Scott Joplin
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Scott Joplin

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Scott Joplin




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Scott Joplin (1868-1917)

“King of Ragtime”

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Scott Joplin was born in Texarkana Texas in November 1868 to Jiles Joplin and Florence Givens. His father had been a farm slave before the Civil War and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Both his parents loved music. His father played the violin in a plantation dance band and his mother played the banjo and sang. All of Scott’s siblings played a stringed instrument and sang.

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Florence Joplin, a maid for a well off family, took Scott to work with her. The family had a piano, which Schott was allowed to play.When Jiles Joplin realized his son had a real talent for the piano, he bought him an old used one.By the time he was eleven, he was an excellent pianist. A local music teacher happened to hear him play and was so impressed that he offered Scott free lessons. His teacher was from a German university and he introduced Scott to many classical composers.

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Scott decided music would be his life’s work. His father did not understand. He wanted to Scott to get a real job and help the family. They argued and fought over it. When Scott was 14, his mother died and Scott decided to leave home and work as a piano player. He roamed up and down the Mississippi River. He played in gambling halls, cafés, and saloons. Scott visited the Chicago’s World Fair in 1893 and met Oris Saunders.

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Oris Saunders believed that Scott was a musical genius. After the fair the two men moved to Sedilia, Missouri where Scott played the piano in clubs---white clubs for money, African-American clubs for fun.

In 1896, rag time, called jig piano, was introduced in New York. Ragtime, “ragged time”, is a complex type of piano music It is based on classical music but has an African rhythm. It is not improvised it is composed. It has been described as “white music played black”. Scott was fascinated by rag and focused his attention on composing and playing it.

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In 1898, Scott completed “Maple Leaf Rag”. It was published by John Stark who owned a music store in Sedalia. Stark and Joplin formed a partnership. The sheet music did not sell well at first. When it finally caught on about six months after it was published, seventy-five thousand copies were sold. Soon after sales reached 1 million copies and made Stark and Joplin wealthy.

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Scott no longer had to play in clubs but devoted most of his time to composing and teaching, and became a local celebrity. He went on to publish many other ragtime pieces.Scott believed that ragtime should be more than just piano music. He started working on a ragtime ballet and a ragtime opera. After Joplin completed his second opera Treemonisha he was unable to find someone to stage it. So he decided to produce the opera himself. The performance was miserable failure.

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Scott was deeply disappointed and was soon depressed and ill. In 1917 he was admitted to a hospital and died two months later. He was forty-nine years old. His friends said he died of a broken heart over the failure of Treemonisha.

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The ragtime craze faded with Joplin’s death. For more than fifty years, rag music was forgotten by musicians and the public. Then in 1972 Scott Joplin was reintroduced to the world as a result of the movie The Sting. The film, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, featured two of Scott’s greatest songs, the “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer”. Ragtime became popular once again.

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