Scott was the second child of six born to former slave Giles (sometimes spelled Jiles) Joplin and freeborn Florence Givens. They were a musical family: Giles played the violin; Florence sang and played the banjo. All their children sang and played, but Florence recognized early that Scott, who had perfect pitch, was especially gifted. By age seven he was proficient on the banjo. The next step in her mind was the piano. She was willing to make large sacrifices to nurture his skills and encourage him toward a career in music, practically unheard of for Blacks at that time.
In fact, Florence’s commitment to Scott’s music eventually cost her marriage, for Giles felt she was wasting scarce family resources. He wanted his son to pursue farming with him (actually, sharecropping—in some ways semi-slavery), rather than chase a dream he believed was doomed to failure.
Giles had reason on his side. In Jim Crow Texas, Black pianists were not allowed to play in concert halls, nor write music for those who did. Any music that grew out of the slave tradition was considered insignificant by wider society. What kind of career could Scott have, playing in taverns and nightclubs?
The white home in which Florence worked as a maid had a piano. She negotiated for Scott to practice on that piano while she was at work. But she wanted to buy him a piano of his own. After years of bickering over Scott, the piano was the final straw for Giles. He moved out when Scott was twelve or thirteen, and Scott never saw him again.
After the separation, Florence moved the family to the Arkansas side of Texarkana. As a teenager, Scott was able to attend school in a school building for the first time, on the Texas side. By then he was called on frequently to perform at one event or another. He used the money he earned to buy sheet music for five or ten cents apiece. At sixteen, he formed the Texas Medley Quartette, with his brother Will and friends Wesley Kirby and Tom Clark. Later, Scott’s brother Robert joined them.
After Scott and his Quartette made a splash in Chicago in or at least around the 1893 Columbian Exposition (World’s Fair), he and his new friend Otis Saunders went on tour with their “rags,” from Chicago to Kansas City to St. Louis. Otis convinced Scott his work was good enough to sell, “even though he was a negro” (James Haskins, p. 82). In 1897, Scott studied music at the George R. Smith College for Negroes in Sedalia, Missouri, to learn proper notation of his music, all the while touring saloons and playing at parties and dances, sometimes piano, sometimes a B-flat cornet.
The first ragtime score was published by a white musician in 1897, followed by “Harlem Rag” written by Scott’s friend Tom Turpin. But publishers balked at publishing music by Black composers, and ragtime was denigrated as a carnival sound. Scott persisted in writing down his compositions and taking them to publishers, and finally caught the interest of publisher John Stark, who took a chance with “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1899. Stark continued publishing Scott’s music for many years. Had he not done so, we would not have them to enjoy today.
Scott also caught the interest of Director Alfred Ernst of the St. Louis Choral Symphony Society, who praised him in the white St. Louis Post-Dispatch February 28, 1901. This mattered to Scott because he was determined to win respectability for ragtime, elevating it to a serious musical form. Scott moved to St. Louis in 1901 to study classical music with Ernst, who took Scott’s music to Germany. As ragtime spread across Europe, it was more appreciated there for several years than in the United States.
In his effort to win respectability, Scott began writing an opera, “A Guest of Honor.” It won acclaim in St. Louis in 1903, but failed on tour, a heavy blow to Scott. This opera has been lost.
After publishing some of his today best-known rags in 1904 and 1905 (including “The Cascades” for the St. Louis World’s Fair and “The Chrysanthemum,” exploring the classical possibilities of rag), Scott was devastated by the death in 1905 of one of his best friends at age 25.
For a while in 1905 and 1906, Scott wandered around aimlessly. He went home to Texarkana and discovered his mother had died some time before. Scott had been so distant from his family he hadn’t known.
Finally, in 1907 in New York City, Scott’s creative spark returned. He wrote and published, and later that year, in Washington DC, he met and married Lottie Stokes. Lottie became his chief encourager and advocate. In 1908 Scott published a ragtime instruction manual, The School of Ragtime. Six compositions published in 1909 showed that ragtime could be adapted to every style of music, from waltz to tango.
Scott then turned to pouring all his energy into writing another opera, “Treemonisha.” The opera’s message was that with strength, education, and perseverance, Black Americans could overcome the sad effects of slavery. No one would publish this work, not even John Stark.
In 1911, Scott published “Treemonisha” himself: 230 pages, with 27 songs; considered the first truly American opera. But no one wanted to perform it. In 1913, Scott organized a production himself. “Treemonisha” was finally scheduled for performance in New York’s Lafayette Theatre, but there was a change in management and the new theatre director canceled the show.
Scott tried again in 1914 and 1915, but this effort failed as well, and Scott spiraled into depression which he never conquered. He died on April 1, 1917, at age 49 and was buried as a pauper. His wife Lottie said “He died of disappointments. He wanted to be a real leader. He wanted to free his people from poverty and ignorance and superstition, like the heroine of ‘Treemonisha’” (James Haskins, p. 195).
Scott Joplin was known for saying his music would be recognized fifty years after his death. Indeed: in 1976 he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. In 1983, his image graced a United States postage stamp. In 1998-1999, Broadway celebrated his life with “Ragtime,” winning numerous awards. In 2000 “Treemonisha” was presented to great acclaim by the Opera Theater of St. Louis. And each year Sedalia, Missouri holds a Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival.
Scott Joplin’s ragtime has been used in movies, played on concert stages around the world by orchestras and individual artists, and adapted as popular songs. Recordings of his music have sold millions of copies. His life is the subject of at least a dozen biographies. Ragtime has been recognized as a prime influence of jazz.
All of this is wonderful and indicates real progress in race relations in the United States over the last century. But I’m left with the question, How different might Scott Joplin’s life have been without the Jim Crow racism he and his friends, family, and colleagues struggled against every single day?