Scott Joplin was born to Florence Givens and Giles Joplin in Texarkana, a town that sits on the border of Texas and Arkansas. His exact date of birth is unknown, although it is speculated that he was born between the summer of 1867 and the winter of 1868. His mother was a singer and his father played the banjo, which inspired young Scott to pursue music as well.
Joplin left home as a teenager. He began playing music in bars and dance halls where he formed ragtime. In the 1880s, he lived in Sedalia, Missouri playing music until he moved to Chicago in 1893 and became the frontman for a band. He returned to Sedalia and published his first two songs, ‘Please Say You Will’ and ‘A Picture of Her Face.’
During this time, Joplin began studying music at the George R. Smith College for Negroes in Sedalia. He simultaneously worked as a mentor to other aspiring ragtime musicians. In the late 1890s, he published his first ragtime piece, ‘Original Rag.’ After being forced to share credit with another composer, he sought council for his next piece.
‘Maple Leaf Rag’
By 1899, Joplin had written ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ and was working with publisher John Stark in order to market it. In the beginning, sales were meager. Eventually, however, ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ became one of his biggest hits and the most famous ragtime piece to date, selling over one million copies. Via ragtime, he took the U.S. by storm, making a name for himself as an artist.
As Joplin worked diligently to bring notoriety to the genre of ragtime, White critics often attempted to discredit the genre because of its roots in Black music and for its radical form. In response to the criticism, he wrote ‘The School of Ragtime: Six Exercises for Piano,’ a book that taught people how to play ragtime.
Joplin later created ‘A Guest of Honor,’ an opera that he had worked on for some time. The box-office receipts were stolen, which caused the production to shut down and ultimately cost him a great deal of money. He then created another opera in 1907, titled ‘Treemonisha.’ The play was produced on a small scale with only a vocalist and a pianist in 1915.
By 1913, Joplin and his third wife, Lottie, founded their own publishing company. By 1916, he had fallen ill to syphilis which he likely contracted years prior. He was later hospitalized and institutionalized. Scott Joplin died April 1, 1917. He was between the ages of 49 and 50 years old.
Joplin was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize in honor of his work, in 1976. He refined a genre that transcended the test of time. In the 1940s, ragtime became wildly popular again. And in the 1970s, ragtime was praised as a classical genre. Joplin’s play ‘Treemonisha’ was finally produced in 1975 and his song ‘The Entertainer’ was later used in the film ‘The Sting.’
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