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Joplin, Scott (1867-1917)

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Scott Joplin, a musician and composer of ragtime music, was born in 1867 to ex-slave parents who worked as laborers on a Texas farm.  At an early age they moved to Texarkana, on the Texas-Arkansas border, and it was here, following his mother as she cleaned the houses of white families, that Scott was exposed to the piano and learned to play.  When his talent was recognized he was formally instructed by a German music teacher.

By the 1880s Joplin was living in Sedalia, Missouri, and playing in bands from St. Louis to Chicago as a cornet player.  While in Sedalia he played piano and in 1896 enrolled in George R. Smith College, a small black institution in Sedalia, to improve his musical abilities.  In 1898 Joplin published his first ragtime composition, Original Rags.  The following year he hired a lawyer before publishing his next and most famous song, The Maple Leaf Rag.  Joplin and his attorney negotiated with publisher John Stark, a one cent royalty for every sale which provided him an income far greater than most composers of the day.  By 1902 Joplin had moved to St. Louis and published several more compositions including The Entertainer and The Ragtime Dance.

Joplin now devoted all his time to composing and teaching.  He tried, but failed, to publish the opera, A Guest of Honor, about Booker T. Washington’s controversial visit to the White House.  He wrote other operas including Bethena and Sarah Dear Leona, but the efforts left him almost penniless and forced him to play ragtime again for money.  Despite the setback Joplin continued to write, and publish dozens of compositions including ragtime songs, waltzes, marches, and several operas through 1910. His opera Treemonisha published in 1911, set in Texarkana, stressed the importance of education for African Americans.  The American Music and Art Journal claimed “It is the most influential American opera ever composed.”  Unfortunately Joplin never received the financial backing to produce the opera in full.  Also by 1915 ragtime’s popularity was being eclipsed by jazz.  In 1916 Joplin was institutionalized from failing health due to syphilis and died in 1917.

Scott Joplin produced an enormous body of musical work that included ragtime songs, vaudeville acts, musicals, symphonies, piano concertos, operas, and waltzes.  His music broke color barriers, inspired future composers and musicians, and influenced the growth of jazz.

Michael Erlewine, All Music Guide to Jazz (San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 1998);


University of Washington

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