Joplin's Life and Times

Scott Joplin was born about mid-1867 near Linden, Texas to Florence Givins and Jiles Joplin. He was the second of six children. After 1871 the Joplin family moved to Texarkana, Texas and Scott's mother cleaned homes of white people so Scott could have a place to practice his music. By 1882 his mother had purchased a piano.

It was a very musical family. Everybody either played an instrument or sang. Jiles played the violin while Florence sang and played the banjo. Scott played violin, piano and sang.

In the 1880s Jiles left the family after he found another woman. He did, however maintain close ties because he later lived with his adult children.

By the late 1880s Joplin had left home to start a life of his own. He may have attended the black Lincoln High School in Sedalia. Later he joined or formed various quartets and other musical groups and travelled around the midwest to sing. He possibly went to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, playing the cornet in a band, but we have no details.

In 1895, Joplin was in Syracuse, NY, selling two songs, Please Say You Will and A Picture of Her Face.

But despite all this travelling, his home base was in Sedalia, where he worked as a pianist in the Maple Leaf and Black 400 clubs, both social black clubs for repsectable gentlemen. While he was there he also probably attended George R. Smith College, but we do not know what he studied.

By 1898 Joplin had sold six pieces for the piano, most very advanced tunes that were fine musically, but not anything special. Of the six, only Original Rags is a ragtime piece. The other five were two songs (mentioned previously), two marches and a waltz.

In 1899, Joplin sold his most famous piece, Maple Leaf Rag to John Stark & Son, a Sedalia music publisher. Joplin received a one-cent royalty for each copy and ten free copies for his own use. This was an odd arrangement, because black composers were often the victims of white publishers taking advantage of their talent. They were often paid a flat rate ($10-$20) and never saw a penny again, even if the piece was a hit. It has been estimated the Joplin made $360 per year on the piece in his lifetime.

A few months later, Joplin completed his The Ragtime Dance. It was a performance piece with four or eight couples with a singing narrator and pianist. Stark reluctantly published it in 1902 after much cajoling, and it failed.

It is no surprise that it did. The piano music isn't particularly hard, but the voice range is over an octave in the treble range, difficult for a man to sing. Also, not many groups of people are not willing to get four couples together to learn a dance to perform. Stark later tried to recoup profits by selling a shortened, 1906 version of The Ragtime Dance with no dance steps or vocal part. This is the version most commonly heard today.

Backtracking a little, in 1901, Joplin collaberated with Scott Hayden on Sunflower Slow Drag after moving to St. Louis. Here he met Belle Jones Hayden, the widow of Scott Hayden's older brother. Joplin later married Belle and they had a daughter who soon died. The two separated after the death. There is no official marriage or divorce certificates, but this is not abnormal when one considers the time period and race of Joplin. In 1903, Joplin filed for copyright for an opera, A Guest of Honor. With a company of over two dozen, they rehearsed and went on a five-state tour. But it failed because somebody stole box office receipts and seriously hurt the financial affairs of the company. All copies of the opera and many possessions of Joplin's were confiscated as collateral. Unfortunately, the opera is lost because copies to complete the copyright at the Library of Congress were never received. It is believed, though, that possibly the march Antionette may be a piece from the opera, but there is no way to know for sure.

In 1903 after the opera failed, Joplin visited Arkansas where he met a 19-year-old woman, Freddie Alexander, who he later dedicated The Chrysanthemum to. Joplin married in July 1904 and travelled to Sedalia. Sadly, Freddie caught pneumonia and died September 10, 1904. Supposedly, Freddie was the only woman that Joplin ever truly loved. Also, of his three marriages, this is the only one that has an official marriage certificate.

Through the next two or three years, Joplin went in a financial slump due to the failed opera. He published many good pieces, but none spectacular.

In 1907, Joplin moved to New York City, where he was to live for the rest of his life. He befriended Joseph Lamb (one of the other two of the "Big Three" of ragtime, James Scott being the third) and Joplin reccommended Lamb's Sensation to be published.

New York was apparently stimulating for Joplin's creative mind. Here he published Pine Apple Rag, Solace and Euphonic Sounds. These are just a few of many other ragtime jewels from this period of Joplin's life.

In 1910 Joplin completed a second opera, Treemonisha. For more information on this opera, visit the Treemonisha section of this page.

Despite a few wonderful pieces, such as Aunt Dinah Has Blowed De Horn, the Overture and A Real Slow Drag, the opera couldn't be successful. There is no spoken dialogue and many lyrics are hard to understand. While it does teach the need for a good education for the African race, Joplin's people were not ready for that lesson yet.

Apparently, the failed opera left little time for other composing. From 1911 to 1917, only Felicity Rag, Kismit Rag, and Magnetic Rag were published, with the last being the best of these three.

By 1916 Joplin was suffering from the effects of terminal syphilis. We do not know when he contracted it, but the very nature of syphilis would not allow him to contract it after 1910, but he probably got it long before that in the red light districts of the cities he worked in.

He suffered from dementia, paranoia, paralyzation and other symptoms. In mid-January he was hospitalized at Manhatten State Hospital and died there on April 1, 1917. His death did not make any headlines for two reasons: ragtime was quickly losing ground to jazz and the United States entered World War I on that day.

Joplin was buried in St. Michael's Cemetary in the Astoria section of Queens. From what I hear, it is little better than a pauper's field. The funeral service was small, with his third wife, Lottie Stokes Joplin, and a few close friends who happened to be in New York, attending. Against Joplin's wishes, Lottie did NOT have Maple Leaf Rag played at his funeral, a decision she regretted until her death almost four decades later.

The most authoritative book on Joplin's life is a masterpiece by Edward A. Berlin, King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era. Anybody who has the slightest inkling of interest in Joplin's life should read this.

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