Joplin, Scott (1868–1917)

By: Theodore Albrecht

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: August 1, 2020

Scott Joplin, composer and pianist, called the "King of Ragtime," son of Jiles and Florence (Givins) Joplin, was born about 1867 possibly at Caves Spring, near Linden in Northeast Texas. His father, a laborer and former slave who possessed rudimentary musical ability, moved the family to Texarkana by about 1875. Encouraged by family music making, Scott, at age seven, was proficient in banjo and began to experiment on a piano owned by a neighbor, attorney W. G. Cook, for whom Mrs. Joplin did domestic work.

At about age eleven, young Joplin began free piano lessons from Julius Weiss (born in Saxony, ca. 1841), who also taught him the basics of sight reading, harmony, and appreciation, particularly of opera. Weiss lodged as family tutor for lumberman Col. R. W. Rodgers, and possibly introduced Scott to the same academic subjects he taught the Rodgers children. Indeed each of the Rodgers family learned a musical instrument, and young Rollin Rodgers became a lifelong opera enthusiast (the same subject that haunted Joplin in his later years) due to Weiss's encouragement. The second-hand square piano that Jiles Joplin bought for Scott probably came from the Rodgers home when the family bought a new instrument during Weiss's residence there. After Colonel Rodgers died in April 1884 and following the subsequent departure of Weiss, Joplin may also have left Texarkana. September 1884 seems to be a seminal month in Joplin's life, signifying either his departure from the border town or the date when he became an assistant teacher in Texarkana's Negro school. Some authorities believe that he remained there until about 1888, performing in Texarkana and area towns.

After several years as an itinerant pianist in brothels and saloons, Joplin settled in St. Louis about 1890. A type of music known as "jig-piano" was popular there; its bouncing bass and syncopated melody lines were later referred to as "ragged time," or simply "ragtime." During 1893 Joplin played in sporting areas adjacent to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and the next year he moved to Sedalia, Missouri, from whence he toured with his eight-member Texas Medley Quartette as far east as Syracuse, New York, and, in 1896, into Texas, where he possibly witnessed the staged collision of two M.K.&T. railroad trains near Waco—the "Crash at Crush." In 1897 he enrolled in Sedalia's George R. Smith College for Negroes, studying piano and theory. During this time he was an "entertainer" at the Maple Leaf Club and traveled to Kansas City, where in 1899 Carl Hoffman issued Joplin's first ragtime publications, including his best-known piece, Maple Leaf Rag. The sheet music went on to sell over a million copies.

Thereafter Joplin entered into an on-and-off arrangement with John Stark, a publisher in Sedalia, and later in St. Louis and New York. In addition to his output of increasingly sophisticated individual rags, Joplin began to integrate ragtime idioms into works in the larger musical forms: a ballet, The Ragtime Dance (1899); and two operas, The Guest of Honor (1902–03) and Treemonisha (1906–10). Unfortunately the orchestration scores for both the operas were lost. A piano–vocal score for Treemonisha was later published.

When he moved back to St. Louis in 1901, Joplin renewed an acquaintance with Alfred Ernst (1867–1916), conductor of that city's Choral–Symphony Society, and possibly took theory lessons from him. The German Ernst noted, "He is an unusually intelligent young man and fairly well educated." Joplin had a strong conviction that the key to success for African Americans was education, and this was a common theme in his works. After further periods of residence in Sedalia, Chicago, and St. Louis, with a possible visit home to Texarkana, he followed publisher Stark to New York in 1907, using the city as a base for his East Coast touring, until he settled down there permanently in 1911, to devote his serious energies to the production of Treemonisha, mounted unsuccessfully early in 1915.

Joplin had contracted syphilis some years earlier, and by 1916 his health had deteriorated considerably, as indicated by his inconsistent playing on the piano rolls he recorded. He was projecting a ragtime symphony when he entered the Manhattan State Hospital, where he died on April 1, 1917. He was buried in St. Michael's Cemetery in New York City. Joplin married Belle Hayden in 1901, and they had a daughter who died in infancy. The marriage had ended by 1904, and in June 1904 he married Freddie Alexander, but she died in September of that year. At some point in the 1910s, Joplin was with Lottie Stokes, his common-law wife, with whom he formed Scott Joplin Music Publishing Company in New York.

Joplin's works include his ballet and two operas; a manual, The School of Ragtime (1908); and many works for piano: rags, including Maple Leaf, The Entertainer, Elite Syncopations, and Peacherine; marches, including Great Crush Collision and March Majestic; and waltzes, including Harmony Club and Bethena. Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century Scott Joplin's music won more critical recognition. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame by the National Academy of Popular Music in 1970. His collected works were published by the New York Public Library in 1971, and his music was featured in the 1973 motion picture The Sting, which won an Academy Award for its film score. In 1976 Joplin was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Treemonisha, the first grand opera by an African American. The biographical film Scott Joplin was released by Universal Pictures in 1977, and in 1983 the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp of Joplin as part of its Black Heritage series. Joplin was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1987.

Theodore Albrecht, "Julius Weiss: Scott Joplin's First Piano Teacher," College Music Symposium 19 (Fall 1979). Edward A. Berlin, King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, They All Played Ragtime: The True Story of an American Music (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1958; 2d ed., New York: Oak Publications, 1966). James Haskins and Kathleen Benson, Scott Joplin (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1978). Vera Brodsky Lawrence, ed., The Collected Works of Scott Joplin (2 vols., New York Public Library, 1971). The Scott Joplin International Ragtime Foundation (, accessed September 5, 2015.

  • Music
  • Genres (Jazz)
  • Peoples
  • African Americans
Time Periods:
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
  • Progressive Era

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Theodore Albrecht, “Joplin, Scott,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 14, 2022,

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August 1, 2020

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