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Joplin, Scott free

  • Edward A. Berlin

Portrait of Scott Joplin on the cover of sheet music for "The Cascades."

Library of Congress, Music Division.
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(b northeast TX, between July 19, 1867 and mid-Jan 1868; d New York, NY, April 1, 1917). American composer. He is regarded as ragtime’s greatest exponent. Census records of 1870 and 1880 and Joplin’s death certificate establish that the frequently cited birth date of 24 November 1868 is incorrect.

1. Life.

Joplin was the child of a former slave and a free-born black woman and grew up in the town of Texarkana on the Texas–Arkansas border. His mother took an active interest in his musical education, and most members of his family played musical instruments; a German immigrant musician (perhaps Julius Weiss) who taught the young Joplin also seems to have played a significant role in the formation of his artistic aspirations.

His activities during the 1880s are not documented, but anecdotal evidence suggests that he lived for a while in Sedalia, Missouri, a town later linked to his early fame. He also worked as a travelling musician and became a close associate of the ragtime pioneer Tom Turpin in St. Louis. In 1891 he was back in Texarkana, performing with a minstrel company. He toured with his vocal group the Texas Medley Quartette during most of 1893-94, traveling widely between Omaha and Boston and stopping in Chicago during the World’s Columbian Exposition (open from May through October, 1893). His first two publications, the songs “Please say you will” and “A Picture of her face,” both issued in Syracuse in 1895, were one result of the tour.

After returning to Sedalia in 1894, he joined the Queen City Cornet Band, a 12-piece ensemble of African American musicians in which he played lead cornet, and also formed his own dance band. In 1895 he traveled to Texas, where he apparently witnessed the staged Crush Collision between two locomotives, and wrote “The Crush Collision March” to commemorate the event. This piece, along with his “Harmony Club Waltz” and “Combination March” were published in Temple, Texas, that year.Joplin attended music classes at the George R. Smith College in Sedalia and taught piano and composition to several younger ragtime composers, including Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden (with whom he composed collaborative rags). In 1898 and 1899 he performed as a pianist at the Maple Leaf Club (made famous by his “Maple Leaf Rag”) and the Black 400 Club, and formed a fruitful relationship with the publisher John Stark, who published about one-third of Joplin’s known works.

Early in 1899 Joplin issued his first piano rag, “Original Rags.” Dissatisfied with the usual arrangement whereby publishers purchased popular music outright for $25 or less, Joplin then obtained the services of a lawyer before publishing again. This was a wise decision, for his next publication, “Maple Leaf Rag,” on which he had a royalty contract paying one cent per copy, was an extraordinary success. Its success was not immediate—only 400 copies were sold in the first year—but it had sold half a million copies by 1909, thereby providing Joplin with a steady, albeit small, income. The most famous of all piano rags, “Maple Leaf Rag” formed the basis of Joplin’s renown and justified his title, the King of Ragtime Writers.

In 1901 Joplin moved to St. Louis with Belle, his new wife, and devoted his time to composition and teaching, relegating performance to a minor part of his activities. Adding to his fame through the next few years were such outstanding rags as “Sunflower Slow Drag” (1901, with Scott Hayden), “The Easy Winners” (1901), “The Entertainer” (1902), and “The Strenuous Life” (1902); the last of these was a tribute to President Theodore Roosevelt and was probably named in response to the president’s White House dinner with the black leader Booker T. Washington on 16 October 1901.

Despite his success as a ragtime composer, his ambition was to write for the lyric theater. His first effort in this direction was The Ragtime Dance, a ballet for dancers and a singer–narrator that depicts an African American ball such as those held at Sedalia’s Black 400 Club. It was first staged on 24 November 1899 at Wood’s Opera House in Sedalia, although it was not published until 1902. His next stage work was A Guest of Honor, an opera that dramatizes Washington’s dinner with Roosevelt. Joplin applied for a copyright in February 1903 and took the opera on tour with his company of 30 the end of August 1903. Early in the tour the receipts were stolen and the company disbanded. The score was never published and has been lost.

A notable rag of 1904 was “The Cascades,” named after the attraction at the St. Louis World’s Fair, where it was performed (for the photograph used on the sheet music see illustration). Another was “The Chrysanthemum,” which was dedicated to Freddie Alexander, whom Joplin married in June 1904. She died the following September.

In 1907, by which time he had publishedalmost 40 works, mostly rags, Joplin moved to New York with the intention of finding a publisher for his second opera, Treemonisha, on which he was still working. Within his first year in New York he befriended, helped, and encouraged Joseph F. Lamb, a young white man who became one of ragtime’s greatest composers. Joplin left his longtime publisher Stark and tried several New York firms before finally settling with Seminary Music, with which he published such piano pieces as “Wall Street Rag” (which includes a descriptive narrative of events in the famed financial district), “Paragon Rag” (dedicated to the Colored Vaudeville Benevolent Association, of which he was a member), “Solace,” and “Pine Apple Rag.” Seminary Music was linked to and shared an office with Ted Snyder Music, where Irving Berlin was employed at the beginning of his long career. It was through this connection, Joplin maintained, that Berlin had access to the score of Treemonisha, from which he supposedly stole a theme for the verse of his hit song “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”

Joplin completed Treemonisha in 1910, and after failing to find a publisher willing to issue the score of some 250 pages he published it himself in May 1911. It received a very favorable review in the American Musician and Art Journal in June 1911, and soon afterwards Joplin announced several stagings, but none reached fruition. The only known performances during his lifetime were an informal run-through without scenery or orchestra in 1911, a staging of only the final number in Bayonne, New Jersey, in 1913, and an orchestral performance in 1915 of the ballet from act 2, “Frolic of the Bears.” Joplin wrote the libretto, which presents his view that his racial peers could find a better life through education. The opera seems to have both textual and musical autobiographical references and is set in the month and year of his late wife Freddie’s birth.

The last work Joplin saw in print was “Magnetic Rag” (1914), which he issued with his own publishing company, formed with Lottie Stokes, his third wife. He continued composing almost to the end of his life, including more stage works and orchestral music, but the manuscripts remained unpublished. Joplin reportedly destroyed some of these before his death; those that remained, including his orchestration for Treemonisha, were apparently discarded in 1961.

Joplin’s music was mostly forgotten in the 1920s and ’30s, the main exception being “Maple Leaf Rag,” which was absorbed into the jazz repertory. A renewed interest in his music began in the early 1940s, with the advent of such traditional jazz groups as Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band, which sought to return to a pre-swing style of jazz. The book They all Played Ragtime (1950), by Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, added to this interest, which continued to grow through the next two decades. With the 1970s came a succession of events that brought to Joplin an astonishing amount of popular and scholarly attention. The first was a recording by Joshua Rifkin, Piano Rags by Scott Joplin (issued on the classical music label Nonesuch, 1970), with the music performed mostly as written, in other words, in a classical style, instead of the jazz or “honky-tonk” renditions common for ragtime performances in the 1950s-60s; this meant that instead of viewing Joplin’s music as a vehicle for improvisation, Rifkin presented it as Joplin had crafted it, with its interesting harmonies, inner voices, and bass lines. The recording became a bestseller and led to many more performances of Joplin’s music by classical artists. The following year, the New York Public Library published the two-volume The Collected Works of Scott Joplin (1971; reissued with three additional rags in 1981 as The Complete Works of Scott Joplin), making the music widely available to performers and scholars. The most momentous development was the use of Joplin’s music as a soundtrack in the award-winning film The Sting (1973). The film brought Joplin to the attention of the widest possible audience, which made his music—especially his rag “The Entertainer” (1902)popular again. It was performed and recorded widely, reaching the top positions in the sales charts. Joplin’s music was played more widely than ever before and not just on piano; there were performances and recordings for orchestra, band, string quartet, duos (piano and violin, and piano and flute), organ, guitar, and a variety of other ensembles. Never before had a popular music from decades earlier been the focus of such a revival. Along with the acclaim came three different productions of Treemonisha. The first was given by the Morehouse College Afro-American Workshop on 28 January 1972 at the Atlanta Memorial Arts Center, with orchestration by T.J. Anderson and staging by Katherine Dunham. The second took place from 10 to 14 August 1972 at Wolf Trap outside Washington, DC, with orchestration by William Bolcom. The third was performed by the Houston Opera and featured orchestration by Gunther Schuller; its premiere took place in Houston on 23 May 1975, and it reached Broadway on 20 October that year, where it remained for a six-week run. Official recognition came in the form of a special Pulitzer Prize in 1976 and a commemorative postage stamp in 1983.

Although the enthusiasm generated by the Joplin revival in the 1970s subsequently faded, Joplin’s music has not again been forgotten. In the early 2010s it was still heard frequently in the United States on radio and television commercials, in background scores, and ringing from neighborhood ice cream trucks. It was also programmed regularly for recordings and concerts and was a favorite in ballet. In addition, it has been featured at annual ragtime music festivals in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Joplin’s life has inspired novels and plays. He has remained a presence in American life.

2. Works.

Joplin’s pre-ragtime works of 1895–6, a waltz, two songs, and two marches, are competent but do not foreshadow the greatness that was to come. That was first revealed in the two rags he published in 1899, “Original Rags” and especially “Maple Leaf Rag.” The latter became the most imitated rag of the period, and Joplin himself used it as a model for several others: “The Cascades” (1904), “Leola” (1905), “Gladiolus Rag” (1907), and “Sugar Cane” (1908). While these derivative works are apparent attempts to recapture the unprecedented success of “Maple Leaf Rag,” they are recompositions rather than imitations, with that rag’s harmonic pattern serving as a foundation for elaborate new melodies.

Along with some 40 rags, Joplin continued composing songs, marches, and waltzes, some of the waltzes being syncopated. “Solace” (1909), subtitled “A Mexican Serenade,” uses a syncopated, habanera rhythm in a non-rag setting and seems to have been based on Will Etter’s “Whoa! Maude” (1905). The two pieces are possibly based on a common source. However, Joplin’s working of the material is clearly superior.

Joplin was the pre-eminent composer of piano ragtime. Working primarily in a popular idiom, he strove for a “classical” excellence in his music and recognition as a composer of artistic merit, rather than one simply of popular acclaim. Although he lavished much of his creative efforts on extended works, it was with his piano rags—miniatures rarely exceeding 72 measures of music (ignoring repeats)—that he attained greatness. Both he and Stark referred to these pieces as “classic rags,” comparing their artistic merit to that of European classics. The comparison is not unwarranted, for Joplin clearly sought to transcend the indifferent and commonplace quality of most ragtime. This aim is evident in his comments regarding his music, in his plea for faithful renderings of his scores and—most of all—in the care and skill with which he crafted his compositions. Joplin’s rags, unlike those of most of his contemporaries, are notable for their melodically interesting inner voices, consistent and logical voice-leading, subtle structural relationships, and rich chromatic harmonies supported by strongly directed bass lines. Throughout his music Joplin reveals himself as a composer of substance.


  • “A Musical Novelty,” American Musician and Art Journal, 27/12 (1911), 7 [review of vocal score of Treemonisha]
  • R. Blesh and H. Janis: They all Played Ragtime (New York, 1950, 4/1971)
  • A. Reed: The Life and Works of Scott Joplin (diss., U. of North Carolina, 1973)
  • J. Haskins and K. Benson: Scott Joplin (Garden City, NY, 1978)
  • T. Albrecht: “Julius Weiss: Scott Joplin’s First Piano Teacher,” College Music Symposium, 19/2 (1979), 89–105
  • E.A. Berlin: Ragtime: a Musical and Cultural History (Berkeley, CA, 1980/R1984 with addenda)
  • E.A. Berlin: “On the Trail of A Guest of Honor: in Search of Scott Joplin’s Lost Opera,” A Celebration of American Music: Words and Music in Honor of H. Wiley Hitchcock, ed. R. Crawford and others (Ann Arbor, MI, 1990), 51–65
  • E.A. Berlin: King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and his Era (New York, 1994)
  • J. Keene: “Joplin in New York: a Post-Mortem Walking Tour,” Ragtime Ephemeralist, no.3 (2002), 216–25
  • D. Pash: “The White-Backed Book: the Joplin String Arrangements,” Ragtime Ephemeralist, no.3 (2002), 84–99
  • T. Samuelson: “Scott Joplin Slept Here: Some Notes on the King of Ragtime’s Chicago Residences,” Ragtime Ephemeralist, no.3 (2002), 210–15
  • F.J. Spenser: Jazz and Death: Medical Profiles of Jazz Greats (Jackson, MS, 2002), 170–80
  • T. Albrecht: “African, Autobiographical, and Earlier Operatic Elements in Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha,” African Perspectives: Pre-colonial History, Anthropology, and Ethnomusicology, eds. R. Allgayer-Kaufmann and M. Weber (Frankfurt, 2008), 215–40
  • M. Piras: “Treemonisha, or Der Freischütz Upside Down,” Current Research in Jazz, 4 (2012),
  • A. Sears: “Political Currents and Black Culture in Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha,” Blackness in Opera, eds. N. André, K. M. Bryan, and E. Saylor (Urbana, IL, 2012), 101–15