King of Ragtime: The Life of Scott Joplin

Black and white portrait of Scott Joplin, circa 1907, in formal attire with a bow tie and a focused expression.
Scott Joplin, 1907

People called Scott Joplin the “King of Ragtime.” It was a well-deserved nickname. For he was exceptional, gifted in playing and composing the music, and able to bring people together with his craft.

Scott was born in east Texas in either 1867 or 1868 and grew up in Texarkana, Arkansas. He was part of the first generation of black Americans post enslavement, who believed that with hard work and dedication, they could fulfill their dreams. His parents felt similar about their children’s prospects for life and, wanting him to be educated, sent him to tutoring from local literate black neighbors, as there were no schools in his area for black students. Alongside his schooling, Scott also learned music, as his parents had musical interests. And it was there that he shined.

People quickly realized that Scott was special in his musical abilities. There was a unique beauty in how he played and the music he composed, which he began doing in his early years. Music teachers volunteered to work with him for free.

Scott took his talent and, coupled with hard work and discipline, turned it into a career. In some ways, it was also opportune timing, at least in matching talent and American audience interest. In Scott’s day, the piano was the most popular musical instrument. Americans wanted to hear it played live in saloons, restaurants, pool halls, stores, and theaters. As such, musicians were in high demand.

In those early years of his career, he followed the money, playing wherever someone would pay him. In the words of one biographer writing about Scott, “For him, music was music. It did not matter to him whether his audience was made up of gamblers or socialites.”

But Scott’s breakthrough came with his composition of “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1899. Ragtime was still in its infancy as a mainstream genre but had been part of the African-American experience long before. Scott’s work helped reach new audiences and cemented his reputation as a leading ragtime composer.

In addition to his work making ragtime music, Scott also composed two operas, including “Treemonisha” in 1911, which was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1976.

Scott passed away in 1917.

Notes

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King of Ragtime: The Life of Scott Joplin Sources

  • Berlin, Edward A.. King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era. United States, Oxford University Press, 2016.
  • Scott Joplin. United States, Facts On File, Incorporated, 1989.