I remember hearing ragtime for the first time at age five during my first trip to Disneyland, along Main Street where they pipe in early 20th century music and I have been a fan ever since, particularly of Scott Joplin, the “king of ragtime,” one of the greatest American composers in history.
Early Life of Scott Joplin
Scott Joplin was born in either 1867 or 1868 in Texas to Giles, a former slave, and Florence Joplin, who was born a free woman. By the time he was five, Scott Joplin’s family had moved to the Texas side of Texarkana. Both of his parents played music, so it was little wonder the young Joplin showed musical brilliance. He would practice piano at the homes where his mother, who cleaned houses for a living, worked. Joplin’s father knew being a musician would mean a rough life for his son, especially being Black, so he was completely against his musical education while his mother encouraged it. This led to the end of the Joplin’s marriage.
There are a lot of holes in Scott Joplin’s life story. However, we know he eventually taught music in Texarkana until the late 1880s when he began traveling as a musician playing in bars and brothels. These were some of the few places where Black musicians could find steady work. He traveled to Chicago in 1893 for the World’s Fair and eventually moved to Sedalia, Missouri in 1894 where he studied at George R. Smith College. Here, he learned to write music and became a piano teacher.
Ragtime: The Rock-n-Roll of Its Time
Ragtime was not invented by Scott Joplin but he did popularize it with his clever and upbeat compositions. Ragtime was born out of African folk music which had syncopated rhythms, that is, music that has unpredictable beats. This was revolutionary at the time. The name “ragtime” is due to the music having “ragged time.” Ragtime as a genre had been around for some time but it didn’t become nationally popular until the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 when it became “main stream.” Young people, especially, loved the music and doing the Cake Walk to ragtime. More traditional audiences believed Ragtime was corrupting the minds and morals of American youth.
Joplin’s Rise to Fame
According to one account, while playing at The Maple Leaf Club a man named John Stark, who was a publisher and owned a music store, approached Joplin to ask if he was interested in selling sheet music of his original compositions. Joplin agreed but only if he received royalties from sales, not a flat-out fee as was the custom at the time. The men agreed at a 1% royalty per sheet music sold, a very smart move by Joplin who insured himself a somewhat steady source of income. His first published piece with Stark, “The Maple Leaf Rag,” sold over one-million copies in 1899 making it one of the first – if not, the first – hit song in American music history.
The First All African-American Opera
Scott Joplin was more than a ragtime musician and composer, and he wanted to prove his talents beyond the genre that made him famous. He apparently wrote a piano concerto, a symphony, an opera called “A Guest of Honor,” and a musical. Sadly, the manuscripts to these works didn’t survive so we will never know the joys of hearing this music. However, his dream project completed in 1911, an opera he called Treemonisha was published, but not with a lot of financial and emotional pain.
Treemonisha was seen as controversial at the time for its social message: it was the story of a Black woman who leads her community out of ignorance through knowledge and education. Joplin could not find anyone interested in publishing the work, so he paid for it himself, a very costly endeavor. Further, getting the opera funded proved impossible as it was an expensive undertaking, and there was very little interest in sinking money into an all-Black opera. The most Joplin could manage was a read-through performance in 1915 in Harlem, with Joplin playing the score on the piano: no costumes or sets. The performance did not impress possible financial backers who attended.
Heartbroken, financially ruined, and suffering from syphilis induced dementia, Joplin died on April 1, 1917 at the age of 48. The king of ragtime, one of the greatest American composers to ever live, was buried in an unmarked grave.
The 1970s saw a ragtime and Joplin revival. Composer and musician Joshua Rifkin recorded and released Scott Joplin Piano Rags in 1970. In 1973 the soundtrack for the movie The Sting featured multiple Joplin compositions. Although the film took place in the late 1930s, not at the height of the genre’s popularity, ragtime was used due to the lightheartedness and humor expressed in the songs. Joplin’s “The Entertainer” hit #3 on the Billboard pop charts in 1974, seventy-two years after it was first written.
In 1972, sixty-one years after Joplin’s death, Morehouse College and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra joined forces for the first full staging of Treemonisha. This truly American opera is a magnificent musical blending of spirituals, folk, and ragtime. For his contributions to American music, Joplin posthumously received the Pulitzer Prize in 1976. His unmarked grave was finally given a marker in 1974.
If you haven’t taken the time to truly listen to Scott Joplin’s music, play it and let your ears capture all the wonderful dancing notes as they take you through a captivating musical journey. Scott Joplin was an American genius, one who should be celebrated, studied, and listened to year-round.
(Below you can see a clip of the Houston Grand Opera’s staging of Treemonisha. This is the final number, “A Slow Rag.” One can hear the clear sounds of Americana in this piece. A full performance is available on YouTube. Keep scrolling for a bonus video.)
Villa Finale’s collection contains several mechanized musical instruments, a couple of them contain rolls featuring ragtime. This is Villa Finale’s reproducing piano playing “Egyptian Rag” by Percy Wenrich, 1910.)