By the time he was seven, Scott Joplin was proficient on the banjo and had started experimenting with the piano at the house where his mother worked as a cleaner. Born about 1867 into a
musical family—Joplin’s father, a former slave, played the violin for plantation parties and his mother, a freeborn African-American, sang and played the banjo—Joplin grew up amidst music making. The family moved into Texarkana around 1875 where Joplin’s father worked as a laborer on the railroad and his mother cleaned houses.
Although several local teachers helped Joplin with piano lessons, young Joplin’s world seemed to change when Julius Weiss, a well-educated German who had immigrated to the United States to teach music, heard the eleven-year-old Joplin play the piano. Weiss had moved to Texarkana as the private tutor for children of a wealthy lumberman. Weiss offered Joplin free lessons in piano, sight-reading, and skills to enhance his natural instinct for harmony. Soon, Joplin’s father left his mother and six children over what some claim was his father’s belief that all the piano playing kept Joplin from working to help with the family income. Whatever the cause, Weiss helped Joplin’s mother purchase a used piano and Joplin continued seriously studying music and practicing after school. Weiss introduced Joplin to folk and classical music, including opera and instilled in him a desire for education. Weiss left Texarkana in 1884 after the death of his employer, but Joplin apparently stayed in touch with his mentor and in later years, when Weiss was old and broke, Joplin sent regular gifts of money to Weiss for the rest of his life.
It isn’t clear what Joplin did after Weiss left Texarkana. For a time he played piano for a vocal quartet and taught guitar and mandolin. Some accounts claim he taught at the local Negro school. In the late 1880s Joplin became a traveling musician, playing piano where black piano players were accepted such as churches, brothels, and saloons. He returned to Texarkana in July 1891 to perform with the “Texarkana Minstrels” to raise money for a monument for none other than Jefferson Davis, President of the Southern Confederacy. By this time Joplin’s music was called “jig-piano,” a pre-ragtime rhythm popular throughout the mid-South.
The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair did not welcome black performers, but the 27 million visitors attending the fair also visited local saloons, cafés, and brothels where they heard ragtime for the first time. Many accounts credit the fair with introducing ragtime and by 1897 the St. Louis Dispatch described ragtime as “a veritable call of the wild, which mightily stirred the pulses of city bred people.”
Joplin played in black clubs, formed his own six-piece dance orchestra, and published his own compositions, Please Say You Will and A Picture of Her Face in 1895. He may have been in Texas in 1895 for the train crash that was promoted as a public relations stunt by the Katy Railroad because the following year the Great Crush Collision March, which has been called “a special…early essay in ragtime,” was published in Texas.
Joplin taught piano to future ragtime notables, Arthur Marshall, Brun Campbell, and Scott Hayden. Accounts of Joplin’s financial success vary widely. The contract for Maple Leaf Rag called for Joplin to receive 1% royalty on all sales with a minimum sale of twenty-five cents. Some versions of the story claim Joplin was the first musician to sell one million copies of a piece of instrumental music; however, later research indicates that the first print run sold 400 copies over a year and garnered $4 for Joplin. Later sales earned a steady income of about $600 a year.
In the early 1900s, while living in St. Louis, Joplin produced some of his best know pieces, including The Entertainer, March Majestic, and The Ragtime Dance. After the death of Joplin’s second wife, for whom he had written The Chrysanthemum, he wrote, Bethena, called by some admirers as “among the greatest of ragtime waltzes.”
Convinced that education held the key to success for African Americans, much of his work followed that theme. By 1907 Joplin made New York his base for touring along the East Coast and settled there permanently as he worked on Treemonisha, a black opera that
appeared to parallel Joplin’s early life. Although it is now considered one of he most important of his compositions, it failed to be recognized for its worth until Joplin received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for the first grand opera by an African American.
Joplin contracted syphilis that by 1916 caused his health to deteriorate and his playing to become inconsistent. He died at the age of forty-nine, in a Manhattan mental hospital on April 1, 1917, and was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. In 1974, the man whose works included a ballet, two operas, a manual for aspiring ragtime musicians, and many works for piano including rags, marches, and waltzes, finally received a grave marker. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. The following year the New York Public Library published his collected works, and his music was featured in The Sting, the 1973 Academy Award winning movie. The biographical film Scott Joplin was released in 1977; the United States Postal Service issued a Joplin commemorative stamp for its Black Heritage series in 1983; Joplin was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1987; and the list goes on—quite a record for the son of a former slave who earned the title “King of Ragtime.”