Article by Ben Tibbetts
Scott Joplin, a African American man who was called "the king of ragtime", was the most famous composer of piano rags who ever lived. However, as you'll find, in some ways it's surprising we know his name at all. Joplin's music has earned a place in our culture despite a relentless string of professional and personal setbacks. The story of his life is filled with tragedy and suffering, but his art endures.
You don't need a pianist to hear a rag, if you have a music roll and a player piano. In the early 1900's, that is how many people would have first heard them. These rolled up pieces of paper, perforated for machines to read, were fed into player pianos and played back as music. This was a way of sharing music before recorded audio was commonplace.
Physical music rolls are now outdated technology, but it's interesting to note that their design has influenced modern software. Digital audio workstations enable users to create music using virtual instruments. Many film soundtracks are now crafted using this type of software. These interfaces often feature a digital music roll, which allows musicians to place every note at a timestamp and play it back with a computer. Thus the music roll, invented in the 1880's, has persisted into the twenty-first century.
Like technology, musical styles sometimes persist long past the point of being fashionable. The ragtimes of Scott Joplin and others influenced the development of early jazz and especially jazz pianists, including Eubie Blake, Thomas "Fats" Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie. Before there was the Duke and the Count, there was the King.
THE TUTOR IN TEXARKANA
No one knows exactly when Scott Joplin was born, but it was around November 1868. He was the second of six children of Giles Joplin and Florence Gibbons. Giles was an ex-slave from North Carolina. Florence was a free-born African American from Kentucky. The family lived on the Texas border in Texarkana, Arkansas.
Giles was a railroad laborer, and Florence cleaned homes for a living. Both were amateur musicians. On the plantation where he was born, Giles played the violin at parties; and Florence sang and played the banjo. They taught their children a little music. At the age of seven, Scott was allowed to play the piano while his mother cleaned in one of her customer's homes.
Around age eleven, he caught the attention of Julis Weiss, a Jewish music teacher who had emigrated tonTexas from Germany. Weiss became interested in Scott's talent and offered him private music lessons. The family could not afford to pay him, so he taught for free.
Weiss tutored Joplin for five years, introducing him to musical styles ranging from operas to folk melodies. Giles left his wife and family for another woman, and Florence became a single mother of six children. To make sure Joplin could keep practicing, Weiss helped them buy a used piano.
Joplin was an ambitious and serious-mannered kid. He had perfect pitch and quickly became proficient on piano and banjo. As a teenager he attended Lincoln High School and worked as a dance musician. His interest in music increased as he grew older. Eventually he started a vocal quartet, taught mandolin and guitar, and learned to play cornet and violin. Like his father, he worked as a railway laborer, but in the late 1880's he left that job to travel around the South as a freelance musician.
THE WORLD'S FAIR AND SEDALIA
We don't know much about Joplin's life during this period, but we do know that in 1893 he went to the World's Fair in Chicago, Illinois.
The Chicago World's Fair commemorated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the New World. It was a gigantic, 690-acre exposition which broke the world record for outdoor event attendance (at about 750,000 people).
For the most part, the World's Fair didn't formally involve African Americans. However, Joplin and other black musicians performed in cafes and brothels near the Exposition. While in town, he formed a band for which he arranged music and played the cornet. His music was well-received. As a result of such performances, the World's Fair was a catalyst for the popularity of American ragtime, which would grow through the end of the century.
The next year, Joplin moved to Sedalia, Missouri and busied himself with making music. He started a six-piece dance orchestra and a singing group called The Texas Medley Quartet, which performed his original compositions. He played cornet in the Queen's City Cornet Band and made a living as a piano teacher. His students during this time included Scott Hayden, Brun Campbell, and Arthur Marshall, all three of whom would eventually go on to compose their own ragtimes.
Joplin was close with his students. While in Sedalia, he lived with Arthur Marshall's family. When he met Scott Hayden's sister-in-law Belle, they began a romantic relationship. They were married in 1899.
Joplin published his first two songs in Sedalia ("Please Say You Will" and "A Picture Of Her Face"). The following year he attended music classes at George R. Smith College. He began playing the piano regularly at two social clubs for local black men: the Maple Leaf Club and the Black Four Hundred.
He began composing and publishing piano rags. The first, called "Original Rags", was published in 1898. This was a bad experience for him. He was forced to share credit with another arranger, Charles M. Daniels, who was cited as composer on the copyright. Looking for a new collaborator, Joplin approached John Stark, who was a local music store owner and music publisher. Stark agreed to work with him. The following year they published "Maple Leaf Rag".
That one short piece would become the biggest success in Joplin's career. Its original print run of four hundred copies took about a year to sell, but later sales were steady. After signing a contract with Stark to receive one cent on every sale, Joplin received a modest income from "Maple Leaf" royalties for the rest of his life.
THE CLASSIC RAG
By 1909 "Maple Leaf Rag" had sold about half a million copies, and that rate continued for decades. It was so popular that it became a model for the genre. For about two decades, "classic" or conventional piano rags generally followed its form and style.
Piano rags of this time were generally composed in a duple meter, like marches. They were not swung, but they were highly syncopated. The right hand played off-beat melodies while the left hand heavily grounded and reiterated the downbeats. They were often structured in four-bar phrases and sixteen-bar sections. They originated in urban African-American communities. Bearing some rhythmic resemblance to polkas, they were influenced by work songs; gospel hymns and spirituals; folk music; and dance music such as jigs and cakewalks. In Joplin's case, probably because of his old teacher, they were also influenced by romantic European art music.
These pieces influenced some major European composers, including Antonin Dvorak, Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, and Igor Stravinsky. However, music afficionados of the time tended to view ragtime as simple and vulgar.
Joplin was conscious of this reputation. He tried throughout his career to elevate the status of ragtime to that of high art. Even during this early period, he was artistically ambitious. Only a few weeks after writing "Maple Leaf Rag", he composed a ballet called "The Ragtime Dance". This short theatrical work featured dancing like that found in the Sedalia black men's clubs. It was premiered at Woods Opera House in November of 1899.
Although he was a pianist, Joplin preferred to compose away from the keyboard. He wanted his compositions to be played without improvisation and exactly as notated, writing, "my works have been harmonized with the supposition that each note will be played as it is written."
THE ENTERTAINER IN ST. LOUIS
Scott and Belle moved to St. Louis in 1900 and had a baby daughter. It seemed the beginning of a happy family. However, the Joplins fell into an uneasy relationship. Belle was uninterested in Scott's musical career, and this seems to have been a source of tension. Then their daughter died in infacy. After that tragedy, they grew apart and divorced.
Despite these unhappy developments in his personal life, Joplin wrote several of his most famous works during this time, including "The Easy Winners" in 1901 and "The Entertainer" in 1902. He moved to a large house and rented some of the rooms to lodgers, including his former students Marshall and Hayden.
People who knew Scott Joplin described him as intelligent, quiet, and polite. He was serious and passionate about music, and seldom interested in anything else. One exception appears to have been education, which he regarded as important.
Joplin was a talented musician. However, some who heard him perform in St. Louis felt his piano playing was uncoordinated. We don't know, but this may have been an early sign of syphilis. That disease, which can now be treated by penicillin, was more dangerous at the beginning of the 20th century. Over time, syphilis would severely compromise Joplin's physical and mental abilities. Before his fiftieth birthday, it would kill him.
A GUEST OF HONOR
In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House. This gesture of respect to the prominent civil rights leader sparked a bitter reaction across the country, particularly in the Southern states where racial segregation was enforced by Jim Crow laws.
Shortly after, Joplin composed an opera to depict this controversial event. The opera was called "A Guest of Honor". Working quickly, he created an opera company of thirty people to produce the show for a national tour. The cast learned their music and they went on the road.
Unfortunately, little is known about what happened next. The show was performed, but where? How many times? How was it received? Was the cast all black or racially mixed?
We don't know, because at some point during their travels a person associated with the company stole the box office receipts. The tour was abruptly ended. Left without any means of compensating the opera company or paying for their lodgings, Joplin's belongings, including the opera score, were confiscated by the boarding house. No one has seen or heard the show since, and "A Guest of Honor" is now considered lost.
After the failed opera tour, Joplin returned to Arkansas. There, he met Freddie Alexander, a young woman from Little Rock. They fell in love. She disliked her birth name and requested that he call her "Bethena". He dedicated a happy piece to her, "The Chrysanthemum". They were married in June of 1904.
Shortly after their wedding, Freddie came down with a cold that developed into pneumonia. In September, ten weeks into marriage, she died at the age of twenty.
That winter Joplin didn't publish any new music. The following March he composed a delicate waltz in the style of ragtime, and titled it "Bethena". He left Sedalia and never returned.
After Freddie died, Joplin spent much of his time in St. Louis doing small performance jobs. He continued to publish music, including the ragtime song "Sarah Dear, Leola". He also began working on a large new musical project, one that would consume him for a decade.
The project was "Treemonisha", an opera about a fictional slave community near his hometown of Texarkana. The eponymous main character is a slave who's taught to read by a white woman. Treemonisha leads the slaves against a group of conjurers who prey on their ignorance and superstition. Through her leadership, the community learns the value of education.
Joplin wrote both the score and libretto. The music was in his style, and ragtimes were used in dance sequences, but it was a traditional opera, not a collection of rags.
Some historians have speculated that the opera may have been inspired by his second wife. Like Freddie, Treemonisha was well-read and educated, and she was a proponent of women's and African Americans' rights. But these were also qualities that Joplin had himself, and it could have been inspired just as easily by other people and events in his life. Whatever its creative origin, once Joplin conceived of Treemonisha he became deeply committed to its success, prioritizing it above almost everything else in his professional life.
In 1907, he moved to New York to find a publisher and financial backing for his new opera. He began a new romantic relationship, with a woman named Lottie Stokes. The two married in 1909. As Joplin put more of his energy into Treemonisha--and as obvious signs of his syphilis began appearing--Lottie assumed an important supporting role in his life. She observed his intense preoccupation with the opera and came to believe that Treemonisha was a spirit who stayed with him while he composed. Years later Lottie said, "She'd tell him secrets. She'd tell him the past and future. Treemonisha was an entity present while the piece was being created, and was part of the process."
The work seemed to be going well. When Joplin sent a copy of the finished piano-vocal score to the American Musician and Art Journal, it received a glowing review, calling Treemonisha "an entirely new phase of musical art, and a thoroughly American opera style".
The New York publisher of Joplin's piano rags was Seminary Music. Seminary shared an office with Ted Snyder Incorporated, a company with boasted a partnership with the legendary songwriter Irving Berlin. Joplin approached Ted Snyder with a copy of Treemonisha, hoping they would publish it. The score was rejected. But when Berlin's hit song "Alexander's Ragtime Band" came out in 1911, Joplin is reported to have heard it and yelled out in tears, "That's my tune!"
Consciously or not, it seemed Berlin had plagiarized from the opera. The melody was allegedly taken from the penultimate number, a scene in which Treemonisha guides the townspeople in "A Real Slow Drag", a slow march set to ragtime. Once he noticed the appropriation, Joplin revised the scene, writing new music in place of the stolen measures. In May of 1911, he published the piano-vocal score himself.
Now the opera had been published, but it still had not been orchestrated or performed. In addition to working on the opera, with Lottie's help he formed the Scott Joplin Music Company in 1913 and began self-publishing his body of work.
Joplin's health continued to deteriorate, and over the next few years he pursued Treemonisha with increasing urgency. According to biographer Vera Brodsky Lawrence, he "plunged feverishly into the task of orchestrating his opera, day and night, with his friend Sam Patterson standing by to copy the parts, page by page, as each page of the full score was completed."
In 1915, aware of his failing health and anxious to see his opera, Joplin made a last ditch effort to premiere Treemonisha. He rented the Lincoln Theatre in Harlem and gathered a small audience to hear an incomplete version of the show. The only accompaniment was himself at the piano, playing from the piano-vocal edition.
It went terribly. The musicians were underprepared and the show was poorly received. Most of the audience walked out, including potential backers. His friend Patterson described it as "thin and unconvincing, little better than a rehearsal." Biographers William Scott and Peter Rutkoff write, "after a disastrous single performance...Joplin suffered a breakdown. He was bankrupt, discouraged, and worn out."
Joplin never got to see his opera. In 1916 he experienced worsening health due to tertiary syphilis or neurosyphilis. In January of 1917, he was admitted to the Manhattan State Hospital, and on April 1st he died of syphilitic dementia at the age of 48. He was buried in an unmarked grave in East Elmhurst, New York.
After Joplin's death, the popularity of ragtime waned. Production of player pianos declined sharply in the early twentieth century. Ragtime could still be heard in bordellos and on passenger ships, but with the rise of jazz it began to recede into history.
It seemed that Joplin was fated to recede as well. When Lottie died, his unpublished manuscripts and the orchestration notes for Treemonisha were lost.
In the late 1960's, three ragtime fans came together to celebrate the music on WBAI radio in New York City: William Bolcolm, William Albright, and pianist Joshua Rifkin. In 1970, Rifkin released a recording called "Scott Joplin: Piano Rags" on the Nonesuch classical label. It featured eight piano rags and provided a brief history of the genre. Rifkin wrote, "Joplin and his contemporaries...remain barely known beyond a growing coterie of ragtime devotees". He encouraged listeners to "discover the beauties of his music and accord him the honor that he deserves."
The album was released in 1970. A year later it had sold 100,000 copies. Soon it became Nonesuch's first million-selling record. Rifkin followed it with "Scott Joplin: Piano Rags, Volume II" and "Volume III". They stayed on the Billboard "Best-Selling Classical LPs" chart for a combined total of 64 weeks.
Ragtime had gone viral. Record stores began stocking ragtime in the classical section. In 1971 Harold Schonberg, the New York Times music critic, wrote an article titled "Scholars, Get Busy on Scott Joplin!" Commenting on this phenomenon, Alan Rich in the New York Magazine wrote that Nonesuch had "created, almost alone, the Scott Joplin revival."
In 1973, Joplin's rags were further popularized by their inclusion in the American caper film "The Sting", starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. The movie featured several of Joplin's works, adapted by composer Marvin Hamlisch. "The Sting" was a critical and box office hit, and won the Academy Award for Best Music as well as Best Picture.
Hurrying to capitalize on the surge in interest, more musicians began orchestrating and performing his music. Treemonisha was orchestrated by the American composer T.J. Anderson. On January 28, 1972 it was finally staged in full for the first time at Moorehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1975, Treemonisha was staged in a full opera production by the Houston Grand Opera. Directed by composer Gunther Schuller, the show had an eight week run on Broadway, and an original Broadway cast recording was produced. Scott Joplin was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Treemonisha.
The awards and recognition continued in the following decades. Joplin was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame by the National Academy of Popular Music. The home that Joplin rented in St. Louis was turned into a museum. It became the first Missouri State Historic Site dedicated to African American heritage. He received a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. The United States Postal Service issued a stamp of the composer's portrait. A collection of his piano roll performances was included in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry, which selects songs that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
"When I'm dead twenty-five years, people are going to recognize me."
Think about the sorrows this man endured. He lost a baby daughter and a woman he loved. He experienced poverty, racism, and countless disappointments. People told him that his music--his art--was simple and vulgar. Fifty-seven years after his death, Joplin's unmarked grave was identified in St. Michael's Cemetery. Now every year the cemetery hosts free jazz and ragtime concerts in his honor. Don't you wish you could go back and tell him?
Joplin had fewer advantages than most people. At certain points, he must have felt that everything in the world was against him. But he knew he had talent, and he kept going. Joplin could have stopped at a hundred different awful moments, but he didn't. That's why we know his name.
"Marching onward, marching onward,
Marching to that lovely tune;
Marching onward, marching onward,
Happy as a bird in June"