Scott Joplin was a 19th century composer and founder of the ragtime genre of music. He was born in Linden, Texas, somewhere between late 1867 to early 1868 and was the youngest of six children born to Giles Joplin (a former slave) and Florence Givens. His family was musically inclined which gave Joplin an inborn love for music; his father played the violin whereas his mother sang and played the banjo. Giles left the family when Joplin was seven years old, which some sources claim was due to a difference of opinion about Joplin’s musical education. His mother encouraged him and let him play the piano while she cleaned, whereas his father felt he should be employed in a more practical field to contribute to the family’s income. Nevertheless, he received immeasurable support from his mother who enrolled local music teachers such as Julius Weiss to further his education.
Weiss introduced Joplin to different genres of music such as folk and opera. He also helped his mother to acquire a used piano for Joplin’s education. Joplin studied with Weiss until the age of 16, and also taught mandolin and guitar to other students. At the age of 16, Joplin performed in a quartet in Texarkana, and soon gave up his part time employment as a laborer to become a travelling musician, mostly playing at churches and brothels. In 1893, he travelled to Chicago for the World’s Fair. Here, he formed his first band and performed at various places. In 1894, he moved to Sedalia, Missouri where he performed as a solo musician in black clubs such as the Black 400 Club and the Maple Leaf Club. He acquired a talented group of students such as Scott Hayden and Arthur Marshall, with whom he later wrote and performed songs.
In Sedalia, he also attended the George R. Smith College of music. In 1896, he published his first pieces, but was forced to share credit with another arranger. For his next publication, he hired a lawyer to ensure that he would get the credit and royalties from his work. This piece was titled “The Maple Leaf Rag” which went on to become one of the greatest and most famous piano rags. For this, Joplin received a one cent royalty per sale for the rest of his life. His next composition was a folk-ballet called “The Ragtime Dance” which was performed at Wood’s Opera House in Sedalia in November 1899. Scott Joplin wanted to ensure that people took his music seriously so he published a series of works for students titled “The School of Ragtime: Six Exercises for Piano”.
In 1902, he composed his first opera titled “A Guest of Honor” but the production suffered severe financial losses due to theft. He then moved to New York where he composed the famous opera “Treemonisha”. He continued to work until near the end of his life and formed his own publishing company. By 1916, however, he was suffering from extremely poor health due to dementia brought about by syphilis. He died on April 1, 1917 at the age of 49. Joplin’s work received more attention after his death, especially during the 1940s and 1970s when several of his works were performed as operas, jazz and used in popular films. For his achievements in the genre of ragtime music, Scott Joplin was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976.