Scott Joplin: The King of Ragtime (1868-1917)

By Jo Ann Vick


Scott Joplin, often referred to as the "King of Ragtime," was a pioneering African American composer and pianist whose groundbreaking work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries left an indelible mark on the history of American music. Born on November 24, 1868, in Texarkana, Texas, Joplin's life and career unfolded against the backdrop of a rapidly changing America, marked by social upheaval, cultural transformation, and the emergence of a uniquely American musical identity.

Early Years and Musical Beginnings

Scott Joplin was born into a musical family, and his early exposure to music set the stage for his later accomplishments. His father, Giles Joplin, was a former slave of African descent, and his mother, Florence Givins, was a freeborn African American. Joplin's parents played a pivotal role in nurturing his musical talents from a young age. His mother provided him with his initial piano lessons, recognizing his prodigious talent early on.

By the age of seven, Joplin was already proficient enough to play the piano at local parties and gatherings. His formal education in music began when a German immigrant and music teacher named Julius Weiss discovered Joplin's potential and took him under his wing. Weiss not only taught him the fundamentals of music theory and classical piano but also introduced him to the European musical tradition.

The Influence of Classical Music

Joplin's exposure to classical music significantly influenced his later compositions. He delved into the works of European composers such as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, incorporating elements of classical structure and form into his own compositions. This fusion of European classical traditions with African American musical idioms would become a hallmark of Joplin's unique style.

In the late 1880s, seeking to further his musical education, Joplin left Texarkana and traveled to Sedalia, Missouri. Sedalia was a thriving cultural hub, and it was there that Joplin continued to refine his craft and immerse himself in the rich musical environment of the time.

Ragtime Emergence

The late 19th century was a period of great change in American music. The fusion of European and African musical traditions was giving rise to new and distinctly American forms of expression. One such genre that emerged during this time was ragtime, characterized by its syncopated rhythms and lively, upbeat melodies.

Scott Joplin played a pivotal role in shaping and popularizing ragtime. His compositions, such as "Maple Leaf Rag" (1899), captured the spirit of the era and reflected the dynamic cultural melting pot that defined turn-of-the-century America. The syncopated rhythms of ragtime, with their infectious energy and playfulness, resonated with audiences across racial and cultural lines.

The Rise of "Maple Leaf Rag"

"Maple Leaf Rag" proved to be a breakthrough for Joplin. Published in 1899, the composition became a commercial success and established Joplin as a prominent figure in the world of music. The catchy, syncopated melodies of the ragtime piece found widespread popularity, making it one of the most successful and enduring compositions of the genre.

The success of "Maple Leaf Rag" not only brought Joplin financial success but also earned him a reputation as a trailblazer in the world of American music. The piece's popularity extended beyond the United States, gaining acclaim in Europe and other parts of the world.

Staking a Claim in the Music Industry

Joplin's success with "Maple Leaf Rag" opened doors for him in the music industry. He went on to publish a series of successful compositions, including "The Entertainer" (1902) and "The Cascades" (1904), further solidifying his status as a leading figure in ragtime music. Joplin's works were not only commercially successful but also contributed to the legitimization of ragtime as a respected musical genre.

Despite his achievements, Joplin faced the challenges of being an African American composer in a racially segregated society. He encountered prejudice and discrimination, particularly when trying to have his works published. Nevertheless, Joplin persisted in his pursuit of musical excellence and continued to break down barriers in the music industry.

Joplin's Opera Aspirations

While Joplin was best known for his ragtime compositions, he harbored ambitions beyond the confines of this genre. In the early 20th century, he sought to elevate African American music to a higher level of artistic expression by composing a full-length opera. His opera, "Treemonisha," was a departure from the ragtime style and showcased Joplin's versatility and ambition.

"Treemonisha" addressed issues of race, education, and social progress, making it a socially relevant and groundbreaking work. Unfortunately, Joplin struggled to find support for the production of the opera during his lifetime. It was only in the 1970s, long after his death, that "Treemonisha" gained recognition and was performed as a testament to Joplin's visionary approach to music.

The Decline and Legacy

In the latter part of Joplin's life, he faced personal and professional challenges. The decline of ragtime's popularity, combined with health issues, financial struggles, and the racial climate of the time, took a toll on him. Joplin's health deteriorated, and he succumbed to the effects of syphilis on April 1, 1917, at the age of 49.

While Joplin's life ended in relative obscurity, his legacy endured and experienced a resurgence in the later part of the 20th century. Ragtime, once overshadowed by newer musical forms, regained popularity, and Joplin's contributions were reevaluated and celebrated. His compositions became staples of the ragtime revival, and his impact on American music was recognized with posthumous awards and honors.

Posthumous Recognition and Awards

Scott Joplin's influence extended far beyond his lifetime. In 1976, he was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music, recognizing his contributions to American music and, in particular, his opera "Treemonisha." This acknowledgment was a significant milestone, marking the first time a black composer had received a Pulitzer Prize.

Additionally, in 1976, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in honor of Joplin, further cementing his place in the pantheon of American music. The stamp featured an image of Joplin and celebrated his role as a pioneer in the development of ragtime.

Legacy and Impact

Scott Joplin's legacy extends beyond his individual achievements; he played a crucial role in shaping the trajectory of American music. His contributions to ragtime paved the way for subsequent genres such as jazz and influenced generations of musicians. Joplin's ability to blend diverse musical elements, from European classical traditions to African American folk music, created a bridge between cultures and helped define the evolving American sound.

Joplin's influence can be heard in the works of countless musicians who followed in his footsteps. His compositions, characterized by their intricate melodies and rhythmic complexity, continue to be studied and performed by musicians and music enthusiasts worldwide. The enduring popularity of "Maple Leaf Rag" and "The Entertainer" attests to the timeless quality of Joplin's music.

Scott Joplin's life and career were marked by innovation, resilience, and a deep commitment to musical excellence. As the "King of Ragtime," he not only left an indelible mark on the history of American music but also paved the way for future generations of African American composers and musicians. Joplin's ability to transcend racial and cultural barriers through his music and his unwavering dedication to his craft make him a towering figure in the pantheon of American musical history. His legacy lives on, a testament to the enduring power of music to transcend time and connect people across generations and cultures.

Jo Ann Vick is a private piano instructor with 20 years of training and performing experience
and has a home based studio in Frisco, Texas. Her mission is to develop in others, a love
for playing the piano. Her website is located at