Scott Joplin – Famous Composers by Gary Grimm & Associates – GGA551

Scott Joplin – Famous Composers

Scott Joplin (1868-1917)

There was no royal birth for this future king. Scott Joplin, who would become known as “The King of Ragtime,” was the son of a former slave. His father had become a free man just five years before Scott was born. Joplin’s mother was a hard-working woman who cleaned houses to help support the family. Despite their lack of status and money, the Joplin family was rich in other ways-including musical talent. Scott was the second of six children, and everyone in the family sang or played an instrument. As a child, Joplin played guitar and banjo and probably taught himself to play the piano. It was his love for the piano that would bring him his greatest fame.

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Joplin left home when he was just fourteen, determined to make a living in music. He traveled the Midwest, playing the piano at saloons and clubs. When he was twenty-five, Joplin settled in St. Louis where he started to develop a type of music called “ragtime.” From there he moved to Sedalia, Missouri, where he worked as a pianist in the Maple Leaf Club. His most famous composition, the “Maple Leaf Rag” was written there and named for the establishment. Published in 1899, the new “rag” sold over a million copies as sheet music and did much to promote the new ragtime craze. A few years later he published his other well-known piece, “The Entertainer.” This music enjoyed a second popularity when it was featured in The Sting, a 1973 movie starring Robert Redford. The film won an Academy Award for the winning score.

In the years to follow, Joplin wrote at least sixty compositions. By the time he moved to New York City and appeared on the Vaudeville stage, he was billed “The King of Ragtime Composers.” That is how he is best remembered, though Joplin also wrote other styles of music including a ballet and two operas. His opera, Treemonisha, was the first grand opera composed by an African American. Though unsuccessful in his day, it received a full-scale production on Broadway in 1975 and won a coveted award.

Joplin lived at a time when racism was still very prevalent in America. While his music was popular, the black musician was never accepted as a “serious” composer in his lifetime. It wasn’t until fifty years after his death that the greatness of Joplin’s music was recognized. From humble beginnings, this gifted and inspired musician became “King of Ragtime.” Despite prejudice and limited advantages, Joplin accomplished great things. His talent and determination made the difference. “The Entertainer,” not only endures as a favorite composition, it also aptly describes its composer. Scott Joplin has continued to entertain us to this day, and we salute him for his unique contribution to American music.

Can you think of other famous people who have come from humble beginnings and risen to the top of their fields? Do you have the dedication and desire necessary to pursue one of your talents and make it a career?

What Is Ragtime?
Ragtime is a type of music that has a very syncopated or “ragged” melody, where the accented beat is not the typical beat. It is a unique mixture of musical styles that combines African rhythms, folk tunes and other forms. Ragtime first became popular in the 1890s and is most often played on the piano.

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