Joplin, Scott (1868–1917)

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Scott Joplin (1868–1917)

When one thinks of ragtime, one thinks of Scott Joplin, a pioneering African American musician and composer. Ragtime is a lively, melodic style of music that, at the turn of the twentieth century, was acknowledged as fresh and uniquely American. At the time, it was labeled "the folk music of the American city," and Joplin was famed as the "King of Ragtime Writers."

While growing up in Texas amidst a family of sharecroppers, Joplin heard—and was influenced by—African American work songs and spirituals as well as European waltzes and marches. He began playing the piano and studied music with a German-born teacher, from whom he learned the manner in which European musical compositions were structured. He blended all of these influences into his own rhythmically adventurous brand of music, which he began performing while still an adolescent. In the 1890s, he found himself in Sedalia, Missouri, where he took music courses at the George R. Smith College for Negroes and became a member of the Queen City Band, an all-black group that performed at public and private events. Joplin's compositions soon were published; during his lifetime, his most fabled was "Maple Leaf Rag" (1899). It was followed by "Peacherine Rag" (1901), "Augustan Club Waltz" (1901), "A Breeze from Alabama" (1902), "Elite Syncopation" (1902), "The Entertainer" (1902), "The Strenuous Life" (1902), "Gladiolus Rag" (1907), "Pine Apple Rag" (1908), and "Solace—A Mexican Serenade" (1909).

Joplin earned his living from sheet music sales and by teaching and performing. He viewed himself not as a writer of popular music, however, but as a serious composer. His more important compositions—which, predictably, were not his most popular in the mass market—included The Ragtime Dance (1902), a ragtime ballet, and The Guest of Honor (1903), a ragtime opera. During the final decade of his life, he worked on Treemonisha (1911), a second ragtime opera, whose key theme was the desperate need for education within the African American community. Unfortunately, Treemonisha was performed only once during Joplin's lifetime, in 1915.

Scott Joplin was long forgotten by the public at the time of the release of The Sting (1973), a film whose score consisted of Joplin rags. The success of the film, which won many Academy Awards, initiated a ragtime renaissance.

—Rob Edelman

For More Information

Benson, Kathleen, and James Haskins. Scott Joplin. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978.

Berlin, Edward. "A Biography of Scott Joplin." The Scott Joplin International Ragtime Foundation. (accessed January 7, 2002).

Berlin, Edward. The King of Ragtime: A Biography of Scott Joplin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Curtis, Susan. Dancing to a Black Man's Tune: A Life of Scott Joplin. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1994.

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Joplin, Scott (1868–1917)

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