began to include ragtime in their repertoire and released ragtime recordings on 78 RPM records. In 1970, Joshua Rifkin released a Grammy Award nominated recording of Joplin's rags on the classical recording label Nonesuch. In 1972, Joplin's opera Treemonisha was finally staged at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Marvin Hamlisch's adaptation of the Joplin rag, "The Entertainer," taken from the Oscar-winning film The Sting, reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 music chart in 1974. Ironically, Hamlisch's slightly-abbreviated arrangements and performances of Joplin's rags for The Sting were ahistorical, as the film was set in the 1930s, well past the peak of the ragtime era.
In 1974, Kenneth MacMillan created a ballet for the Royal Ballet, Elite Syncopations, based on tunes by Joplin, Max Morath, and others. It is still performed occasionally.
Scott Joplin was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976, for his special contribution to American music. He also has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. Motown Productions produced a Scott Joplin biographical film starring Billy Dee Williams as Joplin, which was released by Universal Pictures in 1977.
In 1983, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp of the composer as part of its Black Heritage commemorative series.
Inconsistencies exist between certain titles and subtitles, and their respective cover titles, possibly reflecting an editorial casualness. The substitution of terms would also indicate that the designations cakewalk, march, two-step, rag, and slow drag were interchangeable, inasmuch as they alluded to a genre of music in duple meter to which a variety of dance steps might be performed. There are also inconsistencies between the publishing date, and registering of copyright. In some instances, copyright notices were not registered. In all cases, musical compositions are listed by date of publication using their cover titles and subtitles.
All links retrieved November 2, 2019.
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