Bio of Scott Joplin: An Afro-American Musical Composer Who Gave Birth to Ragtime

Scott Joplin was the second oldest of six children born to Florence Givins and Giles Joplin. Scott’s birthdate is not quite clear. It’s only known that he was born in mid 1867 somewhere near
Linden, Texas.

When Scott was young, his Afro-American family moved to Texarkana, Texas. It was discovered that he had a musical talent. Fortunately, he received free lessons from a music teacher, and his mother, who cleaned houses for a living, was able to buy him a piano.

When Scott Joplin reached his 20’s, he set out on his own. It’s rather unclear exactly what he did for a living, but it is known that he was part of a traveling minstrel in Texarkana around the early 1890’s. In 1893, he led a band at the Chicago World’s Fair. He moved to Sedalia, Missouri in 1894. He worked as a pianist there. Then in 1895, Scott sold two songs he wrote, “Please Say You Will” and “A Picture of Her Face” in New York. In the next three years, he had sold six piano songs. Though Scott Joplin’s name would later go down in history as being one of the most important ragtime composers, only one of these songs, “Original Rags”, was actually ragtime.

Finally, Scott’s big musical break came in 1899. He sold what would later become his most memorable song, “Maple Leaf Rag”, to John Stark & Son music publishers. Music wasn’t recorded yet in those days, so his royalties were based on the number of copies of sheet music that were sold. It was reported that Scott Joplin earned a penny for each sheet of “Maple Leaf Rag” that was sold. The song turned out to be quite profitable for Scott, an Afro-American composer.

In 1901, Scott Joplin made his home in St. Louis, Missouri. He started the “Scott Joplin Opera Company” and continued to write songs. Six years later, he moved to New York where he continued to publish ragtime music. It was here that he published “Pine Apple Rag”, “Solace”, “Euphonic Sounds”, “Felicity Rag”, and “Kismet Rag”, among countless others.

Several years later, in 1916, Scott Joplin became ill. The Afro-American composer had contracted terminal syphilis. He somehow managed to record six piano rolls. The songs were,
“Maple Leaf Rag”, “Something Doing”, “Magnetic Rag”, “Ole Miss Rag”, and “Pleasant Moments”. It was fortunate that Scott was able to do this, because these piano rolls are the only remaining recordings of his music.

By the following year, Scott Joplin was admitted to the Manhattan State Hospital. His illness had escalated to the point that he now suffered from a severe mental imbalance. He passed away there on April 1, 1917.

Sadly, the death of the Afro-American ragtime composer went by almost completely unnoticed. He was quietly buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery in Queens, New York.

Fortunately, Scott Joplin’s music did not die with him. Because, a classical pianist named Joshua Rifkin recorded several of Scott’s songs in 1970. Then, in 1973, the movie, “The Sting”, made Scott’s song, “The Entertainer” well known.

In 1976, Afro-American Scott Joplin finally earned the credit he deserved when he was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

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