Music Scott Joplin
Bryan S. Wright
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0237


Scott Joplin (b. 1867/8–d. 1917) was an American composer, notable for his many piano rags, waltzes, marches, and for his two operas. The son of an ex-slave and a freeborn woman, he was born in northeast Texas. He demonstrated musical aptitude as a youth and studied piano with a local German-born music teacher. From the mid-1880s to the mid-1890s, he worked as an itinerant musician, performing in minstrel troupes, as a cornetist in the Queen City Cornet Band, as a singer in the Texas Medley Quartette, and as a pianist. He settled in Sedalia, Missouri in about 1894, finding work in the railroad town’s bustling red light district. His first published compositions—two songs—appeared the following year. While in Sedalia, he published his first ragtime compositions and tutored and collaborated with other aspiring ragtime composers including Arthur Marshall, Scott Hayden, and Brun Campbell. His “Maple Leaf Rag,” issued by Sedalia-based publisher John Stark in 1899, proved to be Joplin’s greatest critical and commercial success in his own lifetime, establishing him as “King of Ragtime Writers.” He moved to St. Louis in 1901 and continued teaching and composing. In 1903, he completed and staged his first opera, A Guest of Honor (now lost). He went briefly to Chicago in 1907, where he collaborated with an ailing Louis Chauvin on the rag “Heliotrope Bouquet.” By the end of 1907, he had settled in New York City. There he focused his efforts on the completion of what he considered his chef-d’oeuvre, the opera Treemonisha. He joined the Colored Vaudeville Benevolent Association (CVBA) and set about the arduous task of seeking a backer to mount a full staging of the work. The search proved fruitless and the opera was not staged in Joplin’s lifetime. In the mid-1910s, beset with syphilis, he made hand-played piano rolls of several of his compositions. He died 1 April 1917 in New York following a lengthy hospitalization. With the exception of “Maple Leaf Rag,” Joplin’s name and music had attracted only a limited following in his own lifetime, and at the time of his death, he was largely unknown outside the modest circle of “classic ragtime” devotees. Efforts to rekindle interest in his music began in earnest in the 1940s and culminated in the widespread Joplin revival of the early 1970s that saw republication of his collected works by the New York Public Library, numerous commercial recordings of his piano rags, and the first major staging of Treemonisha. Joplin has since come to be recognized as an iconic figure in accounts of 20th-century African-American culture, widely lauded for his efforts to advance education among African-Americans, a dominant theme of his opera Treemonisha. He was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1976.


Although it is now dated, Ping-Robbins 1998 remains the only readily available guide to the many Joplin-related publications of the 20th century, including brief articles that appeared in enthusiast publications and which may otherwise go unnoticed. The appendices and notes in Berlin 2016 supplement Ping-Robbins’s work with more recent citations and a more extensive catalogue of ragtime-era source material.

  • Berlin, Edward A. King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199740321.001.0001

    Contains eighty-two pages of appendices, source notes, and a useful (if not exhaustive) bibliography.

  • Ping-Robbins, Nancy R. Scott Joplin: A Guide to Research. New York: Garland, 1998.

    The most useful feature of this book is an annotated bibliography of 752 items of interest to the Joplin researcher, ranging from monographs about Joplin to brief articles and reviews in specialist publications. Although this book ostensibly focuses on Joplin, many of the items cited are about ragtime in general. Some of the sources cited have since been published in newer editions, and some early sources have been entirely superseded with newer research.

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