Skip to main content

Maple Leaf Rag

May 2024
25min read

“It is needless,” wrote his publisher, “to say anything of the writer of ‘Maple Leaf,’ ‘Cascades,’ ‘Sunflower’ or ‘Entertainer.’ You know him.” But this black genius died penniless and all but forgotten

Scott Joplin, riding high in the early flush of his success, wrote the jaunty words on the preceding page for a song that he fashioned in 1904 from his sensational piano rag hit of 1899. And “The Maple Leaf Rag” was all that he claimed; it changed his life, and it changed American music.

The career of this black American genius seems almost to be an amalgam of legends. Joplin exemplified the Horatio Alger legend of early success, although he reached beyond the financial rewards that mark the boundaries of Alger’s concept. But there is another, darker legend: Joplin, his full genius unrecognized, his songs bearing the unjust stigma of mere popular success, dying prematurely in mad despair.

Finally there is the legend of his belated discovery and recognition. This is happening today; his piano rags furnished the music for the hugely successful motion picture The Sting , and one, “The Entertainer,” a 1902 hit, has swept the nation again.

But it is doubtful that any Scott Joplin rags would have been thought of by movie producers today were it not for the phenomenon of “The Maple Leaf Rag.” The stupendous international hit that it became in 1899–1900 made it the first instrumental, so far as is known, to top the million mark in sales of sheet music. And it achieved this through fingers on the keyboard; radio, television, and sound movies were still only science fiction and the record industry a mere promising infant. The sudden explosion of this one Joplin number sparked a public rage for ragtime. The fad began in 1897, and by 1900 it was a veritable mania. Halfway through that year an American newspaper headline declared “Paris Has Gone Rag Time Wild,” with reports of the French cakewalking in the streets to le temps du chiffon as played at the Paris Exposition by John Philip Sousa’s band.

Ragtime retained its hold right up to our entry into World War i, then to be replaced by the brassy unisons and more martial rhythms of Dixieland jazz. This was time enough, however, for Joplin to perfect the piano rag form in more than thirty published examples, to establish the ragtime song form (with lyrics added to “The Maple Leaf Rag” and “Pineapple Rag”), and to spread out into other forms: the tango, a ragtime folk ballet, and two ragtime—or Afro-American—grand operas. Around 1914 there were even reports, which Joplin did not deny, that he was also working on an Afro-American symphony.

Whatever Scott Joplin’s actual achievement, he died feeling that it fell far short of his dream. That dream was to carve out of sound a truly American and truly classic music, respectful of but not subservient to European music, a racially balanced music truthfully reporting American life, its tempo, and its temper. Fate gave him only forty-eight years to pursue that dream.

Yet during those years he was able to change the central character of our music, a change as much in spirit as in outer form. Ragtime was a resounding declaration of independence: the revolutionary idea of a music both classical and popular—classical in its formal complexity yet popular in its irresistible rhythm and melody—a classicism of, by, and for the people, black and white. Musing on the strange fact that not until the igyo’s have we begun to realize what the music really means, the noted present-day ragtime player and composer Max Morath was recently moved to remark: “So odd, the long sleep of ragtime under layers of misunderstanding!” And all those years Scott Joplin slept in an unmarked grave on Long Island, his name and fame similarly buried.

Just what did Scott Joplin do? He classicized two popular American dance forms, the cakewalk and the two-step, very much as European composers had done with the popular dance forms around them. H. Wiley Hitchcock of Brooklyn College wrote not long ago that the Joplin piano rags are “the precise American equivalent, in terms of a native style of dance music, of minuets by Mozart, mazurkas by Chopin, or waltzes by Brahms.” As to their true musical worth Professor Hitchcock describes the Joplin rags as “elegant, varied, often subtle, and as sharply incised as a cameo.” They are, he concludes, “lovely and powerful, infectious and moving.”

The stage was set for a Joplin when ragtime surfaced in the mid-iSgo’s, for here was the first music to fuse African, white American, and European elements and—perhaps most important of all—the first music to allow the two races, black and white, to function on both the creative and the performing level. This spicy, tantalizing, charming new music was no burntcork minstrel exploitation by whites of black music for white audiences only.

Ragtime surmounted racism. In the honky-tonk areas black and white pianists rubbed elbows, just as they did in the great public ragtime contests from the late 1890’s on, particularly those sponsored by the Police Gazette in Madison Square Garden and those at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Of the half dozen or so other great talents of classic ragtime Scott Joplin personally sponsored and aided no fewer than three: Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden of Missouri and Joseph Lamb of New York. Of this trio the first two were black, and the third white.


Scott Joplin was born, both he and his death certificate said, in Texarkana. Today each of the twin cities that face and merge across the Arkansas-Texas state line claim him as a native son. Actually, on November 24, 1868, he was born where Texarkana was to be, in a sprawling prairie settlement with the wooded Ozarks nearby.

His father, Giles Joplin, was a laborer, an ex-slave from North Carolina. His mother, Florence Givens Joplin, was born free in Kentucky. Scott had an older brother, Monroe, and two younger ones: Will, who sang and strummed guitar, and Robert, who sang and did a little songwriting. Scott’s two sisters, Myrtle and Ossie, contributed to what was a very active musical homelife, led by the father’s plantation fiddle and the mother’s folk singing and five-string-banjo picking.

Of them all Scott proved to be the most musical and the most ambitious. While very young he played the guitar and blew the bugle. He was barely seven when he discovered a piano in a neighbor’s house and, experimenting on it, was overheard and given regular access to the keyboard. Before he had reached the age of eleven, his selftaught pianistics were the talk of the neighborhood. His mother was a laundress, and rumors soon spread to the white community through servants’ talk.


The local German music teacher (every sizable midwestern town had one in those days) heard of the little black prodigy and invited him to play for him; lessons, probably free, followed. Before he was fourteen, Joplin was adept at basic keyboard technique and sight-reading and had the foundation necessary to extend and confirm his evident instinct for harmony. Equally important, he was deeply imbued with respect for the masters and their music. When his teacher played Bach or Beethoven for him, Scott felt that he was part of it all.


His preparation came just in time. He was only fourteen when he left home, driven out mainly by his father’s growing objections to the hours he devoted to music when he should have been learning a trade. Thus early he became for a time “a homeless itinerant,” as his future publisher and friend, John Stark, was to characterize him after his death, adding the terse, true commentary: “He left his mark on American music.”

By the time John Stark met him in the late iSgo’s, Joplin was no longer a homeless migrant musician, but he had only recently left the honky-tonk trail to settle in Sedalia, Missouri, after fourteen nomadic years. Those years should by no means be deprecated. They were true années de pèlerinage . Though the social conventions and prejudices of the day forced Joplin to wander in the multicity underworld of the red-light district, the pianist was carrying to the end that most rigorous of apprenticeships: meeting gifted rivals everywhere in terms of musical emulation and competition.

During those nomad years the sober Texas youth played “down the line” in the honky-tonks, a term that was then a specific euphemism for “whorehouses.” Young Joplin played the saloons and gambling casinos and was resident “professor” (pianist) in many a bordello, playing for the girls as they stripped for the out-of-town buyers and entertaining in between times. Joplin played in the New Orleans mansions of Countess Willie V. Piazza and Lulu White, Scar Face Mary’s in Oklahoma City, Mother Johnson’s and Madam Betty Rae’s in St. Louis, and Minna and Ada’s Everleigh Club in Chicago, as well as in the less splendid houses of madams with even more colorful names: Ready Money and The Suicide Queen. It was a hectic milieu yet, in certain ways, a creative and relaxed one. In it reality and unreality met, day and night merged, and differences of skin pigmentation ceased to matter greatly. As on the Basin Street of song, the white folk and the dark folk met, and through them the two American cultures mingled. There were tensions, of course, and deadly rivalries, such as those for bed favors. But there were competitions less perilous: one pianist, perhaps white, pitting his “finger-buster” against that of a rival player, perhaps black.

There was, strangely, a certain haunted glory to it all. It was the right time and the right place, and something extraordinary happened. Folklorist Alan Lomax has called it “a moment of ecstasy.” Despite the personal rivalries original melodies floated in the air, and while technical pianistic tricks were traded or stolen, these vagrant little sixteen-bar two-step and cakewalk themes were being loosely combined by all and sundry into threeand four-theme syncopated set pieces. A few, following the quadrille format, combined five themes. They were early called rags, probably because they were at first so casually patched together. It is understandable that a craftsman like Joplin would refer to the name as “scurrilous.” And yet this term, deprecatory as was “jazz,” served less to belittle the music than to lend it a titillating sort of mystery.

So, with all the others, Scott Joplin floated back and forth through Missouri, on down into the Ozark towns, and into the newly opened Oklahoma and Indian territories, Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. If his activities had any center at all from 1885 to 1893, it was St. Louis. Then in the latter year it became Chicago for the duration of the World’s Columbian Exposition, where he led a small band in “the District.”

In 1894 his activities took a new turn. He went to Sedalia, drawing as far as possible out of the red-light milieu. He played cornet with the Queen City Concert Band and started to commit his musical ideas to paper. It was at this time that he began touring with the Texas Medley Quartette, an eight-voice male group that he organized, with his brothers Will and Robert as leading tenor and baritone. Joplin arranged the music, composed some of it, furnished piano accompaniment, and sang an occasional solo. The Quartette toured widely for a couple of years, as can be sketchily traced through Joplin’s first actual publications, issued in the cities this little glee club visited. The first Joplin songs are rather undistinguished ones, bearing the sentimental tone of the period. Two waltzes came out in 1895, with the imprint of two different Syracuse publishers: “A Picture of Her Face” and “Please Say You Will”—“As Featured By the Texas Medley Quartette.” Rushed off the presses, the sheet music was then carried by the Quartette and hawked at their concerts.

The eastern tour was followed by a midwestern and southwestern tour, indicated by a trio of piano-solo publications secured in November, 1896, in the town of Temple, Texas. Two of these, issued by Robert Smith, are “Combination March” and “Harmony Club Waltz.”

The third publication, “The Great Crush Collision March,” is more a descriptive overture than a march, a musical narrative about a train wreck, dedicated to the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad. Along with the music is a printed between-the-staves commentary: “The noise of the trains while running at the rate of sixty miles per hour,” “Whistling for the crossing,” and finally “The collision,” described by four short, frantic high discords, followed by a heavy, low chord. Until very recently it has been assumed that “Crush Collision” dealt with an actual accident that had occurred on the “Katy Line” ( M.K.&T. ). In the summer of 1974, however, the true facts came to light through the research of a Joplinophile, Mrs. Carol B. Seeker. She discovered in old local newspapers that on September 15, 1896, the head-on collision of two old locomotives with empty cars was staged as a publicity stunt by one William Crush, general passenger agent of the M.K.&T.

The event, staged at Waco, was witnessed by a record crowd of fifty thousand people who came by horse and buggy from all directions. The thirty-ton engines, one painted red and one green, ran unmanned for two miles and had reached a speed of ninety miles an hour when they smashed nose-to-nose. Mrs. Seeker notes that the spectators did not escape unscathed:

The boilers burst, showering the crowd with chunks of red-hot, razor-sharp metal. A man watching from a mesquite tree had his skull ripped open by a piece of flying chain, and a farmer fleeing the scene was decapitated by a piece of iron plate.

The newspaper and magazine coverage was extensive, and the local public talked about little else for months thereafter. It seems possible, even likely, thatjoplin mayhave witnessed the event. In any case he gave the premiere performance of The Great Crush Collision March in Temple in mid-November, 1896.

Joplin’s musical description of this apocalyptic event is a milestone in his development into a ragtime composer, for it is actually a rag without indications for syncopation. But it is nonetheless essentially a rag; playing it even in simple syncopation establishes this beyond a doubt. In effect it is Scott Joplin’s first rag issue, printed the year before the first recognized rag publication, “Mississippi Rag,” by a white bandleader named William H. Krell.


Joplin certainly played the “Collision March” as ragtime and may even have wanted it so published. Ragtime is known to have been on the scene at least as early as 1892 or 1893, but the publishers at that time shied away from issuing syncopated music. In fact, they consistently stood in the way of good ragtime composers, their objections centering on the difficulty of playing the really good numbers. Many a fine composition was discarded in its original form for a simpler, more salable version.

Before the year 1896 was out, Scott Joplin returned to Sedalia, this time to settle there and to enroll at the George R. Smith College for Negroes to advance his musical education. He quickly took root in the Pettis county seat, where he was to publish his first two real rags and to sponsor two gifted fifteen-year-old black Sedalia youths, Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden, as ragtime composers.

Krell’s 1897 rag was soon followed by the first rag of black authorship to reach the presses—“Harlem Rag,” by Tom Turpin of St. Louis. Turpin—owner, bartender, and ragtime pianistcomposer of the Rosebud Café—was Scott Joplin’s staunch friend.

“Harlem Rag” came out in December, with Joplin past ready. This was the spur he needed, and early in 1898 he is known to have taken two ragtime scores into the Sedalia music publishers A. W. Perry & Son. They turned him down, and strangely, without approaching the other Sedalia house, John Stark & Son, he went to Kansas City later in the year. There the house of Carl Huffman bought “Original Rags” but foolishly passed up the more brilliant “Maple Leaf Rag.” “Original Rags” came out in late March, 1899. The cover shows an old, tattered Negro picking up rags in front of a dilapidated cabin. Under the title is the caption “Picked by Scott Joplin.”

A misunderstanding about that caption arose in the early ragtime-revival circles of the ig4o’s. There is a theory that Joplin did not write any or all of the five themes that make up the piece but merely picked (i.e., chose) themes he had heard in his travels. This certainly does not accord with the proud (though gentle) nature described by all who knew him. What most likely is involved is the crude racist humor of the period, a labored vaudevillesque pun comparing a ragtime tunesmith to a ragpicker. This jibes, too, with the contemporary habit of calling ragtime pianists ragpickers (the New Orleans ragtime player Tony Jackson wrote a song called “Pick-It Boy”) and echoes the then well-remembered generic source of the early ragtime piano style in the syncopated “jigs” that the early minstrel men picked out on the fivestring banjo. It is all very much in the pattern of the period; for example, a then-current term for a male Negro was “jig,” shortened from “jigaboo.” Talented Negroes in those days pocketed their pride—or else. The great comedian Bert Williams, for example, recalled: “[My partner] and I would never have got onstage so beautifully dressed if we didn’t throw it away for a laugh. We’d interrupt our dancing to rub our feet, presumably aching from too tight shoes.”

Black composers ran the same gauntlet when they took their manuscripts to white publishers—and there were no black publishers then. Many a fine tune was sold outright, without royalties, for a twenty-dollar bill. It is unlikely that Joplin sold “Original Rags” quite so cheaply, although the pressure to join the swelling ranks of ragtime composers must have been strong.

In any event, his next contact and publications were to be models of unprejudiced fairness. Soon, back in Sedalia, local music dealer John Stark, dropping into the Walker Brothers’ Maple Leaf Club, heard Joplin play the piano rag he had dedicated to the club. Stark introduced himself and asked Joplin to drop in to see him at his music store and publishing office.

Promptly the next morning Joplin appeared with a young black boy in tow. As Joplin played “The Maple Leaf Rag” the little boy did soft-shoe dance routines. Stark immediately bought the rag and signed the composer to an exclusive contract, on terms that would be fair today.

His fairness was amply repaid. “Maple Leaf Rag,” its first-issue cover adorned with cakewalking couples borrowed from a tobacco ad, took off like a rocket; its climbing sales spread out from Sedalia to cover the nation within months. Its modest three pages of piano score, tempo di marcia , changed the lives of both publisher and composer. The publication date was around mid-September, 1899. By 1900 Stark had pulled up stakes and moved to St. Louis, where the “Maple Leaf had bought him a store and a complete engraving and printing shop. Joplin followed shortly, his financial future assured by this hit. In one stroke he was free to leave the underworld to teach and pursue his already lofty composing ambitions.

The changes “Maple Leaf wrought did not end there; it changed the course of American music too. Already a hit, ragtime became a national rage and then, immediately, an international one. Infuriating the American musical Establishment, it now confirmed its members’ growing hostility and assured a long conflict between “ragsmith” and “longhair.” Almost unbelievably, this deep schism would not be bridged until the igyo’s, with all the actors in that original turn-ofthe-century drama long since dead and gone. Without support from serious quarters after the fad faded, ragtime had to hibernate until the long winter was over.

It was not so abroad. The serious consideration the music so badly needed here was freely forthcoming overseas, and nearly a decade and a half after its first impact there the case for ragtime was being summed up in 1913 by Arnold Bennett in the Times of London:

Ragtime is absolutely characteristic of its inventors—from nowhere but the United States could such music have sprung. … Nor can there be any doubt about its vigour, brimming over with life. … Here for those who have ears to hear are the seeds from which a national art may ultimately spring.

Bennett, however, had scant faith that our ears would hear:

The American dilettanti never did and never will look in the right quarters for vital art. A really original artist struggling under their very noses has small chance of being recognized by them, the reason being that they are imitative with no real opinions of their own. They associate art with Florentine frames, matinée hats, distant museums, and clever talk full of allusions to the dead. It would not occur to them to search for American art in the architecture of railwaystations and the draughtsmanship and sketch-writing of newspapers, because they have not the wit to learn that genuine art flourishes best in the atmosphere of genuine public demand. … The sole test of a musical public is that it should be capable of self-support … it should produce a school of creative and executive artists of its own, whom it likes well enough to idolize and enrich, and whom the rest of the world will respect.

And sure enough, here in ragtime’s native country the sides were drawn and the furor was louder than the music, even if Sousa’s band was playing it. The monthly Musical America , organ of the Establishment, declared that ragtime “exalts noise, rush, and street vulgarity. It suggests repulsive dance halls and restaurants.” The periodical was too delicate even to hint at bordellos down the street.


The American Federation of Musicians had already bowed officially to the Establishment, ruling ragtime off limits for its members. The fiat was ineffective, and pianists went right on smuggling this musical contraband to their audiences.

Even among American composers, however, there were significant defections. Though most, like Edward MacDowell, were outspokenly hostile to the “nigger whorehouse music,” the real genius among them, Charles Ives, loved this “street” music and quoted from it in his works. Even such a paragon of respectability as Charles Wakefield Cadman, the composer of From the Land of the Sky Blue Water , observed that in this new music might be found “the germ of a national expression” and that “the restless energy and indomitable will of America [are] somehow symbolized in terms of an intelligent syncopation.”

In all this confused babble, with all his success, sat Scott Joplin. As far as his lofty aims were concerned, he was to find himself very much the struggling original artist of whom Arnold Bennett had spoken.


The year 1900 found Joplin respectably ensconced in his own home and studio in St. Louis, turning out what for him, with his slow, careful craftsmanship, was a spate of published rags, throughout which, from rag to rag, can be traced the steady development of a profoundly original composer. There are a full twenty from his own hand, from “Peacherine” and “The Easy Winners” in 1901 on to “Searchlight” in 1907. Midway, in 1904, comes one of the most lyrical of all Joplin rags, “The Cascades,” which was a free musical description of the St. Louis World Fair’s grandiose central watercourse. In this same period came several songs, the beautiful concert waltz “Bethena,” and a total of five rag collaborations with other composers. Nor does this list complete that fruitful period; add several more beautiful waltzes, some spirited marches, a long composition, The Ragtime Dance , and ragtime’s number one mystery, A Guest of Honor .

In the 1940’s the ragtime scholar Roy Carew, searching through the musical copyright files in Washington, made an intriguing discovery. He found a card, dated February 18, 1903, bearing the title A GUEST OF HONOR A Ragtime Opera by SCOTT JOPLIN

In addition it stated “Published by John Stark & Son, copyright 1903 by Scott Joplin.” Here was an unheard-of Joplin item and one, despite the card, apparently never published. A handwritten notation on the card states “Copies never received.”

This set off a wide and intense search by ragtime lovers that still continues. It has not produced a single visible copy either in holograph or in print. There is one unverified account of its being found in the basement of an old music store in Missouri, but its alleged discoverer has never shown it or allowed it to be performed. The Stark descendants have recalled that Guest of Honor was a family topic for years, a project planned, postponed, and planned again but never accomplished. Apparently all hinged on the writing of a stronger libretto.

The moot subject that eventually estranged Joplin and Stark was an extended pro and con discussion concerning the publication of another long work, a folk ballet, with solo narrator, called The Ragtime Dance . Joplin himself financed a single public performance at Woods Opera House in Sedalia, and after heavy pressure from the composer Stark, against his will and his business judgment, published the full score, nine pages of music requiring more than twenty minutes to perform. Publication came in 1902. It had taken three years to move Stark, and his pessimism was justified; sales were virtually nil. But the predictable argument—expanding genius versus skeptical businessman—created a partial break between the two men. Joplin ceased publishing exclusively with Stark. Nevertheless four years later Stark recouped his losses by issuing a short, rag-length piano version of Ragtime Dance prepared by Joplin.

But despite the fate of Guest of Honor and The Ragtime Dance nothing dampened Joplin’s desire and determination to move, whenever possible, into the longer Afro-American forms he envisioned.

The year 1907 was a crucial one, in both his creative and his personal life, a year when he suddenly went back to wandering as he had in his youth. Besides thwarted professional ambitions there had been severe disappointments in his personal life. Just before leaving Sedalia to move to St. Louis, Joplin had married, taking as his bride Belle Hayden, a widow and Scott Hayden’s sister-in-law. The marriage was both tragedy and fiasco. Tragedy came with the death of a baby girl who, ill from birth, lived only a few months. The union was a fiasco because, as Arthur Marshall later recalled, Joplin’s wife “had no interest in his music career.” The husband strove bravely to make the marriage succeed, even (as Marshall recalled) tried to give his wife violin lessons, a pathetic harking back to his mother and father and a home full of music. Even when separation loomed as inevitable, he asked for help from his young protégés: “As my brother, Lee Marshall, Hayden and I were like his brothers, Joplin often asked us to console Mrs. Joplin—perhaps she would reconsider … but a separation finally resulted.”

Then to sadness and frustration was added guilt, however undeserved, for only two years after the death of the baby Belle herself died. And so Scott Joplin’s Wanderjahr began.

Actually it was not a calendar year but a period from late 1906 to early 1908 when the ordinarily stable Joplin is reported as moving from place to place. Despite—or perhaps because of—his deeply amorous nature marriage had been an especially serious step for Joplin, who was thirtytwo years old when he wed. One says “amorous nature” and adds “perhaps fated” because it is all, in essence, to be found in his only diary, his music. In some mysterious way Scott Joplin’s rags began to change after he and Belle separated in 1906. Presumably paralleling his life, they move from the gaily assertive, folklike, and scarcely shadowed melodies of “The Entertainer” into some of the most intimately revelatory of all piano music. These melodies and their haunting harmonizations become the pages of the secret diary of an intensely private and searching nature.

Joplin roamed about the country. He had women; we can glean a few names—and names only—from certain of the dedications of his rags: “The Sycamore” to Minnie L. Montgomery, “Leola” to Miss Minnie Wade, “Antoinette March” to Marie Antoinette Williams, and “The Nonpareil” to Miss Mildred Pender. Still he kept moving on. Some reports of his whereabouts are factual; some are rumors. Immediately after his wife’s death he spent several weeks in Chicago with the Marshalls—Arthur had married—while trying unsuccessfully 10 get a term contract of the sort he had had with Stark, but none of the big Chicago publishers was interested. Then he swung down to Texarkana. There have been persistent reports that he visited London, and he is said to have spent time later in San Francisco, on its notorious Barbary Coast. For a time he is known to have had his own flat in Chicago. After that, late in 1906 and well into 1907, he lived with the Tom Turpins in St. Louis.

The year 1906 saw only two foplin publications following the fecund 1905, evidence of the stress and distraction of the breaking up of his home. The two publications were the lovely 6/8 march “Antoinette” and the piano rag version of The Ragtime Dance . In any event, the freshet after drought came in 1907 with a spate of new issues: six rags and two songs. The rags comprise four by his own hand, “Fig Leaf,” “Rose Leaf,” “The Nonpareil,” and “Gladiolus,” plus two collaborative rags, “Lily Queen” with Hayden and “Heliotrope Bouquet.” The latter is the most haunting and perhaps the most precious of all his collaborative efforts, for its first two themes rescued from oblivion two melodies by the handsome young wastrel Louis Chauvin just before he died of syphilis at the age of twentyfive. He had previously published only two obscure songs. Like Hayden, Chauvin was living in Chicago, and Joplin is known to have visited both young composers there.

By 1908 Joplin can definitely be located in New York, and two rags of that year, “Sugar Cane” and “Pineapple,” bear the Manhattan imprint of the Seminary Music Company. “Fig Leaf” is an issue of the New York office of John Stark, as is Joplin’s only instructional manual, “School of Ragtime—Six Exercises for Piano.” The short exercises with their accompanying instructions are condensed evidence of Joplin’s tutorial gifts. They are notable, also, for being prefaced by his only surviving comment on ragtime:

What is scurrilously tailed nuftime is an invention that is hero to stay. That is now conceded by all classes of musicians. That all publications masquerading under the name ot ragtime are not the genuine article will be better known when these exercises are studied. That real ragtime of the higher class is rather difficult to play is a painful truth which most pianists have discovered. Syncopations are no indication of light or trashy music, and to shy bricks at “hateful ragtime” no longer passes for musical culture. To assist amateur players in giving the “Joplin Rags” that weird and intoxicating effect intended by the composer is the object of this work.

Scott Joplin had barely moved to New York when once again he was able to assist in launching the career of a young ragtime hopeful. Joseph Francis Lamb was just twenty-one and Joplin forty years old at the time, and their meeting took place when young Lamb dropped into Stark’s New York store, near the Flatiron Building on East Twenty-third Street. He was looking for anything new in ragtime sheet music. But this visit developed into something more momentous. Lamb’s memories were still vivid as he told about it long afterward, in 1949:

There was a colored fellow sitting there with his foot bandaged up as it he had the gout, and a crutch beside him. I told Mrs. Stark that I liked the Joplin rags best and wanted to get any I didn’t have. The colored fellow spoke up and asked whether I had certain pieces which he named. I thanked him and bought several and was leaving when I said to Mrs. Stark that Joplin was one fellow I would certainly like to meet.

“Really,” said Mrs. Stark. “Well, here’s your man.” I shook hands with him, needless to say. It was a thrill I’ve never forgotten. I had met Scott Joplin and was going home to tell the folks.

Mrs. Stark told him I had sent in a couple of rags for their approval. I had, all right, and they had come back two days later. Joplin seemed interested and asked if he could walk up the street with me. We walked along Twenty-third Street and into Madison Square Park and sat on a bench.

Mr. Joplin asked if my rags were really good. I said, “To me they seem all right—maybe they are not. I don’t know.” He invited me to bring them over to his place. Needless to say, I didn’t waste time.

I went to his boarding house a few evenings later and he asked me to play my pieces on the piano in the parlor. A lot of colored people were sitting around talking. I played my Sensation first and they began to crowd around and watch me. When I finished, Joplin said, “That’s a good rag—a regular Negro rag.” That’s what I wanted to hear. … Joplin liked Sensation best of my first three rags.

Joplin offered to present the “Sensation” manuscript to Stark personally and suggested his name be put on after that of Lamb: “Arranged by Scott Joplin.” It might help to sell his first rag, Joplin thought. A week later Lamb got a check and a contract from Stark. “Then,” Lamb said, “Stark bought Ethiopia and Excelsior together. After that he took any rag I wrote.”

Joplin never ceased to work for the cause of ragtime; in Sedalia before 1900, when he himself had barely published, he taught Scott Hayden and Arthur Marshall, and then by doing a collaborative rag with each got them into the Stark ménage. In St. Louis during his own bad year of 1906 he aided James Scott, very much a potential rival. Then, in Chicago, he saved Chauvin’s scraps of song from oblivion. Finally in New York he launched a young white composer. In the end Joplin justly remains supreme; but he, Scott, and Lamb are the top triumvirate of classic ragtime composers, with Hayden and especially Marshall close behind.

Although New York was now his base, Joplin remained restless or, at least, peripatetic, touring on the Percy G. Williams vaudeville circuit, billed as “King of Ragtime Composers—Author of Maple Leaf Rag.” He appeared as a single, and his playing was excellent though not flashy.

Then at last he brought his loneliness to an end when he met Lottie Stokes and married her, meanwhile writing his first and only published tango. “Solace” is a revealing though undedicated tribute to the peace, support, and consolation she brought him. This was in 1909, and for the rest of his vaudeville bookings she travelled with him. It was during this period, she recalled in 1949, that Joplin’s theatrical trunk was left in Pittsburgh at a boarding house and never reclaimed. According to Lottie it contained unpublished manuscripts, letters, and family photos old and new—the sort of thing that would be manna to a starved biographer. Searched for since 1949 almost as assiduously as The Guest of Honor , the undiscovered trunk is another of ragtime’s mysteries.

The Joplin rags from 1908 on suggest that Lottie Stokes, at last, brought him peaceful love. With her came stability and a haven in which to teach and compose. Her idea of this was a theatrical boarding and rooming house that she would manage without worrying her husband. Their first house was in midtown, on West Fortyseventh Street in the area then known as San Juan Hill because the black population had migrated there from downtown about the time of the Spanish-American War. Later, following the shift uptown of the black community, he and Lottie bought a house in Harlem.

During this 1908–10 New York period Joplin’s piano pieces begin to be colored with gentle, intimate overtones. This quality, more than the steady perfecting of form, defines Joplin’s middle period. All through this period the successive rags develop into individual statements, expressed through Joplin’s outstanding ability to create highly personal and ever-new melodies set forth in constantly surprising new rhythmic patterns. The 1908 “Pineapple Rag” is balladic, almost narrative; “Wall Street,” written the next year, is both amatory and aristocratic, with a soft, secretive, cozening trio; “Country Club” is a study in the alternate ideas of dance and song. And still in the fruitful year of 1909 there is the tango, “Solace,” and “Euphonic Sounds,” which is pronouncedly classic in outlook and so difficult to play that it became a technical test piece for the just-emerging Harlem, or Eastern, style of ragtime. Eubie Blake, Luckey Roberts, Willie “The Lion” Smith, and all the other virtuosos knew “Euphonic Sounds.” In 1949, long after Joplin’s death, the superb technician and gifted composer James P. Johnson was moved to say: “Scott Joplin was a great forerunner. He was fifty years ahead of his time. Even today, who understands Euphonic Sounds’? It’s really modern.”

Surprisingly, after the productive year of 1909, 1910 saw only one rag issued. This is “Stoptime,” a reversion to the composer’s earlier, more extroverted work, with instructions for the pianist to stamp one foot at indicated places while his two hands are amply occupied with the score. In 1911 there is again only one rag, and from then on until Joplin’s death only three more, the last being the dark, serious “Magnetic Rag” of 1914. This dearth of rags can be traced to Joplin’s continued and now obsessive preoccupation with grand opera. From at least as early as 1909 he had been laboring on a major conception, the Afro-American opera Treemonisha . The full score in vocal-piano form, running to two hundred and seventy pages, was published by the composer at his own expense in 1911. While toiling on a full orchestration to replace the piano accompaniment he went to every available producer and potential backer to get the work staged. But even an expensive full-length audition performance conducted by the composer in 1915, with an invited audience, failed to attract an angel. Try as he would, he could not launch his magnum opus.

It is not surprising, in retrospect. The Joplin creation was, to both black and white audiences, a new thing under the sun: a black folk fable, a parable, in grand-opera form. Its subject was Joplin’s race and its quest for equality.

In its Ozark mountain setting Treemonisha is evocative of the composer’s own childhood and evocative, too, of his own mother in his choice of a woman to lead her race in seeking education and dispelling ignorance and superstition. So though a fable—filled with conjurors and mountain bears dancing in the forest—it is a seriously didactic work.

A foundling discovered beneath a tree (and named after it), Treemonisha is adopted and educated by the black couple who found her. Maturing, she is chosen to fight the conjurors and their superstitions and to lead her people to education, the indispensable prerequisite to equality and true freedom. So with its extraordinary combination of naivete with sophistication and of folk music and folk mores with operatic form, this musical work is unique amongjoplin’s compositions—indeed, with the exception of Lawrence Freeman’s Afro operas, unique in the operatic repertory.

But Freeman, the pupil of Dvorak, enjoyed Establishment support; Joplin, self-taught, did not; and he was twenty years too early for popular support. In 1911 the mass audience, already tiring of piano ragtime, was very much in the novelty “coon-song” groove of Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Nearly two decades later the scene would at last be ready for a “black” opera, and George Gershwin would score with Porgy and Bess . But Joplin, who foresaw it all, was long dead.

He who had begun with triumph ended in defeat. In the six years from 1911 to 1917 Scott Joplin wore himself out in thwarted hopes for Treemonisha . What might—and should—have been his most productive years were spent in a passionate dedication to a grand opera truly based on the black experience, with folk ragtime and barbershop quartet and country music and dancing, the soaring litanies of the spirituals, the chants of the Ozark cabins and the cotton fields. It was his childhood and youth, distilled into a vision of the future of a race and a country. In 1972 the opera had a triumphant production in Atlanta, but this distant event offered no solace to Joplin in 1917.

Despair and the terminal effects of a disease contracted in his wandering youth combined to bring him down. Scott Joplin began visibly to go to pieces. In 1916, gravely deteriorated, he was committed by Lottie. The following April he died in the lonely night of madness. Until the very end, Lottie recalled, he had lucid moments when he scribbled music on any paper at hand.

Officially the great American composer died of the terrifying finale of syphilis, dementia paralytica. It hardly matters what youthful lapses in midwestern red-light districts brought him thus ignobly to this end. It is all one, anyway. The heart that stopped beating in 1917 was already broken.

But at last there began the essential rewriting of a history that long had neglected one of America’s greatest composers. Of a sudden Joplin rags were being played and heard once more. When “The Entertainer” came around again, more than seventy years after its first success, its music was as fresh and timely as if just composed.


The long neglect of the unmarked grave in St. Michael’s Cemetery in Queens was remedied, fittingly, by a society to which Joplin did not belong but of which he should have been a charter member. The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers ( ASCAP ) placed and dedicated a bronze tablet on the bare pauper’s grave that Joplin shares with two strangers; his last years of fanatic dedication to his opera had left him bankrupt in purse as well as in mind.

The bronze tablet’s inscription has the unadorned brevity suitable only to the great. It reads

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.