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Scott Joplin, Scott Joplin photo, Scott Joplin biography

Happy Birthday, Scott Joplin, Ragtime Composer of “The Entertainer” and “Maple Leaf Rag”

November 24, 2010
by Caleb March
American composer Scott Joplin, the “King of Ragtime,” composed dozens of legendary ragtime songs in the late 1800s and early 1900s, including such iconic pieces as “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer.”

Scott Joplin's Early Days

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The details of Scott Joplin’s early life are not well documented. Historians previously accepted Nov. 24, 1868, as Joplin’s birthday, but that may not be correct. Joplin was born in northeast Texas to Florence Givens, a freeborn African-American, and Giles Joplin, a former slave. Giles Joplin worked as a laborer to support his family.

Scott Joplin began playing piano at the age of 7 at a neighbor’s house while his mother cleaned. Both of Joplin’s parents were musicians, and Giles Joplin taught his children to play the violin from an early age. In the early 1880s, Giles Joplin left his family to live with another woman, leaving Florence to support her three sons. In spite of her humble means, Joplin’s mother bought him his first piano in the early 1880s.

A local German immigrant, Julius Weiss, noticed young Joplin’s musical talent and began to teach him about classical music. Information on Joplin’s teenage years is hazy, but it is thought that he left home as a teen and attended high school in Missouri before setting out as a traveling musician. Joplin apparently earned money by playing piano and cornet at saloons, social clubs and events across the country, including in St. Louis, where he would later settle.

Joplin's Notable Accomplishments

The earliest documented information about Joplin’s musical career is a newspaper article from Texarkana, Texas, in 1891 praising Joplin’s local music troupe. In 1893, Joplin was sighted at the Chicago World’s Fair, where he became friends with pianist Otis Saunders. Joplin settled in Sedalia, Missouri, where he published his first musical compositions.

In 1899, local publisher John Stark bought the rights to one of Joplin’s compositions, “Maple Leaf Rag.” By 1909, “Maple Leaf Rag” had sold a half-million copies..

In 1901, Joplin and Stark moved to St. Louis, where Joplin wrote many  famous ragtime songs, including “The Entertainer,” “The Easy Winners” and “Elite Syncopations.” In 1904, Joplin performed “The Cascades” at the St. Louis World’s Fair, which became his second big hit. In 1907, Joplin moved again, this time to New York, where he continued to publish and perform ragtime songs.

Listen to several of Joplin’s best-known works on Last.fm, including “The Maple Leaf Rag,” “The Entertainer” and “The Easy Winners.”

The Rest of the Story

From 1911 until his death on April 1, 1917, Joplin devoted a great deal of effort to promoting his opera, “Treemonisha.” In spite of favorable reviews, Joplin was never able to stage a complete performance. He died in New York from complications resulting from his long battle with syphilis.

Joplin is credited as being the father of American ragtime music. During the 1970s, there was a resurgence of interest in ragtime and Joplin’s work: “Treemonisha” was finally produced on Broadway, Joplin’s music was used for the Academy Award-winning score of the film “The Sting” and in 1976, he was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for his contributions to American music. Joplin’s face was featured on a U.S. stamp in 1983.
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