Scott Joplin

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Joplin, Scott

(jŏp`lĭn), 1868–1917, American ragtime pianist and composer, b. Texarkana, Tex. Self-taught, Joplin left home in his early teens to seek his fortune in music. He lived in St. Louis (1885–93), playing in saloons and bordellos. In 1894 he moved to Sedalia, Mo., and played second cornet in a local band. For the next two years Joplin toured with a vocal ensemble he had formed and made his first efforts at composing ragtime. When the group disbanded (1896), he returned to Sedalia, where he stayed about four years. During this time he studied music at George Smith College, an educational institution for blacks sponsored by the Methodist Church.

In 1899, Joplin published the "Maple Leaf Rag," and its success was instantaneous. However, his next two major efforts, a folk ballet titled Rag Time Dance (1902) and a ragtime opera called A Guest of Honor (never published) were failures. Joplin continued to write ragtime music and moved (1909) to New York City, where he had considerable success until 1915, when at his own expense he produced a concert version of a second ragtime opera, Treemonisha (1911), a racial and spiritual parable that failed to gain recognition. This failure and the declining interest in ragtime are thought to have affected his personality, which became moody and temperamental. In 1916 he was confined to the Manhattan State Hospital, where he died the following year.

Joplin's rags were highly innovative, characterized by a lyricism and suppleness that elevated ragtime from honky-tonk piano music to a serious art form. Some of his compositions are "The Entertainer" (1902), "Rose Leaf Rag" (1907), "Gladiolus Rag" (1907), "Fig Leaf Rag" (1908), and "Magnetic Rag" (1914). A revival of interest in ragtime occurred in the 1970s. Several of Joplin's rags were used as background music for the Hollywood film The Sting (1973), and a Joplin Festival was held at Sedalia in 1974.


See R. Blesh and H. Janis, They All Played Ragtime (rev. ed. 1966); P. Gammond, Scott Joplin and the Ragtime Era (1975); J. Haskins and K. Benson, Scott Joplin (1978); E. A. Berlin, King of Ragtime (1994).

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Joplin, Scott

(1868–1917) composer, pianist; born in Texarkana, Texas. Originally a self-taught and itinerant musician, he studied at the George R. Smith College in Sedalia, Mo., to advance his musical skills (1896). He played piano in disreputable dives but used his musical knowledge to help other itinerant musicians notate their own compositions, just as he was doing with his. He then joined with a music publisher, John S. Stark of Sedalia, and began to receive both credit and money from his own "rags," especially after the success of his "Maple Leaf Rag" (1899). He toured throughout the Midwest, billed as the "King of Ragtime" as he played dozens of his own original ragtimes on the piano, among them "The Easy Winners" (1901) and "The Entertainers" (1902). By 1905 he had settled into Harlem in New York City and began an attempt to "elevate" ragtime. He had already used the ragtime style with dance beats—a waltz, a habanera—and had evidently tried a ragtime "opera" (A Guest of Honor, 1903—now lost), but in New York he composed an ambitious opera drawing on folk music themes, Treemonisha (1915); it was never performed beyond the rehearsal stage. (It was first produced on stage in Atlanta, Ga., in 1972.) It is believed that the collapse of the original production helped to cause his premature death. He and his music were largely forgotten until several of his rags were selected for the soundtrack of the popular movie, The Sting (1973), and this in turn led to a revival of interest in more of his music.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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We see by the end of King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era that previous historical and biographical works on the composer, those places where information should be in decent enough condition to be reinvestigated, are often inadequate and woefully incomplete.
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