Scott Joplin, the wizard of ragtime

Herb Boyd | 12/5/2013, 2:38 p.m.

Traveling had its benefits, but Joplin was far more secure at home in Sedalia, sometimes performing as a pianist at top social clubs and mentoring a number of talented musicians, including Scott Hayden and Arthur Marshall, both of whom he would later collaborate with on ragtime compositions.

In addition to his early classical training, Joplin took classes at George R. Smith College in Sedalia, an institution founded by a group of Methodists. The college was destroyed in a fire in 1925 and thus there is no record of Joplin’s achievements there as a student.

Whatever lessons he acquired there—and the notation of music may have been the biggest asset—they may have been inconsequential for his emerging genius, which became increasingly evident by 1898 with the publication of several rags, none more lucrative than “Original Rags.” This venture was not without controversy, because Joplin had to share the composition with another arranger.

This experience was not wasted on Joplin, who retained a lawyer when he approached noted music publisher John Stark with his famous “The Maple Leaf Rag,” which, despite a one-cent royalty, was popular enough to earn Joplin a steady income for years.

“Sales in the first year were slight, only about 400,” according to the official website. “This is probably because Stark was at the time only a small-town publisher, and the ‘Maple Leaf’ is a difficult piece to play. But as ‘Maple Leaf’ became known, sales increased substantially. By 1909, approximately a half-million copies had been sold, and that rate was to continue for the next two decades.”

“The Maple Leaf Rag” put Joplin on the charts, so to speak, and it wasn’t long before he was once again on tour, only this time with much more celebrity and revenue. All of this was enhanced by the relocation of his publisher to the more populous St. Louis. During the succeeding years, Joplin was a prolific composer with rags spilling from his pen with a pace that even astounded his publisher and the various orchestras clamoring for his latest production.

While the proliferation of rags was the main breadwinner for Joplin, this did not replace his desire to write an opera, which he completed and submitted to a publisher without any success. The opera was “Treemonisha,” largely a tribute to his mother that was based her experiences as well as some of the encounters endured by his future wife, Freddie Alexander. The narrative of the opera focuses on the travails of Treemonisha and how she, as the only educated member of her community, leads her townspeople out of bondage. Clearly, the underlying proposition here is the influential role of education as a factor toward liberation.

For all of its promise and prospects, Joplin was to never see the opera fully staged and performed. He apparently spent so much time and energy on getting the opera mounted that his output of rags was severely diminished, which, of course, had a negative effect on income for him and his new wife, Lottie. At some point, Joplin contracted tertiary syphilis and had to be hospitalized in the winter of 1917. By the spring, he was dead.