When people think of ragtime music, one name comes to mind: the “King of Ragtime” Scott Joplin. As with many musicians of the time, Joplin bounced around from city to city, and venue to venue, trying to make a living. Although he traveled much of his life, he still considered Missouri his home. He enjoyed a fair amount of success during his lifetime, but true fame came after his death.
THE EARLY YEARS
Joplin is one of the most famous musicians of all time, yet little is known about his birth. It is still unknown where or when he was born, although historians believe he may have been born sometime around 1868. Joplin showed a tremendous amount of musical aptitude early in life after taking lessons on European musical art forms, including opera. This influence is often credited for his ability to blend musical styles, including classical and rhythmic.
He moved to Sedalia in his teenage years where some historians believe he attended Lincoln High School and later the George R. Smith College for Negroes. What is known for sure is that a music teacher named Julius Weiss taught him the basics of music while growing up. His time in west-central Missouri made a lasting impact with him, as he called Sedalia his home for the rest of his life.
RISE TO FAME
Joplin moved throughout the Midwest in his late teens and early twenties, where he played at local saloons, community events, and restaurants. He made a few stops in St. Louis in the 1890s, which was becoming the home of ragtime and blues. He officially moved to St. Louis in 1901 and stayed until 1907, and it was there that he perfected the musical style that made him famous.
He used his background in classical music and combined it with the African American harmonies and rhythms that were popular in taverns of his day. He gained a loyal following of fans at his performances but was still waiting for that first big hit that would make him a household name in the American music scene.
SHOW ME SUCCESS
When he wasn’t in St. Louis or traveling, Joplin worked in Sedalia as a pianist. He set up shop at the town’s two social clubs for black men, the Maple Leaf and Black 400. He had already sold six musical pieces for the piano by 1898, which received modest attention, but produced little money and less acclaim. But in 1899, Joplin published the “Maple Leaf Rag,” which became his most famous piece of music. This hit was followed a few years later by “The Entertainer,” which was written and published in St. Louis in 1902.
The “Maple Leaf Rag” sold relatively well but didn’t make him wealthy. He signed a music deal with John Stark and Son that paid him a royalty of one cent for each copy sold, which earned him approximately $360 per year over the rest of his life. That would be less than $6,000 a year today.
He spent his latter years in New York teaching, composing, and trying to get his opera Treemonisha to the stage, which never happened during his lifetime. He achieved a minor degree of fame while he was alive, but he received greater critical acclaim decades after his death. In fact, in 1973, nearly sixty years after he died, his music appeared in the movie The Sting, which won an Academy Award for film score. In 1976, Joplin’s opera Treemonisha won the coveted Pulitzer Prize for contribution to American music. Joplin is buried in New York, but his home and old stomping grounds in Missouri still draw thousands of admirers every year.
*Joplin’s legacy is still celebrated in Sedalia during the annual Scott Joplin Festival.
*His home near downtown St. Louis is now a State Historic Site.
*The Maple Leaf Club in Sedalia provided the title for his best-known composition, the “Maple Leaf Rag.”