Joplin, Scott (1868-1917)

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Joplin, Scott (1868-1917)

As a pioneering African American composer of ragtime music, Scott Joplin took part in a musical revolution in America at the turn of the twentieth century and left an enduring mark on the musical culture of the country. Best known during his lifetime for Maple Leaf Rag (1899), Joplin wrote some two dozen compositions in the catchy, syncopated style that served as accompaniment to cakewalk dancing, to new forms of urban sporting life, and to a more generalized revolt against nineteenth-century gentility and restraint. He helped establish the conventional structure of ragtime compositions and successfully blended familiar genres of European music with African American rhythms and melodies into a genuine musical hybrid. After 1900, ragtime music emerged as the first nationally recognized American music, and Tin Pan Alley publishers flooded the popular sheet music market with thousands of snappy, syncopated songs and piano pieces. Hiram K. Moderwell, one of Joplin's contemporaries, called ragtime the "folk music of the American city," and John Stark, the publisher of Maple Leaf Rag, dubbed Joplin the "King of Ragtime Writers."

Although he was unquestionably born with a musical gift, Joplin's genius must be attributed at least partly to childhood influences from the region of his birth. Born near Linden, Texas, in 1868, the second son of sharecroppers Jiles and Florence Joplin, the future composer grew up amid former slaves and their rich musical traditions. As a youngster he heard black work songs, spirituals, and ring shouts, as well as the European waltzes, schottishes, and marches that black musicians like his father performed at white parties and dances. When the Joplins moved to Texarkana, which had sprung into existence in the early 1870s at the junction of the Texas & Pacific and Cairo & Fulton Railroads, Scott not only attended school but also learned to play the piano belonging to a wealthy family whose house his mother cleaned. As his talent developed, he began studying with a German music teacher (thought most probably to be Julius Weiss) from whom he learned the basic elements of serious European compositions and the rhythms, melodies, and harmonies on which they depended. Joplin began performing as an adolescent, impressing those who heard him with the originality of his music. As one contemporary later recalled, "He did not have to play anybody else's music. He made up his own, and it was beautiful; he just got his music out of the air."

It is not known exactly when Scott Joplin left Texarkana, but sometime in the 1880s he set out to make his living as an itinerant musician. It also is not known where he worked and lived before he gained fame in Sedalia, Missouri, in the 1890s. Oral histories place him at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, where he tried out some of his arrangements with a newly formed band performing, no doubt, in the city's tenderloin district. He was convinced that his rhythmically daring music had a ready, eager audience. Ragtime's misplaced accents, its complex melodies that flowed from bass to treble and back, and the flurry of its notes invited toe-tapping, knee-slapping, head-bobbing movement from those who heard it; it was perfect for the flashy strutting of the popular cakewalk. Moreover, the 1890s economic depression, which affected the middle class as well as the underpaid or unemployed working class, sparked a nationwide questioning of the long-held American belief in self-denial and personal restraint. Joplin's music literally struck a chord with a generation ready to shake off the vestiges of nineteenth-century propriety by kicking up its heels to the exuberant strains of ragtime.

Following the World's Columbian Exposition, Joplin made his way to Sedalia, Missouri, an important railhead in the east-central part of the Show-Me State. More significantly, perhaps, for the black musician, Sedalia was the home of the George R. Smith College for Negroes. Joplin enrolled in music courses at the black institution and began performing in various settings in Sedalia along with other talented African American musicians, earning a reputation as a popular entertainer and composer of ragtime music. He performed with the Queen City Band, an all-black group that provided music for various public entertainments, and played in clubs, brothels, dance halls, and at private parties. He also mentored and collaborated with younger black musicians such as Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden. Marshall remembered his teacher as "a quiet person with perfect manners who loved music and liked to talk about it." He was "a brother in kindness to all."

Undoubtedly the most important association Joplin formed in Sedalia was with a white publisher of sheet music, John Stark. By the time Stark published Maple Leaf Rag in 1899, Joplin had published four other compositions—two marches, a waltz, and Original Rags. Although skeptical of the marketability of Joplin's work—he viewed the composition as too difficult for local patrons—Stark admired Maple Leaf Rag and agreed to put out a limited printing. Very quickly, orders for Joplin's rag began to pour in, and Stark issued several new editions over the next few years. Stark moved his business to St. Louis in 1900 and continued to publish Joplin works—Peacherine Rag (1901), Augustan Club Waltz (1901), A Breeze from Alabama (1902), Elite Syncopations (1902), The Entertainer (1902), and The Strenuous Life (1902). Stark also promoted Joplin's career by declaring him the "King of Ragtime Writers," by aggressively marketing his latest works, and by regularly contributing advertising copy and articles about him to the nationally circulated Christensen's Ragtime Review. Stark's business sense no doubt contributed to Joplin's decision to write The Cascades (1904) as a tribute to the attraction of that name at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904. As Joplin's fame spread, he, too, moved to St. Louis, where he lived from 1901 to 1907. There he continued composing, performing, and mixing socially and professionally with such black musicians as Tom Turpin, Sam Patterson, and Joe Jordan.

While writers after his death remembered Joplin principally as the composer of dance-hall music, Joplin himself harbored grander ambitions for his art. Even as he relied on sheet music sales, teaching, and performance to make a living, he devoted much of his creative energy to the writing of serious music with syncopated rhythm. His first such effort, a ragtime ballet called The Ragtime Dance, featured current African American dance steps choreographed to vocal and piano accompaniment. Although he had composed several profitable rags for Stark in 1901 and 1902, the publisher only reluctantly agreed to publish The Ragtime Dance in 1902, but it never sold well. The Guest of Honor, a ragtime opera that unfortunately no longer exists, marked Joplin's second venture in the field of serious composition. In 1903, he formed the Scott Joplin Drama Company in St. Louis and recruited former students to perform in the ambitious work. The cast rehearsed and Joplin rented a theater, but only one dress rehearsal is known to have taken place because Joplin failed to find financial backing for the production. Despite these setbacks, the composer continued his endeavors toward the incorporation of African American and ragtime motifs into serious music and after 1907 worked feverishly on his second opera, Treemonisha.

Joplin spent the last decade of his life in New York, where he worked on Treemonisha, published more than 20 compositions, including such well-known pieces as Gladiolus Rag (1907), Pine Apple Rag (1908), and Solace—A Mexican Serenade (1909), gave private music lessons, and performed on the vaudeville stage. He was an early active member of the Colored Vaudevillian Benevolent Association, whose membership included many of the cultural leaders in black Harlem. His obsession with the seriousness of his work was reflected in School of Ragtime—Six Exercises for Piano (1908), which demanded "proper time" and "the supposition that each note will be played as it is written." "[T]he 'Joplin ragtime' is destroyed," he insisted, "by careless or imperfect rendering." He railed publicly against flashy performers who played his, and other, rags too fast and sloppily, and he decried the vulgar lyrics that accompanied many popular ragtime songs.

Most importantly, in 1911, Joplin finished his second opera and began searching diligently for financial backers and a suitable venue to stage a performance. The opera's main theme—the need for education in the African American community to combat the pernicious effects of ignorance and superstition—placed the work squarely in the middle of one of the most serious debates spawned by the "Race Question." Moreover, in a rare newspaper interview in 1911, Joplin defended Treemonisha as serious—not popular—art: "In most of the strains I have used syncopation (rhythm) peculiar to my race, but the music is not ragtime and the score is grand opera." The opera was performed only once during Joplin's lifetime, in 1915, and the production suffered from lack of props, costumes, and an orchestra. It was met by utter critical silence and quickly faded from collective memory.

The failure of Joplin's second opera coincided with the composer's personal decline. Although reasonably successful as a composer and performer, and widely recognized as the King of Ragtime, his adult life had not been happy. In 1900 he had married Belle Jones, who offered little support for his artistic endeavors and who either died or left him shortly after the death of their only child in 1906. A second marriage ended quickly and tragically with his wife's death. Lottie Stokes, Joplin's third wife, whom he married in New York, cared for her husband during his final battle against the debilitating symptoms of syphilis. Increasingly distracted, frequently unable to play the piano or compose, and grown unreliable as a private music teacher, Joplin spent the final two years of his life in the throes of the disease that eventually took his life on April 1, 1917.

More than 50 years after his death, Joplin became the focus of popular and scholarly attention when Vera Brodsky Lawrence recovered and republished his collected works, Joshua Rifkin recorded many of them, and the hit movie, The Sting (1973), featured his music. In the wake of this rediscovery, biographies of Joplin began to appear, and Treemonisha was revived by serious opera companies around the country. In his own day, however, the musician faced numerous barriers to his success, only some of which he overcame. Race prejudice, of course, placed severe limits on the kinds of compositions that would garner financial support, while his lack of academic credentials hindered his acceptance as a serious composer among both blacks and whites. Despite these injustices, Scott Joplin was a vital contributor to the cultural shake-up that took place in the United States in the early 1900s, and his classic ragtime pieces helped propel the nation into the modern era.

—Susan Curtis

Further Reading:

Benson, Kathleen, and James Haskins. Scott Joplin. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1978.

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.

Janis, Harriet, and Rudi Blesh. They All Played Ragtime: The True Story of an American Music. New York, Alfred Knopf, 1950.

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Joplin, Scott (1868-1917)

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