Scott Joplin and the history of ragtime

08 October 2020
By Guest Writer
Inge Kjemtrup looks at the ‘King of Ragtime’ whose artful music laid the foundations for today’s popular music

Main image: © Library of Congress

Think of ‘ragtime’ and your first mental image might be of a man with a twirly moustache, wearing a boater hat and a striped shirt with braces, who’s sitting at an upright piano and pounding out a jaunty rag.

From our vantage point, more than 100 years later, ragtime seems like the innocent music of an almost comically innocent age. Our impression of ragtime has also been shaped by the use of rags in the soundtrack of the hugely successful 1973 film, The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Marvin Hamlisch won an Academy Award for his arranging efforts, however, the real credit must go to the composer, Scott Joplin – ‘The King of Ragtime’.

The Sting arrived on the wave of a major ragtime revival. Amateur and professional pianists alike discovered ragtime, adding such gems as The Entertainer and The Maple Leaf Rag to their repertoire. Scott Joplin, a film about the composer’s life, came out in 1977, while choreographer Kenneth MacMillan used Joplin’s music as the score to his 1974 ballet Elite Syncopations (recently revived at the Birmingham Royal Ballet). In 1983, Joplin’s face appeared on a US postage stamp. Joplin, who died in 1916, would have been delighted by all the attention.


The Entertainer is one of the most well-known ragtime pieces in history. Download the sheet music for it here


Tracing the life of the ‘King of Ragtime’ has challenged biographers – the paper trail, beyond newspaper accounts of his achievements and some official documents, is thin. Recent biographers agree that Joplin was born near Marshall, Texas, probably in 1867, but certainly not on 24 November 1868, the usual date given. Unfortunately, there’s no birth record.

What is known is that his mother, Florence, hailed from Kentucky, while his father, Giles, a former slave, came from North Carolina. Life was not easy – ‘a hardscrabble existence on barren Texas scrubland’ in the words of one biographer – yet there was still joy to be had in the Joplin family’s music making. Giles played violin and Florence the banjo.

The family later moved to Texarkana, where Florence was employed as a domestic cleaner, and it’s thought Scott first played the piano at the home of one of her employers. The youngster’s musical abilities caught the attention of Julian Weiss, a German-born music teacher, who took him under his wing, tutoring him in basic musicianship and composition, and giving him an appreciation of opera and art. The teenaged Joplin formed the Texas Medley Quartette and soon was performing at dances, events, meetings and weddings. He later attended the George R Smith College in Sedalia, Missouri, making him quite well educated for an African-American of his time.

It’s important to remember Joplin was born just a few years after the end of the US Civil War, when, despite the official emancipation of the slaves, conservative forces were doing their best to reinstate the status quo that kept African-Americans at the very bottom of the social ladder.

With his Texas Medley Quartette, Joplin played at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 – or rather, he would have played there, but few African-Americans were allowed to play inside the Fair. Instead they played in saloons and restaurants outside of the fairgrounds. But he attracted good audiences, and the Fair brought ragtime to wider public attention. In the 20-year period after the Fair, Joplin’s compositions such as The Maple Leaf Rag would bring ragtime to its highest level of art.


Maple Leaf marvel

‘Ragtime’s immediate roots were in the minstrel music and cakewalk tunes that depicted the simple joys of contented slaves, a fiction that white America clung to long after the Civil War,’ writes Ray Argyle in Scott Joplin and the Age of Ragtime. ‘Their tunes were rendered in the syncopated “ragged” style that was its trademark. The result was music that was great for both listening and dancing, giving the twostep liveliness and agility.’

Not all of Joplin’s early pieces were in the syncopated style – titles include Combination March and Harmony Club Waltz. And as a performing musician, he drew inspiration from other performers and musical styles: marches, cakewalks and perhaps even Brahms via his teacher Weiss.

The Maple Leaf Rag (1899) is probably Joplin’s most famous rag. Some 500,000 copies of the sheet music were sold in the ten years after its first publication. Possibly connected to Sedalia’s Maple Leaf Club, a social gathering place for African-Americans, The Maple Leaf Rag (which appeared in Pianist No 11) became his calling card. It was, for many years, also his meal ticket, thanks to the fact that he had negotiated a very favourable royalty arrangement with a Sedalia publisher, John Stark. ‘The Maple Leaf Rag marks an era in musical composition,’ Stark wrote, praising the music of his leading composer. ‘It has throttled and silenced those who oppose syncopations. It is played by the cultured of all nations and is welcomed in the drawing rooms and boudoirs of good taste.’


Chenyin Li plays Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag


That a popular composer would earn money from his compositions rather than from his performances was unusual enough; that it was an African-American who did so was almost unheard of. But then Joplin had a strong sense of his own value as a composer. Throughout his life, Joplin was determined to see ragtime taken seriously. He resisted adding racist lyrics to his rags, for instance, which many of his rival composers did.

In 1901, the African-American educator and civil rights leader Booker T Washington came to the White House for dinner as a guest of President Theodore Roosevelt. It was a thrilling moment for African-Americans and inspired Joplin’s first opera, A Guest of Honor, which he took on tour in 1903. Unfortunately, the tour was a failure, the box office receipts were stolen and, to top it all off, the score and a trunk of Joplin’s personal effects were held hostage. The music has never been found. Adding to this catastrophe was the fact that his first marriage was breaking up.

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Then, on a visit to family in Arkansas, he met the 19-year-old Freddie Alexander. They fell in love and he dedicated several pieces to her, among them, The Chrysanthemum, subtitled ‘An African-American Intermezzo’. They married in June 1904, but their happiness was brief: just ten weeks after the wedding, Freddie died of pneumonia. The tender and haunting Bethena: A Concert Waltz is probably a memorial to Freddie.


Scott Joplin's wife Freddie Alexander died just ten weeks after their marriage


Joplin’s pieces were not always inspired by his personal circumstances. Often, the titles came straight from the headlines or major events. The Cascades owes its title to a dramatic water display at the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair, while the Wall Street Rag (1909) may well owe its origin to the Panic of 1907 and its aftermath.

As Joplin was living and working in New York City when he wrote that rag, he may well have had an insider’s feel for this topic. Unusually, Wall Street Rag has four sections, each with its own title: ‘Panic in Wall Street, Brokers feeling melancholy’; ‘Good times coming’; ‘Good times have come’; ‘Listening to the strains of genuine negro ragtime, brokers forget their cares.’ The variety of musical colours used to depict this programmatic range of emotion are far in advance of what any ragtime writer was doing at the time.

Joplin biographer Edward A Berlin notes that the habanera bass of Wall Street Rag is developed more fully in the next piece he published, Solace, A Mexican Serenade, which appears in this issue’s Scores (page 57) and which maintains a habanera style throughout. Such Latin American rhythms often found their way into ragtime.

Joplin had strong views about how his music should be played. Many pianists, including those who have recorded the rags, seem to find it irresistible to play the jaunty syncopations at a fast clip. In doing so, players are going against the composer’s wishes. In his instructions at the top of The Nonpareil (None to Equal), Joplin sternly instructs the pianist, ‘Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast’.

The complex harmonic changes of the rags demand a more measured tempo, he felt. As he explained in his School of Ragtime, a self-published tutorial from 1908, ‘That real ragtime of the higher class is rather difficult to play is painful truth which most pianists have discovered. Syncopations are no indication of light or trashy music.’ When the American musicologist Joshua Rifkin sat down to record an album of Joplin rags for Nonesuch in 1970, he took the composer at his word, and his recording remains a benchmark.


Ragtime opera

Though the Baltimore Evening Sun could confidently write in the 1910s that ‘The history of the Twentieth Century will be written in Ragtime’, by the time of Joplin’s death, ragtime had reached its peak in the United States. Outside of the US, however, ragtime took hold later, and vestiges of that fad can be heard in Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk and Stravinsky’s Piano Rag Music.

In his final years, Joplin was preoccupied with writing a ragtime opera. His ability to realise this dream was hampered by the effects of syphilis, the disease that would eventually kill him. His increasingly unpredictable behaviour made life difficult for his wife, Lottie, and for those who admired his talents. When at last his long-planned opera, Treemonisha, was complete, he was unable to find a backer and finally presented the opera himself in 1915 at the Lincoln Theatre in Harlem. Joplin played the piano himself for a cast of non-professionals lacking costumes or sets; the audience was very small.

He was only 49 when he died of ‘Dementia Paralytica – cerebral form’ at a mental hospital in New York in 1916. His wife said, ‘He would often say that he would never be appreciated until after he was dead.’ Judging by the surge of interest in ragtime engendered by The Sting and the subsequent popularity of ragtime among pianists, Joplin’s prophecy was correct. He would have been pleased to know that Treemonisha was at last presented in all its glory in 1975 by the Houston Grand Opera.


Scott Joplin. © Rephotographed by Billy Hathorn; author of the original image itself not noted


But perhaps Joplin’s lasting legacy was that, as his former student Samuel Brunson Campbell put it, he set in motion a genre of music that ‘blew the lid off the musical world and set it into the greatest musical craze that the world has ever known’.


This article appeared inside issue 62 of Pianist. Download the issue here.