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Scott Joplin Made Ragtime His Own

Scott Joplin in 1903. Joplin died in 1917 at age 49.

This week we celebrate Scott Joplin’s birthday, which many believe was on November 24th, 1868. WRTI’s Kile Smith looks at a facet of his life that may have led to that unique contribution he made to American music: ragtime.

A German immigrant taught music for five years in a little Texas town to a poor African-American boy; taught him for free; taught him piano and harmony, music theory and music history; taught what he considered the greatest music of all—opera.

Scott Joplin never forgot Julius Weiss, and sent him money later on, when he had some. In between, Joplin entertained at the piano and with bands, and wrote songs. He may have first heard ragtime at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It became a craze, but skyrocketed in 1899 when Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” was published.

Ragtime mixes Sousa marches, European dances like the polka, and African-American syncopation. Joplin lifted it from crude dance accompaniment into a miniature art-form, filling it with luscious harmony and smart melody. There would be no improvising in his music.

But during his ragtime success he was trying to write operas. One was lost, and then he worked night and day on Treemonisha, but it failed at its hastily prepared New York premiere just before he died in 1917.

Ragtime revived decades later, not the least because of the 1973 film The Sting. We now see Scott Joplin’s gifts, and perhaps we can see what he couldn’t: Maybe “The King of Ragtime” was writing opera after all.