Scott Joplin, King of Ragtime

I cried when I heard the life story of Scott Joplin, and you will cry also.  He was an African-American composer and pianist whose  44 original ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet, and two operas paved the way for other black artists to develop ragtime music which would evolve into jazz.  However, prejudice against blacks in late nineteenth-century United States ran so deep that Joplin died penniless in a mental institution, even though sales of his "Maple Leaf Rag" made him the first musician to sell a million copies of a popular song's sheet music.  Sixty years after his death in 1917, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his magnificent music.  Other recognition he received long after his death includes:


• induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame by the National Academy of Popular Music in 1970, 53 years after he died


• several of his compositions used in the score of the Academy Award-winning film, The Sting (with Paul Newman and Robert Redford), in 1973


• a biographical movie, Scott Joplin, starring Billy Dee Williams, in 1977


• the United States Postal Service stamp of him issued as part of its Black Heritage commemorative series, in 1983


• a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame, in 1989


• a collection of Joplin's own performances recorded on piano rolls in the 1900s included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2002, 85 years after his death.  
 
Early Life Steeped in Music
He was born in 1868 into extreme poverty in Texarkana, Arkansas, before that area was even established as a town, to a father who was an ex-slave from North Carolina and a mother who was a born-free African-American woman from Kentucky.  His father was a laborer for the railroads who played the violin and his mother was a cleaning lady who sang and played the banjo.  By age seven, Joplin was allowed to play the piano in places where his mother was cleaning. In his early teens, Joplin's father left his mother, driving the family into deeper poverty supported only by his mother's house cleaning. 
 
He was able to learn music through the support of one of his mother's employers.  Julius Weiss, a Jewish music professor, had immigrated to the U.S. from Germany about the same time Joplin was born, and took a job as a music teacher for the children of a wealthy family. Mr. Weiss knew racial prejudice first-hand from his experience as a young Jew growing up in Germany, where he had been threatened with death.  Mr. Weiss took a special interest in Joplin and taught him music at no charge from age 11 to 16, and even bought the Joplins a used piano.  The echoes of polka rhythm in Joplin's ragtime music came through the European roots of his caring and loving mentor.
 


Musical Career and Marriages
Joplin played the piano, guitar and mandolin.  At age 20, he quit his full-time job as a railroad laborer and tried to earn enough money to feed himself by playing music, but because of the prevalent prejudices at that time, the only places he could find work were in brothels and churches. He played at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893, and in 1894, at age 25, he moved to Sedalia, Missouri to work as a piano teacher. Among his students were future composers Arthur Marshall, Scott Hayden and Brun Campbell.  Ragtime music had become a national craze after the World's Fair and Joplin toured with his own band.  In 1899, his "Maple Leaf Rag" was published and may have sold more than a million copies.  That year he married Belle Hayden, the sister-in-law of one of his students, but she had no interest in his music and they eventually divorced.  Joplin moved to St. Louis, where he was able to live relatively comfortably by composing, teaching and performing his ragtime music.  He also formed an opera company and toured with a production of his first opera, A Guest of Honor., but receipts from the production were stolen and the score of the opera was lost when all of the company's belongings were seized for failure to pay rent.  
 
In 1904, at age 36, he married Freddie Alexander of Little Rock, Arkansas, but she died ten weeks later of "complications from a cold." She is said to have been the inspiration for Joplin's second opera, Treemonisha. In 1907, at age 39, he moved to New York City to try to get someone to produce his opera.  There he met Lottie Stokes, and they married in 1909.  Times were tight, sales of his music had dropped and no one was interested in his opera, so they had trouble paying their bills. They struggled to put together a preview of the opera in Harlem, but a biographer noted that "Treemonisha went unnoticed and unreviewed, largely because Joplin had abandoned commercial music in favor of art music, a field closed to African Americans."  Treemonisha was never given a complete production during Joplin's lifetime.    
 
His Final Days
At age 48, tertiary syphilis deprived him of his rational mind. He had no money and was forced to be hospitalized in a mental institution, where he died a few months later, on April 1, 1917.
 


After His Death
Joplin's music remained essentially undiscovered until almost sixty years after his death when Joshua Rifkin sold a million copies of his album of songs written by Scott Joplin, and the score of the Academy-award-winning film The Sting featured Marvin Hamlisch playing Joplin's "The Entertainer" and other pieces.  The world premiere of Treemonisha took place on January 27, 1972, produced by the music department of Morehouse College and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.  In 1976, Joplin was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Treemonisha. 
 
The Story of Treemonisha
Treemonisha is an 18-year-old woman who had been found in the forest and was brought up from infancy by former slaves in an isolated community near Joplin's hometown, Texarkana, in 1884.  Since there were no schools in this impoverished community, she would not have learned to read or write, but her foster parents asked a kind white woman to teach her.  Treemonisha tells the people in her community who are former slaves not to believe the superstitions of the people who are abusing them.   As a result, she is abducted by these cruel people and is thrown into a wasp nest, but is rescued by her friend Remus (like the story of  Br'er Rabbit and the briar patch).  When the townspeople find out what the abusers have done to Treemonisha, they want to punish them severely.  However, Treemonisha tells them to let the abusers go so the former slaves will not be evil like their oppressors. She becomes their community leader by teaching her fellow former slaves not to believe evil people who prey on the downtrodden with hate stories founded on ignorance and superstition. The message is loud and clear.  Treemonisha teaches us that education brings the community together in fighting racial prejudice.
 
The irony of this libretto is that the only reason Treemonisha was never  performed in its entirety while Joplin was alive is the horrendous prejudice against an African-American being able to write such a brilliant and entertaining opera.
 


Syphilis
Syphilis is a venereal disease that was widespread and incurable in Joplin's time, but became curable with the introduction of penicillin.  Even though treatment is readily available, there has recently been a marked increase in the number of cases of syphilis in North America (Microb Cell, Sep 5, 2016;3(9):363–370).
 
Syphilis starts with no symptoms at all or as a painless sore on your mouth, rectum or genitals that usually goes away without treatment in two or three weeks.  A few weeks later, a non-itchy rash usually develops on the trunk that can spread to cover the entire body.  Very few rashes of other causes involve the palms and soles, so if you develop a rash that covers your palms and soles, you should get a blood test for syphilis.  The rash can be accompanied by wart-like bumps in your mouth or genitals. You can lose hair and have sore muscles, a fever, sore throat and swollen lymph nodes.  If you do nothing, these symptoms can go away or recur for as long as a year.   However, if you do not receive treatment with an antibiotic, you can be in big trouble.  You can think you are perfectly normal for up to the next 10 to 30 years.  Then you lose your mind and die as a crazy person.  You can also suffer from damage to any part of your body: your heart, brain, liver, kidneys and so forth.  If you are a woman who becomes pregnant, you can give birth to a terribly-deformed child. 
 
A message for everyone: If you have ever been sexually active with a person who may have had sex with someone else, you should get a blood test for syphilis.  It is a simple, routine blood test.  With appropriate use of antibiotics, it is almost always a curable disease.  The problem is that once a part of your body is destroyed by syphilis, it can never be brought back even with treatment.  If syphilis affects your brain, you are demented until you die; if syphilis causes heart failure, your heart will never recover completely; and so forth. 
 


Scott Joplin
November 24, 1868 – April 1, 1917

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