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Summary Article: Joplin, Scott
from Encyclopedia of American Urban History

Scott Joplin (1868-1917), the “king of ragtime,” composed lively syncopated music at the turn of the 20th century that accompanied the rise of urban America.

As a composer of ragtime, Joplin pioneered in a popular musical style that combined the forms of European music with the rhythms and melodic motifs of African American music. Syncopation, its hallmark feature, called for physical responses—toe tapping, thigh slapping, and rollicking dance movements—that contrasted sharply with late Victorian propriety. Ragtime's popularity tapped into a deep well of resistance against both Victorian hypocrisy and industrial discipline and is thus rightly seen as an important manifestation of the turn-of-the-century impulse toward modernity. Although denounced by some critics as a low form of music, rag-time appealed to men and women of all classes.

When the second son of Jiles and Florence Givens Joplin left home as a teenager to make his way as a musician, he probably did not imagine himself as a cultural rebel. His departure was enabled by the very forces that gave rise to major urban centers in the United States—railroads and industrialization. Although Joplin likely attended the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, he did not emerge as a composer until later in the 1890s in Sedalia, Missouri. There he composed the Maple Leaf Rag (1899), which launched his career and led to his business relationship with John Stark, a sheet music publisher who was white. Both Joplin and Stark eventually moved to St. Louis, where Stark participated in the burgeoning music industry, mass-producing sheet music and selling mass-produced pianos, and Joplin immersed himself in a lively entertainment district, home to Tom Turpin, Sam Patterson, and Louis Chauvin.

In 1907, Joplin moved to New York, where he composed and taught music for a living. Joplin's rag-time marches, waltzes, two-steps, and slow drags appeared with regularity. But Joplin had grander ambitions than writing popular dance music. In 1902, he persuaded a reluctant Stark to publish The Ragtime Dance, which was accompaniment to a ragtime ballet. Also while in New York, he wrote a ragtime opera, Treemonisha. However, like an earlier Joplin opera, A Guest of Honor (1903), this never made it to a full-stage production during Joplin's lifetime. One performance in 1915 at the Lincoln Theater failed to impress anyone, least of all a financial backer. Joplin's mental and physical health began to deteriorate dramatically, and on April 1, 1917, he died.

In little more than two decades, Joplin published ragtime compositions that set the standard for that musical genre. Altogether, he composed 44 original works and collaborated with Arthur Marshall, Scott Hayden, and Louis Chauvin on seven others. Since the revival of interest in Joplin and his music in the 1970s, The Entertainer (1902), Pineapple Rag (1908), The Easy Winners (1901), and Solace (1909) have enjoyed renewed popularity.

Further Readings and References
  • Berlin, E. A. (1994). The king of ragtime: Scott Joplin and his era. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Blesh, R., & Janis, H. (1950). They all played ragtime: The true story of an American music. New York: Knopf.
  • Curtis, S. (1994). Dancing to a black man's tune: A life of Scott Joplin. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.
  • Moderwell, H. K. Ragtime. The New Republic : pp. 284-286., .
  • Curtis, Susan
    Copyright © 2007 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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