Kenneth Bridges | History Columnist
Scott Joplin was an early musician who transformed much of the landscape of popular music in the early 1900s. Though many details of his short life are uncertain, his impact on early American music is undeniable.
Joplin was born just after the Civil War in 1867 or 1868 possibly in East Texas, though even his place of birth is not entirely certain. His parents had been slaves. When he was young, the family moved to nearby Texarkana where his father worked on the railroad that effectively created the city. As a child, he learned piano and classical music from a variety of tutors in Texarkana.
In 1885, he left home, travelling across the country and playing piano in bars and houses of ill repute or anywhere he could find work. Joplin also attended college briefly to further study music theory and composition. Between 1895 and 1917, he published more than 80 songs, including classical music, operas, and a new form of popular music, ragtime.
Ragtime was known for its upbeat tempo, often played on piano or accompanied by fiddles, banjos, or trumpets. Joplin tied this new music in with classical musical theory with far less improvisation and turned it into an art form. By the mid-1890s, he was touring with his own group, the Texas Medley Quartet. His band performed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair to wide acclaim. Music historians believe his performances started a ragtime craze in the country. In 1899, the Maple Leaf Rag, was published and became the most popular sheet music sold that year.
He moved to St. Louis in 1900 with his new wife, where he concentrated on teaching and composing. However, a string of tragedies began to unravel his life. An infant daughter died not long after his arrival in St. Louis, and he and his wife divorced. One of his operas, The Guest of Honor (1903), was a failure. His second marriage to Freddie Alexander of Little Rock ended when she just ten weeks after their 1904 wedding.
Joplin moved to New York in 1907 and remarried. In 1910, he completed his next opera. Treemonisha was set in Rondo, just east of Texarkana, in the 1880s. In the story, a young woman on a plantation learns to read and write and discovers that education is a defense against fear and superstition that crippled her community. Crushed by poor reception of his opera, bankrupt, and his physical health collapsing, he had a nervous breakdown and was committed to a hospital in early 1917. He died three months later, not yet fifty years old.
After Joplin’s passing, his influence only grew. Many musicians continued to imitate his style, and ragtime music remained extremely popular, ultimately inspiring the genre of jazz by the 1920s and the big band music of the 1930s and 1940s. His Maple Leaf Rag was used often for the soundtracks of several movies made in the 1920s and 1930s.
In 1973, composer Marvin Hamlisch adapted Joplin’s popular song from 1902, The Entertainer, for the musical score for the film The Sting, which starred Robert Redford and Paul Newman. The next year, Joplin was awarded a special posthumous Academy Award for Best Song. Portions of Treemonisha also began to be performed for audiences in the 1970s.
In 1976, he was awarded an honorary Pulitzer Prize for his contribution to American music. Joplin’s music came to embody the early twentieth century for many Americans as they looked back to the seemingly simpler times of nearly a century before. Overall, the nation again came to appreciate the unheralded artistic genius of Scott Joplin, the man who inspired so much of the music that America has enjoyed through the years.