Known during his lifetime as the “King of Ragtime Writers,” Scott Joplin was an African American musician and the foremost contributor to a “Missouri style” of ragtime music in the 1890s and early 1900s. He wrote two operas, one ragtime ballet, and forty-four original pieces, seven of which were in collaboration with other composers.
Joplin was born on November 24, 1868, in Cass County, Texas, the second son of Jiles and Florence Joplin. During his early childhood, the Joplin family lived on a plantation owned by William Caves, but in the 1870s they moved to the recently founded town of Texarkana, where Jiles Joplin began working for the railroad. While in Texarkana, the younger Joplin learned how to play piano, partly through his own efforts on an instrument owned by one of his mother’s employers and partly through lessons from a German music teacher, Julius Weiss. His parents, both of whom were talented musicians, encouraged the boy, and eventually the family acquired a used square piano for his use.
As a teenager, Joplin began performing at various local events. After refusing to give up piano playing for more steady employment as a railroad laborer, he left Texarkana sometime in the 1880s and supported himself as an itinerant musician. Like many African American entertainers in the Mississippi valley in this period, Joplin improvised music that combined elements of the Western musical tradition—adopting such forms as the waltz, the schottische, and the march—with melodies and rhythms derived from African American musical culture.
In 1893 Joplin made his way to Chicago to perform for the throngs who visited the World’s Fair Columbian Exposition. Although he did not perform as part of the official program of the fair, Joplin, like other black entertainers, found work in the cafés that lined the Midway Plaisance—the entertainment center of the fair—as well as the city’s tenderloin district.
While in Chicago, Joplin formed his first band, which consisted of a cornet, a clarinet, a tuba, and a baritone horn, and began arranging music for the group to perform. At the fair he met Otis Saunders, with whom he traveled for a time and who eventually brought him to Missouri. The Columbian Exposition was not particularly congenial to African Americans, as it featured few exhibits pertaining to black life and culture: official literature offered insulting stereotypical depictions of African Americans, and none of the US commissioners, committee members, guides, or guards were black. Nevertheless, Joplin and other African American musicians found that visitors to the fair clamored to hear their music. In the years following the World’s Fair, Joplin found increasing numbers of opportunities to perform his music for white as well as black audiences.
In 1894 Joplin and Saunders arrived in Sedalia, Missouri, where both found work in various downtown businesses. As an important railhead, Sedalia had attracted a large number of workers, businessmen, and entertainers—both black and white—in the decades since its founding just before the Civil War. By the 1890s the bustling town offered a wide range of employment opportunities, from common labor in the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad shops to service-oriented positions in the downtown hotels, saloons, barbershops, and restaurants. While many African Americans worked in jobs that required manual labor, men such as G. T. Ireland, W. H. Carter, Dailey Steele, Tony Williams, and R. O. Henderson enjoyed communitywide prominence as professionals, property owners, or entertainers, and they formed the core of leadership within the black community. When Joplin came to Sedalia, he became friends with many of these individuals, joined their Queen City Concert Band, and performed in clubs of which they were the proprietors.
For the first couple of years in Sedalia, Joplin and Saunders divided their time between playing regular engagements in town and taking their acts on the road. In 1895 Joplin placed two songs, “Please Say You Will” and “A Picture of Her Face,” with publishers in Syracuse, New York, while on a tour with the Medley Quartette. The following year a publisher in Temple, Texas, issued his “Great Crush Collision March.” These early compositions represented Joplin’s efforts at this stage in his career to make a permanent record of his music, but they also betray his lack of compositional sophistication and offer no evidence of the peculiar syncopated rhythms that marked his later work.
In part to redeem his deficiencies as a composer, Joplin took the advice of Otis Saunders and Tony Williams and enrolled in music courses at the George R. Smith College for Negroes, which had opened in Sedalia in 1893. There he undoubtedly built upon the foundation of musical knowledge he had gained from his first music teacher in Texarkana and learned more about music theory and notation. By 1897 he had learned how to replicate in sheet music the complicated rhythms he and his friends had been improvising for many years. In addition to writing his own compositions, Joplin also began collaborating with two younger musicians, Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden. Through Hayden he met Belle Jones, who eventually became his wife.
By 1899 Joplin enjoyed the respect and affection of musicians and leaders in Sedalia’s black community as well as considerable fame as an entertainer in white society. His local celebrity gave way to national attention in 1899 after the publication of “Maple Leaf Rag,” which featured the rollicking syncopation, octave chord progressions, and lively melody that would mark much of the rest of his music. According to one of Joplin’s contemporaries, “Maple Leaf Rag” initiated a musical revolution. Although not the first to do so, he had succeeded in capturing on the printed page the ragged rhythm Americans had found increasingly appealing in the 1890s. The song took the country by storm, and not only propelled Joplin into the national spotlight but also set the standard for the ragtime compositions that followed. By the dawn of the new century, Joplin was known as the “King of Ragtime Writers,” an appellation invented by John Stark, the white music-store proprietor who had published “Maple Leaf Rag.”
In 1900, because of the tremendous success of “Maple Leaf Rag,” Stark moved his business from Sedalia to St. Louis, where he established himself as one of the most important publishers of piano rags. Within a year Joplin followed him to St. Louis, and eventually Hayden and Marshall joined their older friend. All had high hopes of penetrating a larger, more lucrative urban market with both compositions and performances. Their presence, along with firmly established clubs such as Tom Turpin’s Rosebud Cafe, confirmed St. Louis’s reputation as a center for ragtime music.
Within the first two years of moving to St. Louis, Joplin published nine new pieces, including “The Easy Winners” (1901), “Elite Syncopations” (1902), and “The Entertainer” (1902). This proliferation of popular piano compositions attracted critical attention to Joplin as a composer. In 1909 Alfred Ernst, the director of the St. Louis Choral Symphony, reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he considered Joplin a remarkable musician who had succeeded in melding African American and classical European elements into a unique musical form. Ernst called Joplin “an extraordinary genius as a composer of ragtime,” but looked forward to the King of Ragtime Writers turning his considerable talent to the field of serious composition.
By the time music critic Monroe Rosenfield hailed Joplin as the King of Ragtime in an article that appeared in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in 1903, Joplin had published A Ragtime Dance (1902), an extensive and innovative ragtime ballet, and he had nearly completed an opera called A Guest of Honor. Like Ernst and Rosenfield, Joplin believed that ragtime was capable of invigorating serious composition and that he was capable of writing more ambitious works. He organized a drama company and held rehearsals for the opera in an East St. Louis theater in 1903. In spite of the praise lavished by Ernst and Rosenfield, however, Joplin had trouble securing financial backing for the production. According to Arthur Marshall, the opera was staged only once as little more than a dress rehearsal. Joplin may have issued some of the individual compositions as discrete works, but if so he never indicated which had come from A Guest of Honor, and the opera itself disappeared as a coherent work.
In addition to the ballet and opera, Joplin continued to write popular piano rags. Between 1903 and his departure from St. Louis in 1907, Joplin published more than a dozen ragtime marches, waltzes, and two-steps, including “The Cascades” (1904), which was written as a tribute to the fountain featured in the Louisiana Purchase Exposition held in St. Louis in 1904. Like many of the ragtime musicians in the city, Joplin performed on the Pike, the entertainment district of the World’s Fair, even though the fair itself did little to welcome African American visitors. Like other black entertainers in the early twentieth century, Joplin felt profoundly the conflict between the popularity of his music and the disdain for his race displayed by white society. His decision to perform at the fair in spite of discrimination against blacks represented a common conviction among African American entertainers that performing the music of their race and generation was essential to undermining prejudice against their community.
As the years passed, Joplin’s early hopes for success and advancement gave way to discouragement. Financial backing for serious composition was ever hard to find. A number of musical publishers in addition to John Stark eagerly published his short pieces, but that popular acclaim did not translate into social advancement.
On a personal level as well, Joplin faced disappointments. Belle Joplin had never adjusted to the life of a musician’s wife. In 1905 she gave birth to a child who lived only a few months, and afterward the tension between the Joplins intensified. In spite of efforts by Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden to intercede with Belle Joplin on behalf of her husband, the couple parted, and it is believed that within a couple of years she died.
Joplin went to Chicago to visit former students and to spend time with Louis Chauvin, an old friend. Together they composed “Heliotrope Bouquet,” which was published in 1907, but within eighteen months of Joplin’s visit, Chauvin died from the effects of advanced syphilis.
Joplin seems to have foundered under the weight of these personal and professional difficulties. He produced little new work in 1906 and 1907. He wanted to leave St. Louis, but was not sure where to go. In late 1907 he decided to try his luck in New York City, one of the nation’s most important musical centers. He began performing with Percy G. Williams’s vaudeville show and made some tours as well. In 1908 and 1909 Joplin began once again to issue new work, notably “Pine Apple Rag” (1908), “Euphonic Sounds” (1909), “Solace: A Mexican Serenade” (1909), and “Wall Street Rag” (1909).
Shortly after arriving in New York, Joplin met Lottie Stokes, whom he eventually married. They settled into a house where Joplin taught and worked on his own music while his wife ran a boardinghouse. The Joplins lived relatively close to John Stark’s new office in the district known as Tin Pan Alley. Joplin continued to publish with Stark as well as with a number of other prominent New York publishers.
While in New York, Joplin became an active member of the Colored Vaudevillian Benevolent Association (CVBA), an organization created to monitor and maintain the quality of vaudeville shows. His participation in the association brought him into contact with several prominent African American entertainers and the drama critic for the New York Age, Lester Walton. In 1912 Joplin was named to the executive committee of the CVBA and became one of its most active members.
Sometime in the early twentieth century, Joplin began working on a second opera, Treemonisha. Set on a plantation outside of Texarkana after the Civil War, the opera tells of a young black woman who helps to free her people from ignorance and superstition. Although they were humble working people, her parents offer their labor to a white woman in exchange for lessons for their daughter, and as time passes the girl helps her neighbors learn to read, to rely on their intelligence, and to abandon conjuring, superstition, and magic. A group of conjurers conspire to punish the girl, but one of her friends uses his wits to frighten them away and bring her to safety. In the end, Treemonisha offered a celebration of literacy, learning, hard work, and community solidarity as the best formula for advancing the race.
Treemonisha incorporated syncopation in many of the songs, but it would be inaccurate to characterize it as a ragtime opera. Joplin insisted it featured “strictly Negro” music and was grand opera, not ragtime. By 1911, when Joplin completed this opera, many music critics had denounced ragtime as vulgar, insubstantial music. Joplin continued to believe that his syncopated compositions could contribute to an emerging American school of music, but he, too, had become scornful of ragtime lyrics that relied on lewd language. The one critic who commented on the opera in the American Musician thought Joplin had succeeded in incorporating the best of African American music into a serious opera and called Treemonisha “an interesting and potent achievement.”
Like most of Joplin’s other serious efforts in these years, Treemonisha faced obstacles to production. He could find no financial backing. After agreeing to stage the opera in the fall of 1913, managers of the Lafayette Theater in Harlem sold their establishment to new owners who backed out of the agreement. Joplin eventually staged the opera in the Lincoln Theater in 1915, but because of his limited resources he could afford no costumes, props, or orchestral accompaniment. The opera failed utterly to attract any critical comment.
By 1915 Joplin, like his friend Louis Chauvin, began to display the terminal symptoms of advanced syphilis. His behavior became unfocused and erratic, and he lost physical dexterity. Having invested most of his money in Treemonisha and finding it increasingly difficult to complete projects, he and his wife moved to less expensive quarters and were forced to run a less-than-respectable boardinghouse. In February 1917 Lottie Joplin hospitalized her husband for dementia. On April 1, 1917, Scott Joplin died.
Although he was penniless and disappointed at the end of his life, Joplin set the standard for ragtime compositions and played a key role in developing a Missouri style of ragtime. As a pioneer composer and performer, he helped pave the way for young black artists to reach American audiences of both races.
This article was first published in Lawrence O. Christensen, William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, eds., Dictionary of Missouri Biography (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999), and appears here by permission of the authors and original publisher.
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Published September 16, 2021; Last updated September 19, 2021
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