Celebrating Black History Month - The Music of Scott Joplin, the "King of Ragtime."

As I’m writing this blogpost, it is Black History Month in North America. Great music has always encompassed every race, color and gender.  Since time began, cultures around the world birthed music which generation by generation blossomed into fascinating genres of music that are now woven into the tapestry of our daily lives. How wonderful is that? And most importantly, how great of a God do we serve that he created music of all styles, colors, and form?

I want to focus on a man born in 1868 that had great ambition during a tumultuous time in history. African American musicians and composers did not have a seat at the table when it came to leading the American music scene, until Scott Joplin stepped in. 

Born somewhere in Texarkana along the border between Texas and Arkansas, Scott Joplin’s life was immersed in music.  His family was very musical with his mother being a singer and banjo player and his father playing the violin.  Little Scott picked up the piano at a young age with a German piano teacher. His parents worked hard to pay for lessons until teachers started offering to teach Joplin for free! He eventually went on to learn the mandolin, guitar and form a vocal quartet. 

Eventually, Joplin forged a path of a travelling musician accepting any opportunity that came his way. An opportunity came forward for him to study music at Missouri’s George R. Smith College for African-Americans.  While he was at the school, he became a teacher and mentor to other ragtime musicians. “Ragtime” was called “ragged time” at first because it sounded as ragged as a torn piece of cloth, depicting this with bouncy, syncopated rhythms. 


A picture of Scott Joplin's original Maple Leaf Rag cover


After overcoming some hurdles in his music career, Joplin’s fame finally reached heights with his popular “Maple Leaf Rag” which ended up becoming the biggest ragtime piece ever, selling more than a million copies. Over the years, Joplin published more rags including some larger works, one of them being an opera called “Treemonisha” in 1907 which told the story of a rural African-American community near Texarkana. It wouldn’t become a full stage theatrical production until 57 years later.  

All in all, Joplin had mediocre success in his lifetime but somehow he knew he wouldn’t become a musical hero until after his death.  He had told a friend, “When I’m dead 25 years, people are going to recognize me.” Thirty years after his death, he was recognized and earned the title “King of Ragtime.”

One of the biggest accomplishments of Joplin’s was the path he paved for young African-American artists to finally meet American audiences of all races. 

If you are wanting to dive in a little deeper into Scott Joplin’s life and music with your children or students, I have created a wonderful hands on lesson that includes watching some inspiring performances of “The Entertainer” being played on a real piano from the 1915’s, as well as some exciting activities for ages 4-10 based on Scott Joplin’s rags. You can find this lesson in our Conversations with Composers curriculum, or the stand-alone Scott Joplin lesson from that curriculum.

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