Most people know Scott Joplin as the composer of “The Entertainer,” the insanely bouncy tune in the classic Newman-Redford film “The Sting.” Those who dig deeper may also know that Joplin was one of the leading figures of the musical style known as ragtime. However, only a few knew the other side of Scott Joplin – the side that was a confirmed believer in the idea that African-Americans could only get ahead in the world through education.
He believed in this idea so firmly that it may have helped kill him.
Joplin was born in northeast Texas sometime in 1867 or 1868. Music played a big part in the Joplin household – both of his parents played musical instruments – and young Scott was playing the banjo at age 7. A few years later, his mother bought him an old piano. Recognizing his musical gifts, people offered free music lessons, and soon Joplin was an accomplished musician.
As he matured into adulthood, Joplin traveled the Midwest, soaking up the various musical styles, and playing wherever a black musician was welcome. In 1893, he attended the Chicago World’s Fair, and helped expose millions of people to a new type of music called ragtime. With its syncopated melodies and lively style, ragtime was the perfect music for a country just coming into its own as a world power. America was a land on the move, and stolid ballads were part of a bygone era; ragtime was the music of a new generation.
Since ragtime boiled out of the Midwest (Chicago or St. Louis are likely birthplaces), Joplin undoubtedly encountered ragtime before the World’s Fair. The fair, however, helped ragtime become popular throughout the United States. Joplin soon became a master at composing and playing ragtime. In 1899, Joplin published a song entitled “The Maple Leaf Rag.” Like a gathering thunderstorm, the song grew in popularity and became the most popular ragtime song in America. In these days before recorded music, the way that people acquired music was to buy sheet music to take home and play on their piano (everybody who was anybody had a piano). Soon everyone from husbands and wives to professional orchestras and neighborhood honky-tonks were playing “Maple Leaf Rag.” Joplin was famous.
Joplin could have published only rags until the day he died, but he burned with a brighter ambition. At this time in America, African-Americans were disliked, ignored, and vilified as an inferior race. The only way, Joplin thought, for blacks to show what they were capable of was to become educated. He intended to lead the way by writing “high-brow” music – in particular, operas.
The idea of an African-America writing opera was amusing to most people, but Joplin ignored them. In 1911, he finished an opera named “Treemonisha.” Based on an original story that showed how an educated black girl defeated ignorance and superstition, “Treemonisha” was an incredibly elaborate and ambitious piece, and it carried a powerful message for both blacks and whites. Unfortunately, there was little market for such a product. At 230 pages, it was too long for any sheet music publisher to print it. It was complicated and difficult to play. Who had ever heard of such a thing as an opera by a black man, even a famous one like Joplin"
Joplin didn’t give up. Day after day, he doggedly pounded the pavement in New York City, with “Treemonisha” under his arm, trying desperately to convince someone to publish it. He tried other things as well; he paid to print a small portion of it, and he also bankrolled a “mini” production of it, and invited people that he hoped would become interested and bankroll a full-blown show. Only 17 people showed up.
However, as he encountered rejection after rejection, he grew more and more discouraged. His finances dwindled, and his health suffered; still he kept trying. Not only did he believe in “Treemonisha,” he fervently wanted people of all colors to hear its message of black education.
Joplin died in 1917 in New York. Although he died from syphilis, his physical and emotional well-being now weakened and shattered by the lack of enthusiasm for his opera was a factor. Decades later, after Joplin’s “rediscovery” in the 1970s, someone finally produced “Treemonisha,” and it is now considered a masterpiece. Its message of the benefits of education for African-Americans is as powerful today as it was then.
Scott Joplin – musician, composer, and African-American crusader, created a remarkable legacy.
Berlin, Edward A., King of Ragtime, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Berlin, Edward A., Ragtime. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1980.