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Biography Scott Joplin, 1868-1917

Image: Scott Joplin
[Portrait of Scott Joplin], taken from American Musician (June 17, 1907). Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.

Scott Joplin's is the name perhaps most associated with ragtime. Born sometime between the summer of 1867 and mid-January 1868, Joplin's career took him from a modest homestead on the Texas-Arkansas border to New York's Tin Pan Alley New York City, where he would eventually try his luck with composers like a young Irving Berlin. Although he continued composing until just before his death in April 1917, Joplin's greatest fame came from his years in the Midwest where he was acknowledged as the "King of Ragtime."

Joplin enjoyed his greatest success in Sedalia, Missouri, where he studied music at George R. Smith College and played with several ensembles, among them the Queen City Cornet Band. He opened his own piano studio and taught and encouraged other composers whose names eventually joined his in ragtime history. These young talents included Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden; Joplin collaborated with the former on the cakewalk "Swipesy" (1900) and the latter on the two-step "Sunflower Slow Drag" (1901). (Years later in New York, Joplin met and mentored another future ragtime great, Joseph Lamb.) Joplin's musical activities in Sedalia brought him in contact with the source of ragtime--piano playing in African-American social establishments. In fact, Joplin's engagements at the popular Maple Leaf Club inspired his most famous tune, "The Maple Leaf Rag" (1899).

Joplin's life spanned the unsettled post-Civil War years through much of World War I. His music embraced aspects of African-American popular heritage that thrived during that critical period; however, it also embraces elements from his formal musical training. For example, he found it perfectly reasonable to combine the syncopated rhythms of ragtime with the larger structures and forms of art music genres such as ballet and opera. For example, the form of the rag in Joplin's compositions was strict enough to be dubbed "classic," an epithet that both he and John Stark, his major publisher, employed to market their sheet music. Not only did the term imply an accepted structure (see the essay on "The Classic Rag"), but it also helped ragtime to migrate from its earthy origins to the parlors of the respectable middle class.

Joplin's theories about ragtime are stated eloquently in his self-published School of Ragtime (1908). Written in the style of an art music treatise, School demonstrates how serious Joplin was about ragtime--a type of music that many in contemporary America condemned as frivolous. He warned that not all syncopated music "that masqueraded under the name of ragtime" was genuine. Only by giving each note its proper value and by "scrupulously observing" the music's markings could a pianist achieve the correct effect. Above all, he cautioned, "never play ragtime fast at any time." "Joplin ragtime," as he termed his style, would be destroyed by careless interpretation.

Although he and his music were largely forgotten after his death, the ragtime revival of the 1970s brought Joplin renewed attention. In January 1972, his opera Treemonisha (1910), which he had been unable to stage during his lifetime, premiered in Atlanta. When his 1902 rag The Entertainer became the cornerstone for the soundtrack of the 1973 film The Sting, the popularity of ragtime soared.

Sedalia continues to celebrate its unique ragtime heritage with the annual Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival held under the auspices of the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Foundation ( Scott Joplin House State Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri likewise preserves Joplin's residence and celebrates his legacy (