The once and future King… of Ragtime.
Scott Joplin grew up in a family of railway workers in Texarkana. He learned music from a German Jewish immigrant while starting a vocal quartet and teaching mandolin and guitar. Quitting the railroad, he became an itinerant musician playing red light districts throughout the South, until he took a band to the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Joplin, playing cornet and leading his arrangements of cakewalks, found they were very popular with the Midway crowds.
The next year Joplin settled in Sedalia, Missouri, playing at black social clubs and teaching (many of those students becoming the next generation of rag composers) until 1899, when his "Maple Leaf Rag" was published. "Maple Leaf" was not only one of the most influential of rags, it also gave Joplin steady royalty income for the rest of his life, and earned him the nickname "King of Ragtime." He next moved to St. Louis, composing and publishing, as well as presenting his first opera, A Guest of Honor, now lost.
Seeking greener pastures, Joplin moved on to New York City to find a producer for a new opera featuring a new kind of hero: a black woman educator. But Treemonisha, lacking backers, was never fully staged in his lifetime. In 1917 he was admitted to an asylum with dementia and died three months later.
After the first World War Joplin’s classically-tinged ragtime would disappear, evolving into several styles of jazz. But over a half century later the King of Ragtime would return in a big way.
Musicologists in the early 1970’s rediscovered Joplin’s works. Treemonisha was finally produced, and a surprise hit recording of his rags led to their prominent use in the Academy Award–winning score to the 1973 movie The Sting, which led to the two-step “The Entertainer” becoming a top ten pop hit. To complete his re-coronation, in 1976 Joplin was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for contributions to American music.
Scott Joplin… Classically Black.