Scott Joplin (c. 1867/1868? – April 1, 1917) was an African-American
composer and pianist. Joplin achieved fame for his ragtime compositions,
and was later titled The King of Ragtime. During his brief career,
he wrote 44 original ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet, and two operas.
One of his first pieces, the Maple Leaf Rag, became ragtime’s first and
most influential hit, and has been recognized as the archetypal rag. List
e n t o i t h e r e :
Joplin was born in Linden, Texas, either in late 1867 or early 1868.
Although for many years his birth date was accepted as November 24,
1868, research has revealed that this is almost certainly inaccurate – the
most likely approximate date being the second half of 1867. He was the
second of six children (the others being Monroe, Robert, William, Myrtle,
and Ossie) born to Giles Joplin, an ex-slave from North Carolina,
and Florence Givens, a freeborn African-American woman from Kentucky.
The Joplins subsequently moved to Texarkana where Giles
worked as a labourer for the railroad while Florence was a cleaner.
Joplin’s father had played the violin for plantation parties in North Carolina,
and his mother sang and played the banjo. Joplin was given a rudimentary
musical education by his family and from the age of seven he
was allowed to play the piano while his mother cleaned.
Joplin was born into a musical family of labourers in Northeast Texas,
and developed his musical knowledge with the help of local teachers,
most notably Julius Weiss. Joplin grew up in Texarkana, where he
formed a vocal quartet and taught mandolin and guitar. During the late
1880s he left his job as a labourer with the railroad, and travelled
around the American South as an itinerant musician. He went to Chicago
for the World’s Fair of 1893, which played a major part in making
ragtime a national craze by 1897.
At some point in the early 1880s, Giles Joplin left the family for another
woman, leaving Florence to provide for her children through domestic
work. Biographer Susan Curtis speculated that his mother’s support
of Joplin’s musical education was an important causal factor in this
separation; his father argued that it took the boy away from practical
employment which would have supplemented the family income.
Joplin moved to Sedalia, Missouri, in 1894, and earned a living as a
piano teacher, continuing to tour the South. In Sedalia, he taught future
ragtime composers Arthur Marshall, Scott Hayden and Brun Campbell.
Joplin began publishing music in 1895, and publication of his Maple
Leaf Rag in 1899 brought him fame. This piece had a profound influence
on subsequent writers of ragtime. It also brought the composer a
steady income for life, though Joplin did not reach this level of success
again and frequently had financial problems.
According to a family friend, the young Joplin was serious and ambitious,
studying music and playing the piano after school. While a few
local teachers aided him, he received most of his music education from
Julius Weiss, a German-Jewish music professor who had immigrated to
the United States from Germany. Weiss had studied music at university
in Germany and was listed in town records as a “Professor of Music”.
Impressed by Joplin’s talent, and realizing his family’s dire straits, Weiss
taught him free of charge. He tutored the 11-year-old Joplin until he
was 16, during which time Weiss introduced him to folk and classical
music, including opera. Weiss helped Joplin appreciate music as an “art
as well as an entertainment” and helped his mother acquire a used piano.
According to his wife Lottie, Joplin never forgot Weiss and in his later
years, when he achieved fame as a composer, sent his former teacher
“gifts of money when he was old and ill”, until Weiss died. At the age
of 16 Joplin performed in a vocal quartet with three other boys in and
around Texarkana, playing piano. In addition he taught guitar and mandolin.
In the late 1880s, having performed at various local events as a teenager,
Joplin chose to give up work as a labourer with the railroad and
left Texarkana to become a travelling musician. Little is known about
his movements at this time, although he is recorded in Texarkana in July
1891 as a member of the “Texarkana Minstrels” in a performance that
happened to be raising money for a monument to Jefferson Davis, President
of the Southern Confederacy. He was soon to discover that there
were few opportunities for black pianists, however; besides the church,
brothels were one of the few options for obtaining steady work. Joplin
played pre-ragtime ‘jig-piano’ in various red-light districts throughout
the mid-South, and it has been claimed he was in Sedalia and St. Louis
during this time.
In 1893 Joplin was in Chicago for the World’s Fair. While in Chicago,
he formed his first band playing cornet and began arranging music for
the group to perform. Although the World’s Fair minimized the involvement
of African-Americans, black performers still came to the saloons,
cafés and brothels that lined the fair. The exposition was attended
by 27 million Americans and had a profound effect on many areas
of American cultural life, including ragtime. Although specific information
is sparse, numerous sources have credited the Chicago World
Fair with spreading the popularity of ragtime. Joplin found that his music,
as well as that of other black performers, was popular with visitors.
By 1897 ragtime had become a national craze in American cities, and
was described by the St. Louis Dispatch as “a veritable call of the wild,
which mightily stirred the pulses of city bred people.”
Joplin moved to St. Louis in 1901, where he continued to compose and
publish music, and regularly performed in the St Louis community. By
the time he had moved to St. Louis, he may have been experiencing
disco-ordination of the fingers, tremors, and an inability to speak
clearly, as a result of having contracted syphilis. The score to his first
opera, A Guest of Honor, was confiscated in 1903 with his belongings,
owing to his non-payment of bills, and is considered lost by biographer
Edward A. Berlin and others.
He continued to compose and publish music, and in 1907 moved to
New York City, seeking to find a producer for a new opera. He attempted
to go beyond the limitations of the musical form which made
him famous, without much monetary success. His second opera, Treemonisha,
was not received well at its partially staged performance in
In 1916, suffering from tertiary syphilis and by consequence rapidly
deteriorating health, Joplin descended into dementia. He was admitted
to a mental institution in January 1917 and died there three months later
at the age of 49.
Joplin’s death is widely considered to have marked the end of ragtime
as a mainstream music format, and the next several years would see it
evolve into jazz and eventually big band swing.