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Learn About the Ragtime Composer, Scott Joplin's Works and Life

Scott Joplin: Overview

Scott Joplin, the musical pioneer and an inspiration for African-Americans in the 19th and early 20th century, was born sometime in the year 1868. From the regions of Texas and Arkansas, Joplin showed an interest in piano from an early age and also in the then-emerging musical form, ragtime. From The Entertainer, Solace to Maple Leaf Rag, Joplin led a life filled with distinctive music, before he eventually succumbed to syphilis in 1917. 

Scott Joplin: African American Ragtime composer

Some of Joplin’s major & popular published works: 

  • The Entertainer
  • Maple Leaf Rag
  • Solace
  • Peacherine Rag 
  • Cleopha 
  • The Chrysanthemum
  • The Ragtime Dance (ballet)
  • Heliotrope Bouquet
  • Original Rags
  • Pineapple Rag
  • The Easy Winners
  • Sunflower Slow Drag
  • Weeping Willow
  • Pleasant Moments 
  • Treemonisha (opera, musical)
  • Searchlight Rag
  • The School of Ragtime: Six Exercises for Piano
  • Magnetic Rag
  • A Guest of Honor (opera, musical)
  • Euphonic Sounds

Scott Joplin: The King of Ragtime Writers

Scott Joplin was the second born of six children and his family came from Texas, United States. Joplin came from a very humble African-American family as his father was a laborer and his mother worked as a maid. From a rather early age, Joplin took piano lessons from Julius Weiss, a German music instructor. 

Joplin came from a music-loving heritage, which is evident from his father’s love for the violin and his mother’s love for singing and the banjo. Scott Joplin was equally charismatic with the violin and the cornet and sang beautifully. The 1880s took the young musician to places outside Texas where he performed by combining traditional western music such as waltz with African-American tunes. 

His pursuit of musical studies took him to Sedalia's ‘George R. Smith College for Negroes’ sometime in the 1890s, where other ragtime composers looked up to him. Joplin traveled to Chicago in 1893 during the World’s Fair where he played the cornet and acquainted himself with Otis Sanders, a musician. The latter inspired Joplin to actually write down and publish his songs.

In 1894, Joplin moved to Sedalia, Missouri where he became a member of and performed with the Queen City Cornet Band. The composer’s time in Sedalia was marked by the composition of the waltz pieces Please Say You Will and A Picture of Her Face. These two incidentally became Joplin’s first published songs. 

In 1899, Joplin, with the aid of publisher John Stark, published Maple Leaf Rag, the greatest piece that he would ever write. Though receiving a lukewarm reaction at the time of its debut, Maple Leaf Rag’s eventual popularity would go on to become synonymous with Scott Joplin himself, rendering him an income from it till his demise. The piano composition follows a multi-thematic form, meaning, it was written as a piece comprising of multiple melodies. The form followed here is the march musical genre and changes key after the second theme. There is a rhythmic coordination between both hands where there is an alternation between the left-handed bass/chord tune to the rhythmic melody in the right hand. 

Going forward from the above success Joplin, accompanied by his wife Belle Jones, went and settled in St. Louis in the year 1901. Scott Hayden and Arthur Marshall who were his fellow ragtime composers were also there. In St. Louis, Joplin devoted a lot of time and energy to new compositions which included the ballet Rag Time Dance in 1902 and the opera A Guest of Honor in 1903. 

Scott Joplin, in 1904, wrote and presented The Cascades, a rag which attained considerable fame. Subsequently, tragedies struck one after another when he lost his child in infancy, separated from his first wife and finally lost his second wife, Freddie Alexander to pneumonia within ten weeks from marriage. Joplin moved to New York City in 1907. 

That same year in Chicago, Joplin met Louis Chauvin, who was a pianist. The latter passed away in early 1908. Joplin found a use for one of the pianist’s musical strains for his Heliotrope Bouquet, which underwent publication in 1907. Incidentally, John Stark had settled in New York as well, rekindling his and Joplin’s partnership, even though the latter also had publications done through Seminary Music Co. This resulted in some extremely well-written and famous pieces like Pineapple Rag, Mexican serenade, Solace and Euphonic Sounds.

In 1908, Scott Joplin published The School of Ragtime: Six Exercises for Piano, especially for students interested in ragtime. The city of New York was a land of vibrancy for Joplin as he performed in the popular Vaudeville shows of the early 20th century along with composing novel songs. 

Joplin married Lottie Stokes in 1909, who provided much-needed support for his work. Joplin worked hard on his second opera, Treemonisha and within the period 1911-1915, he arranged for partial performances of the opera, even though he did not receive any financial support for it. Treemonisha was an inspiration for future opera pieces such as George Gershwin's “Porgy and Bess”, and was presented in 1915 in a scaled-down format. It would not be until years later that Treemonisha was played full-stage.

By the year 1916, Scott Joplin began to deteriorate in health from syphilis, which consequently institutionalized him till the day of his passing in 1917. 

Joplin was the first major African-American musician to come into prominence and steal the limelight. In an age dominated by racism and white supremacy, Joplin’s music was a beautiful addition to American artistic culture. His greatness also extended to his fellow singers as he responsibly and continuously advocated the talents of musicians such as James Scott, Louis Chauvin, and Scott Hayden, to name a few. Joplin also introduced the work of the composer Joseph Lamb to John Stark. These contributions to music and to other people’s lives made him a talented composer with a really big heart. 

Popular Culture 

Several of Scott Joplin's works appear in the film "The Sting". The film was made in 1973 and main characters were acted by Paul Newman and Robert Redford. In the film, Solace, The Entertainer, The Easy Winners, and Pine Apple Rag are heard.


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