Scott Joplin,

June 5, 2008
It’s the year 1900. You are sitting in a club listening to music. A young man sits at the piano. He begins to strike the keys. The sounds are nothing like you’ve heard before. What is it? That young man is Scott Joplin and the style of music he is playing is called Ragtime. The song he is playing is called “ The Maple Leaf Rag”, one of his many and complicated pieces. Scott Joplin was one of the greatest Ragtime musicians because he wrote many complicated songs , had impressive skills and technique, and wrote one of the most recognized melodies in existence “ The Entertainer”.
Not only did he accomplish that, he was a barrier breaker. He was African American. Scott Joplin was thought by many to be the most sophisticated and tasteful musician they had ever heard or seen. He was hailed as “ The King of Ragtime Writers”. In addition to the piano, he could also play cornet, violin, and was rumored to have a fine singing voice. He was intelligent, eloquent, and quiet most of the time but, if a subject struck him right, he could talk till the cows came home. He loved music more than anything else and gave much of his time to tutoring younger musicians. He also placed a high value on education, believing without it, you couldn’t get anywhere. His skills and technique were off the charts. When he wrote a piece, it had to be played the way he wrote it because as he said, “ Ragtime has to be played slow.” Some of his songs are littered with unusual note combinations and tricky tempos but are the most beautiful things in the world. Many have heard at least one of his songs, but never realized it.
To understand his technique and style, we should start at the beginning of this story. Scott Joplin was born on November 24, 1868. His exact date of birth was never recorded, but a 1870 census lists him as age two. He was born in Linden, Texas and was the second of six children. In 1871, the Joplin family moved to Texasarkana, Texas. Scott Joplin showed musical ability from a young age. He continually wowed his piano teachers with his skills. In 1882, when Joplin was about fourteen, his mother bought a piano. He took off like a rocket. In 1893, while he was at the World’s Fair in Chicago, he heard the latest music. It was so attractive and different from the classical music he grew up playing that he fell in love with it and wanted to learn more. He went on to study at George R. Smith College in Sedalia, Missouri. While he was there, he studied music theory, harmony, and composition. Joplin began to write music. By 1898, he had sold six pieces, three Ragtime, two marches and a waltz. In 1899, he sold one of his best known pieces,” Maple Leaf Rag” to John Stark&Son. It was the first instrumental to sell over a million copies and it was a hit. In 1900, Joplin moved to St Louis with his new wife Belle. In the year 1902, he wrote a song that would become one of the most recognized themes in existence “ The Entertainer”. I’ll place a bet right now that you have heard the song at least once. The song is written in the key of C although there is one line in the key of F. “ The Entertainer” and “ Maple Leaf Rag” were both used in the 1970 movie The Sting. This was a mistake because both songs had lost popularity during the era the movie was set in. Joplin won an award for best score, but couldn’t accept it. He had died. In 1903, Joplin wrote an opera called A Guest of Honor. It was lost at the copy right office and no longer exists. His wife also died. Joplin moved to New York in 1907. In 1909, his contract between him and his frustrated publisher expired. He spent the rest of his life working on another opera Treemoshia. Sadly, it was only performed once in his life time. Stress and success was eating him alive. In 1911, Joplin collapsed. The next five years of his life were filled with dementia, paranoia and repeated nervous breakdowns. He was institutionalized in 1916. On April 1st , 1917, Joplin died in Manhattan, New York. Because his exact birthday is unknown, he was either forty-nine or fifty years old. He was buried in St. Michel’s Cemetery in Queens. His legacy still lives. In 1970, The Sting brought popularity back to his music and in 1975, Treemoshia enjoyed a brief stint on Broadway. Scott Joplin was an amazing man because he wrote many complicated songs, had impressive skills, and wrote many complicated songs. He was also a visionary, barrier breaker, and all around nice guy. Well, it’s two a.m. and the club is closing for the night. Joplin has left but you want to come back tomorrow and listen again. Go ahead and do it.

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