Scott Joplin

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Scott Joplin (born sometime in June 1867 – January 1868; died April 1, 1917) was an American musician and composer of ragtime music. He remains the best-known ragtime figure and is regarded as one of the three most important composers of classic ragtime, along with James Scott and Joseph Lamb.

Scott Joplin.

Early Years

Scott Joplin, the second of six children, was born in East Texas, near Linden, to Florence Givins and Giles or Jiles Joplin. For many years, his birthdate was thought to be November 24 1868; but research by ragtime historian Ed Berlin has revealed this as inaccurate.

After 1871, the Joplin family moved to Texarkana, Texas, and Scott's mother cleaned homes so Scott could have a place to practice his music. By 1882 his mother had purchased a piano. Showing musical ability at an early age, the young Joplin received free piano lessons from a German music teacher, Julius Weiss, who gave him a well rounded knowledge of classical music form, which would serve him well in later years and fuel his ambition to create a "classical" form of ragtime. At the 1893 World's Fair, in Chicago, he heard the latest music, including the concert band of John Phillip Sousa, who played there daily. He would later further his musical education by attending George R. Smith College in Sedalia, Missouri, studying music theory, harmony, and composition.

By the late 1880s, Joplin had left home to start a life of his own. He may have joined or formed various quartets and other musical groups and traveled around the Midwest to sing. In the Queen City Concert Band, he played second cornet. After organizing The Texas Medley Quartette, he helped them to sing their way to, and back from, Syracuse, New York. He was part of a minstrel troupe in Texarkana about 1891. In 1895, Joplin was in Syracuse, selling two songs, "Please Say You Will" and "A Picture of Her Face".

Despite all his traveling, Joplin's home was in Sedalia, to which he moved in 1894, working as a pianist in the Maple Leaf and the Black 400, social clubs for "respectable [black] gentlemen".


By 1898 Joplin had sold six pieces for the piano. Of the six, only "Original Rags", a compilation of existing melodies that he wrote collaboratively, is a ragtime piece. The other five were "Please Say You Will", "A Picture of Her Face", two marches, and a waltz.

In 1899, Joplin sold what would become his most famous piece, "Maple Leaf Rag" to John Stark & Son, a Sedalia music publisher. Joplin received a one-cent royalty for each copy and ten free copies for his own use, as well as an advance. It has been estimated that Joplin made $360 per year on this piece in his lifetime.

"Maple Leaf Rag" boosted Joplin to the top of the list of ragtime performers and moved ragtime into prominence as a musical form.

With a growing national reputation based on the success of "Maple Leaf Rag", Joplin moved to St. Louis, Missouri, in early 1900 with his new wife, Belle. While living there, in 1900–1903, he produced some of his best-known works, including "The Entertainer", "Elite Syncopations", "March Majestic", and "Ragtime Dance".

Joplin married several times. Perhaps his dearest love, Freddie Alexander died at age twenty, of complications resulting from a cold, two months after their wedding. Joplin's first work copyrighted after Freddie's death, "Bethena" (1905), is a very sad, musically complex ragtime waltz.

After months of faltering, Joplin continued writing and publishing. He was a best-selling composer of sheet music. With much hard work, he produced the award-winning opera Treemonisha. The score to an earlier ragtime opera by Joplin, A Guest of Honor, is lost.

Joplin as a Performer

It's unclear today how advanced Joplin's skills as a pianist were. In 1898, a newspaper in Sedalia referred to him as "one of the best pianists in the world", and in 1911 a New York-based music magazine spoke in glowing terms of Joplin's 'musicianly way' of playing ragtime. However, in St. Louis, opinions differed. Arthur Marshall, a good friend and student of Joplin, said "he played slowly, but exceedingly good...had an execution that you would stand back and listen and wonder how he got to do that stuff". Joe Jordan, another famous ragtime musician, said that although he never played anything other than his own pieces, he did play them well. However, Jordan is also on record as describing Joplin's playing as reminding him of a "stationary Indian". Sam Patterson said Joplin "never played well" and Artie Matthews recalled the delight the Saint Louis players took in outplaying Joplin with his own music. John Stark's own son stated that Joplin was a rather mediocre pianist and that he composed on paper, rather than at the piano. One student of Joplin's recalled in later years he played slowly and methodically, and regularly reminded the student to place a strong accent on the first beat of each measure.

Researcher Edward Berlin theorizes that by the time Joplin reached St Louis, he was already beginning to suffer the physical effects of syphilis, which would take his life in 1917. One of the symptoms, which can manifest up to 20 years prior to death, is discoordination of the fingers. This may explain the differences in opinion of those observing Joplin's playing in the late 1890s and in the early 1910s.

While Joplin never made an audio recording, he did record seven piano rolls in 1916; "Maple Leaf Rag" (for Connorized and Aeolian companies), "Something Doing," "Magnetic Rag," "Ole Miss Rag," "Weeping Willow Rag" and "Pleasant Moments - Ragtime Waltz" (all for Connorized). These are the only records of his playing we have, and are interesting for the embellishments added by Joplin to his Connorized performances, although studying other Connorized rolls of that era reveals they may well have been added during the production process by staff artists, rather than Joplin himself. The roll of "Pleasant Moments" was thought lost until August 2006, when a piano roll collector in New Zealand discovered a surviving copy. It has been claimed that the uneven nature of some of Joplin's piano rolls, such as one of the recordings of "Maple Leaf Rag" mentioned above, documented the extent of Joplin's physical deterioration due to syphilis. A comparison of the two "Maple Leaf Rag" player-piano rolls made by Joplin in 1916, one in April the other in June, has been described as "... shocking. The second version is disorganized and completely distressing to hear." While the irregularities may also be due to the primitive technology used to record the rolls, rolls recorded by other artists for the same company around the same time are noticeably smoother.


Joplin wanted to experiment further with compositions like Treemonisha, but by 1916 he was suffering from the effects of terminal syphilis. He suffered later from dementia, paranoia, paralysis and other symptoms.

In mid-January 1917 Joplin was hospitalized at Manhattan State Hospital in New York City, and friends recounted that he would have bursts of lucidity in which he would jot down lines of music hurriedly before relapsing. Joplin died there on April 1 1917. Joplin was 49 or 50 years of age, as his exact birthdate is unknown.

Joplin's death did not make the headlines for two reasons: Ragtime was quickly losing ground to jazz and the United States would enter World War I within days. He was buried in St. Michael's Cemetery in the Astoria section of Queens.

Joplin's musical papers, including unpublished manuscripts, were willed to Joplin's friend and the executor of his will, musician and composer Wilber Sweatman. Sweatman took care of these papers and generously shared access to them to those who inquired. However, these were unfortunately few, since Joplin's music had come to be considered passé. After Sweatman's death in 1961 the papers were last known to go into storage during a legal battle among Sweatman's heirs; their current location is not known, nor even if they still exist.

There was, however, an important find in 1971: a piano roll of the lost "Silver Swan Rag," manufactured sometime around 1914. It had not been published in sheet-music form in Joplin's lifetime. Before this, his only posthumously published piece had been "Reflection Rag," published by Stark in 1917 from an older manuscript he'd kept back. Almost all serious Joplin scholars agree that the piece is a genuine Joplin composition.

Legacy and Revival

After his death, Joplin's music and ragtime in general waned in popularity as new forms of musical styles, such as jazz and novelty piano emerged. However, a number of revivals of ragtime have occurred since.

In the early 1940s, many jazz bands began to include ragtime in their repertoire and released ragtime recordings on 78 RPM records. In 1970, Joshua Rifkin released a Grammy nominated recording of Joplin's rags on the classical label Nonesuch. In 1972, Joplin's opera Treemonisha was finally staged at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Marvin Hamlisch's adaptation of the Joplin rag "The Entertainer," taken from the Oscar-winning film The Sting, reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 music chart in 1974. Ironically, Hamlisch's slightly-abbreviated arrangements and performances of Joplin's rags for The Sting, were ahistorical, as the film was set in the 1930s, well past the peak of the ragtime era.

In 1974, Kenneth MacMillan created a ballet for the Royal Ballet, Elite Syncopations, based on tunes by Joplin, Max Morath and others. It is still performed occasionally.

Scott Joplin was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his special contribution to American music. He also has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. Motown Productions produced a Scott Joplin biographical film starring Billy Dee Williams as Joplin, which was released by Universal Pictures in 1977.

In 1983, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp of the composer as part of its Black Heritage commemorative series.

Sedalia, Missouri is presently the location of an annual Scott Joplin festival that takes place each spring. Ragtime players from around the globe come here and are booked at numerous locations throughout the town. At the site of the Maple Leaf club, which is now a parking lot, everyone who would like to can sign up to take a turn playing.

Joplin's Music

Even at the time of publication, Joplin's publisher John Stark was claiming that the rags had obtained classical status, and "lifted ragtime from its low estate and lined it up with Beethoven and Bach". Later critics also saw merit in Joplin's compositions:

He combined the traditions of Afro-American music folk music with nineteenth-century European romanticism; he collected the black Midwestern Folk rag ideas as raw material for the creation of original strains. Thus, his rags are the most heavily pentatonic, with liberal use of blue notes and other outstanding features that characterize black folk music. In this creative synthesis, . . . the traditional march became the dominant form, and the result was a new art form, the Classic rag – a unique conception which paradoxically both forged the way for early serious ragtime composition, and, at the same time, developed along insular lines, away from most other ragtime playing and composing.

It is sometimes claimed that ragtime is one of the earliest form of jazz [1]. Although it may be a precursor, it lacks elements often cited as essential in jazz, namely improvisation and blue notes.

Joplin's View on Tempo

Joplin left little doubt as to how his compositions should be performed: as a precaution against the prevailing tendency of the day to up the tempo, he explicitly wrote in many of his scores that "ragtime should never be played fast." According to Joplin biographer Rudi Blesh,

Joplin's injunction needs to be read in the light of his time, when a whole school of "speed" players ... were ruining the fine rags. Most frequently felled by this quack-virtuoso musical mayhem was the Maple Leaf. Joplin's concept of "slow" was probably relative to the destructive prestos of his day.<ref>Rudi Blesh, pxxix, "Scott Joplin: Black-American Classicist", Introduction to Scott Joplin Complete Piano Works, New York Public Library, 1981</ref>

Works by Scott Joplin

Inconsistencies exist between certain titles and subtitles, and their respective cover titles, possibly reflecting an editorial casualness... the substitution of terms would also indicate that the designations: cakewalk, march, two-step, rag, and slow drag were interchangeable, inasmuch as they alluded to a genre of music in duple meter to which a variety of dance steps might be performed.

There are also inconsistencies between the publishing date, and registering of copyright. In some instances, copyright notices were not registered. In all cases, musical compositions are listed by date of publication using their cover titles and subtitles

  • "Please Say You Will" (1895)
  • "A Picture of Her Face" (1895)
  • "Great Crush Collision" – March (1896)
  • "Combination March" (1896)
  • "Harmony Club Waltz" (1896)
  • "Original Rags" (1899); arranged by Charles N. Daniels
  • "Maple Leaf Rag" (1899)
  • "Swipesy" – Cake Walk (1900) – with Arthur Marshall
  • "Peacherine Rag" (1901)
  • "Sunflower Slow Drag" – A Rag Time Two Step (1901) – with Scott Hayden
  • "Augustan Club Waltz" (1901)
  • "The Easy Winners" – Ragtime Two Step (1901)
  • "Cleopha" – March and Two Step (1902)
  • "A Breeze From Alabama" – Ragtime Two Step (1902)
  • "Elite Syncopations" (1902)
  • "The Entertainer" – Ragtime Two Step (1902)
  • "I Am Thinking of My Pickanniny Days" (1902); lyrics by Henry Jackson
  • "March Majestic" (1902)
  • "The Strenuous Life" – Ragtime Two Step (1902)
  • "The Ragtime Dance" (1902); lyrics by Scott Joplin
  • "Something Doing" – Cake Walk March (1903) – with Scott Hayden
  • "Weeping Willow" – Ragtime Two Step (1903)
  • "Little Black Baby" (1903); lyrics by Louis Armstrong Bristol
  • "Palm Leaf Rag" – A Slow Drag (1903)
  • "The Sycamore" – A Concert Rag (1904)
  • "The Favourite" – Ragtime Two Step (1904)
  • "The Cascades" – A Rag (1904)
  • "The Chrysanthemum" – An Afro-Intermezzo (1904)
  • "Bethena" – A Concert Waltz (1905)
  • "Binks' Waltz" (1905)
  • "Sarah Dear" (1905); lyrics by Henry Jackson
  • "Rosebud" – Two Step (1905)
  • "Leola" – Two Step (1905)
  • "Eugenia" (1906)
  • "The Ragtime Dance" – A Stop-Time Two Step (1906)
  • "Antoinette" – March and Two Step (1906)
  • "Nonpareil (None to Equal) (1907)
  • "When Your Hair Is Like the Snow" (1907) lyrics by "Owen Spendthrift"
  • "Gladiolus Rag" (1907)
  • "Searchlight Rag" – A Syncopated March and Two Step (1907)
  • "Lily Queen" – Ragtime Two-Step (1907) – with Arthur Marshall
  • "Rose Leaf Rag" – Ragtime Two-Step (1907)
  • "Lily Queen" (1907) with Arthur Marshall
  • "Heliotrope Bouquet" – A Slow Drag Two-Step (1907) – with Louis Chauvin
  • "School of Ragtime" – 6 Exercises for Piano (1908)
  • "Fig Leaf Rag" (1908)
  • "Wall Street Rag" (1908)
  • "Sugar Cane" – Ragtime Classic Two Step (1908)
  • "Sensation" – A Rag (1908); by Joseph F. Lamb, arranged by Scott Joplin
  • "Pine Apple Rag" (1908)
  • "Pleasant Moments" – Ragtime Waltz (1909)
  • "Solace" – A Mexican Serenade (1909)
  • "Country Club" – Rag Time Two Step (1909)
  • "Euphonic Sounds" – A Syncopated Novelty (1909)
  • "Paragon Rag" – A Syncopated Novelty (1909)
  • "Stoptime Rag" (1910)
  • Treemonisha (1911)
  • "Felicity Rag" (1911) – with Scott Hayden
  • "Scott Joplin's New Rag" (1912)
  • "Kismet Rag" (1913) – with Scott Hayden
  • "Magnetic Rag" (1914)
  • "Reflection Rag" – Syncopated Musings (1917)
  • "Silver Swan Rag" (1971) (attributed to Scott Joplin)


  • Maple Leaf Rag. This is a recording of a player-piano roll made by Joplin for the Connorized piano roll company in April 1916.
  • Pleasant Moments, 2.1Mb. This is a recording of the Connorized piano roll made by Joplin in April 1916, and thought lost until mid-2006.

Further Reading

  • Edward A. Berlin, King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era (ISBN 0-19-510108-1) — the most authoritative book on Joplin's life.

External Links

Recordings and Sheet Music