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 to 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, his world opened when Julius Weiss, a well-educated German who had immigrated to the United States to teach music, heard the eleven-year-old boy play the piano. Weiss worked as the private tutor for children of a wealthy Texarkana lumberman. He offered Joplin free piano lessons, including sight-reading and skills to enhance his natural instinct for harmony.
Joplin’s father left his mother and six children over what some claim was his father’s belief that 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.
After the death of his employer, Weiss left Texarkana in 1884, but Joplin stayed in touch with his mentor. In later years, he sent regular gifts of money, which continued until Weiss died.
For a time after Weiss left Texarkana, Joplin 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 musicians 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 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.
He was touring Texas in 1895 when the Katy Railroad staged a train crash as a public relations stunt at a site called Crush north of Waco. The following year Joplin published The Great Crush Collision March.
He taught piano to future ragtime notables, Arthur Marshall, Brun Campbell, and Scott Hayden. He also played the violin and cornet, working at times as a cornet player with traveling bands. Financial success eluded him. The contract for Maple Leaf Rag called for him to receive one percent royalty on all sheet music 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-known pieces, including The Entertainer, March Majestic, and The Ragtime Dance. After the death of his second wife, for whom he had written The Chrysanthemum, he wrote, Bethena, called by some admirers “among the greatest of ragtime waltzes.”
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 the 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 was forty-nine when he died 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 forty-four original piano pieces 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—quite a record for the son of a former slave who earned the title “King of Ragtime.”