Timeline: Scott Joplin (1868-1917)
Much like mazurkas evoke Poland and waltzes remind us of Vienna, the “rag” will forever be tied to the United States. Composer Scott Joplin was called “The King of Ragtime.” Though his works were popular during his lifetime, Joplin did not have an easy life or kingly riches.
Scott Joplin was born in Texarkana, Arkansas in 1868. His father was a former slave and his mother was freeborn. The family was quite musical but, it became evident from an early age that Scott was particularly talented. He caught the attention of music professor Julius Weiss, a German-Jewish immigrant. Weiss taught Joplin free-of-charge; he understood what hardship, poverty and racial inequality was like. Joplin was forever grateful. He sent many gifts and money back to Weiss later on in his career.
Scott Joplin didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps working on the railroad. He spent his twenties traveling around the American south, performing on any piano, in any venue he could find. In 1893, he traveled with his band to Chicago to be a part of the entertainment around the World’s Fair. This is where the world was introduced to “ragtime” and this style quickly became a nationwide craze.
Ragtime was a breath of fresh air for American audiences at the close of the 19th century.
Ragtime, or the term “rag,” refers to the syncopation that is a prominent feature of the music. Notes happen off-the-beat creating what was called a “ragged rhythm.” Many define the genre as a hybrid of the March form, made popular by John Philip Sousa, with polyrhythms from African music. It was a breath of fresh air to American audiences at the close of the 19th century.
Scott Joplin eventually settled in St. Louis and began teaching and publishing music. His 1899 “Maple Leaf Rag” was a huge hit and was quite possibly the first million-copy seller of American music. Even with that success, Joplin had many money issues. He had written an ambitious opera in 1903 called Guest of Honor. Bad business deals and backstabbing managers left him in debt and even the score to the opera was confiscated to pay back what Joplin owed. The score is now lost.
Joplin didn’t give up. He traveled to New York City, hoping to find a producer for his next big project, another opera entitled Treemonisha. Though there were a few readings and performances, this work was never fully staged in Joplin’s lifetime.
By 1916, Scott Joplin was suffering from the mental effects of syphilis and was admitted to the Manhattan State Hospital. He died there in January of the next year. After his death, ragtime fell out of favor. The style evolved into jazz, swing and eventually even, rock and roll.
The early 1970s saw a revival of ragtime and the music of Scott Joplin. This was thanks, in large part, to the popularity of the film The Sting and its soundtrack which featured a rag by Joplin called, “The Entertainer.” Suddenly, the world couldn’t get enough of Joplin’s music. Even his failed opera Treemonisha was finally given a staged, world premiere. Scott Joplin was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1976, almost 60 years after his death.