Scott Joplin, the “King of Ragtime”, wrote 44 original ragtime pieces, a ballet, and two operas. His best-known work, “Maple Leaf Rag” became the first bonafide hit in the genre, and is considered the archetypal rag. Born into a musical family of railroad labourers, he gained musical training through local teachers (more on that later). He left his job as a labourer on the railroad, and hit the road for the musician’s life, taking gigs where he could get them. Joplin attended the World’s Fair in Chicago of 1893, an event that made the ragtime a national craze by 1897. This set the stage for Joplin, who began publishing music in 1895 and put out “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1899 which made him famous across the country. “Maple Leaf Rag” set the bar pretty high in terms of how a ragtime should sound, and most composers tried to emulate the style. In a sense, it was the first “hit” the way we’d describe a rock song today, climbing the charts at radio stations. If he had a contract that rewarded him handsomely for every sale of the sheet music, it would have covered his expenses for life. He did receive some ongoing income from the sales of the piece, but still had financial struggles.
Joplin’s teacher, Julius Weiss, was a German-born professor who recognized Joplin’s talent at age 11, and taught him for free, given the financial strains on the Joplin family. He taught Joplin all about folk and classical music, and to appreciate music as an art form as well as its entertainment value. In a sense, Scott Joplin foreshadowed Gershwin, both trying to “legitimize” their music. Long before Gershwin “made a lady out of jazz” with classical forms, Joplin elevated the ragtime form as something beyond its “cheap bordello” origins and wrote classical-style miniatures, incorporating Afro-American syncopated rhythms, layered melodies, and colourful tunes.
Featured is a piano roll of Scott Joplin playing his most famous work, The Maple Leaf Rag.
Scott Joplin was born November 24, 1868 in Texarkana, Texas, and died April 1, 1917, in New York City, New York.