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Who is Scott Joplin?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 23, 2024
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Scott Joplin is a name that is well-recognized by ragtime music lovers. He is often called "The King of Ragtime" and his contribution to American music is prolific and powerful. Scott Joplin received a posthumous Pulitzer Committee award in 1976 for his outstanding achievement in American music. Today, Sedalia, Missouri is known for its annual Scott Joplin Festival.

Joplin's father was a slave who became a laborer. His mother worked in white-owned homes, and this is where Scott Joplin first had access to a piano. Later, Julius Weiss, a German-born Texarkana music teacher, taught Joplin how to play European opera and classical music.

He started his music career by working in the minstrel shows in Texarkana in 1891 and also as a bandleader and cornet player in Chicago during the World's Fair in 1893. Scott Joplin settled in Sedalia, Missouri and played in black bands. His own band, The Texas Medley Quartet sang in Syracuse, New York in 1895. During this period, Joplin had his songs "A Picture of Her Face" and "Please Say You Will" published.

Joplin continued to travel and play music as well as play piano regularly in Sedalia. After publishing a waltz and two marches, he eventually published "Maple Leaf Rag" in 1899. Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" became one of the world's most well known and popular piano rags of all time. Joplin published "Ragtime Dance" and "Swipsey," also spelled "Swipesy," in 1900 before moving to St. Louis.

In St. Louis, Scott Joplin continued his ragtime piano career with nine rags published in the years 1901 and 1902. In 1903, he took his A Guest of Honor opera on the road in the mid-west. Joplin ended up in severe financial devastation after a person in his company stole the box office receipts from his opera. He did continue to publish rags in 1903 through 1914 and published another opera, Treemonisha, in 1911.

Treemonisha is Scott Joplin's opera that praises his mother for helping him begin his interest in music. The heroine of Treemonisha learns to play the piano while her mother works in a home owned by whites, just as in Joplin's own childhood. Scott Joplin's actual date of birth and birth place are disputed, but are thought to be 24 November 1868 and close to Linden, Texas. Joplin died of tertiary, or late stage, syphilis on 1 April 1917.

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