Think of various musical styles such as Jazz or other modern types of music and it would be rare that people think of the ‘King of Rag’. Such a title was given to a man that lived and breathed true musicianship in tragic circumstances typical of many Negro Americans living under racial segregation and slavery in the late 1800’s. Scott Joplin’s early life, schooling, ambitions, influences and subsequent success eventually lead to a transformation of popular music from saloons and classical music at the time to a new style of music known as ‘Ragtime’.
Ragtime is a musical form with a modified march usually written in 2/4 or 4/4 usually with piano played by using the left hand pattern of bass notes on strong beats (beats 1 and 3) and chords on weak beats (beat 2 and 4). The right hand usually plays a syncopated melody. Furthermore ragtime developed different styles including drags, foxtrot, steps and many others. It was Scott Joplin that made the musical form popular not only in America but also in Europe and helped influence the American musical audiences with Ragtime. Later he would influence other musical forms.
Joplin was born in 1868 to a free slave father and free mother into a typically large labouring Negro family with a passion for music. Starting in dance halls, and then becoming a student of George Smith College, he often worked hard to support his mother and siblings and his own ambitions as a musician. Joplin’s ambition was encouraged by a local Jewish German music teacher known as Julius Weiss. His thirst for musical knowledge and ambition would prove successful with his most famous work ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ being produced after finishing college in 1889. He then used his earnings to focus on music composition, producing rags and operas while playing in social clubs to earn a living. His mastery continued with the help of Alfred Ernst the conductor of St Lois Choral Symphony. This helped him to produce other famous works including ‘The Entertainer’ in 1902.
An important theme in Scott Joplin’s life was his time as an itinerant musician and traveller with the musician leading bands, playing different instruments, teaching and playing in Cornet bands, minstrel troupes and vocal quartets. This work could be in different settings such as dances, social clubs and large events. Some of the places he worked included Chicago, Texarkana, Sedalia and New York.
Joplin was intelligent well-spoken but quiet, had few interests other than music. If a subject interested him, he might become more engaged in conversation but for the most part he was not good at small talk. Perhaps these were his personality traits or rather it was typical of Negro American’s to limit conversation with large white audiences and people asking questions about them for fear of persecution.
Away from music, Joplin’s life was marred by tragedy including the divorce of his first wife Belle and death of his second wife Freddie. He also developed syphilis and lived with the disease for 20 years finally leading to dementia and his death in New York City in 1917.
His eventual demise as a musician was as a result of failing to impress audiences with his operas. Ironically many of his works received a number of accolades after his death including the opera ‘Treemonisha’. It received the Pulitzer Prize and was performed regularly in the 1970s despite it being unpopular during Joplin’s time as a musician. Some of the other accolades awarded to Joplin include his membership to the songwriter’s hall of fame. He has also been the subject of films and his music has been used in films such as ‘The Sting’. The movie won an academy award for the Best Original Song Score and Adaptation in 1974.
Joplin’s work has also been revived many times with early jazz musicians such as Jelly Roll Morton releasing ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ in 1939 and other small scale revivals mostly amongst musical scholars keen to re distribute the music or use the music in a different context such as film, dance or reworks for musical performances. Some of these new works included Grammy awarding winning performances and other awards.
The importance of Scott Joplin’s work is well acknowledged by musicians. ‘Ragtime’ blended elements of classical music often with African American melodies. Furthermore jazz probably got its start when saloon pianists who could not read music began improvising rags such as those made by Joplin that they had heard. (Bender). Ragtime also influenced classical music with composers such as Claude Debussy emulating ragtime in three pieces for piano. Many other composers such as Swiss composer Honegger may also have been influenced by African American music after composers returned from the United States with new knowledge of ‘Ragtime’ composition.
Bender, William. "From Rags to Opera." Time. 15 09 1975: Web. 29 Nov. 2013. <http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,917846,00.html>.