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Sedalia: The Cradle of Ragtime

Sedalia, Missouri was Scott Joplin’s home for only a few years, but it was a home with a special meaning for him. It is with good reason that Sedalia has become central to the Joplin story and the site of the annual Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival.

No one is quite sure where or when he was born. The best anyone can determine is that he was born in Texas, probably in the northeast part of the state and probably between June 1867 and mid-January 1868.

When he was still a young child, his family left the farm on which his father (formerly a slave) worked as a laborer. They moved to the newly established town of Texarkana.

Stories relate that the young Joplin gained access to a piano in a white-owned home where his mother worked, and taught himself the rudiments of music. In support of this story, the opera Treemonisha, that Joplin published in 1911 - pays tribute to his mother’s efforts that enabled him to start his musical education. He has the heroine of the opera obtain education through her parent's labors in a white-owned home.

Joplin’s talent was noticed in Texarkana by a local, German-born music teacher (Julius Weiss), who instructed him further, placing special emphasis on European art forms, including opera. This teacher’s influence may be the foundation of Joplin’s desire for recognition as a classical composer.

In the 1880’s, as a teenager Joplin lived for a while in Sedalia and attended Lincoln High School in the black neighborhood north of the railroad. He may have resided with one of several black families named “Joplin” that lived in Sedalia. Unconfirmed accounts tell, also, of his starting a musical career in the 1880’s and traveling to St. Louis, which was to become a major center of ragtime.

The first documented sign of Joplin's musical career is in the summer of 1891 when, as reported in newspapers, he was back in Texarkana working with a minstrel troupe. In 1893, he was in Chicago at the time of the World’s Fair, leading a band and playing cornet, probably somewhere outside the fairgrounds. After the fair he returned to Sedalia, established it as his home and played first cornet in the Queen City Cornet Band, a local ensemble of black musicians. His membership in the band was for only about a year, and on leaving he formed his own band, working at dances and other events. While retaining Sedalia as his home base, he continued the life of an itinerant musician. In 1895 he traveled as far East as Syracuse, NY, with his Texas Medley Quartette, a vocal group. His performances so impressed several businessmen in Syracuse that they issued his first two publications, the songs Please Say You Will and A Picture of Her Face.

When not traveling, he worked in Sedalia as a pianist, playing at various events and sites, including the town’s two social clubs for black men, the Maple Leaf and Black 400 clubs (both founded in 1898). He also taught several of the local young musicians in town, most notably Scott Hayden and Arthur Marshall, with whom he later wrote collaborative rags.

Sedalia was a logical place for Joplin to settle down. The town of 15,000 had a large and prosperous black Maple Leaf Club community. In fact, the black community in Sedalia was sizable enough to boast several black newspapers and a college, the George R Smith College for Negroes. Sedalia was a busy railroad town, with travelers stopping there quite often. Consequently, it had developed one of the largest nightlife districts in the state.

It was probably in 1896 that he attended music classes at George R. Smith College. Since the college and its records were destroyed in a fire in 1925, there is no evidence of the extent of Joplin’s studies, but anecdotes suggest that until the end of the 1890s he still lacked complete mastery of music notation.

This technical deficit did not prevent him from developing as a composer. In 1896 he published two marches and a fine waltz. Late in 1898 he tried to publish his first two piano rags, but succeeded in selling only Original Rags. This publication experience was not satisfactory as he was forced to share credit with a staff arranger. Charles N. Daniels’ name was added as “arranger,” and on the copyright and in some newspaper advertisements Daniels was cited as composer.

Before Joplin published his next rag, he obtained the assistance of a young lawyer, Sedalia resident Robert Higdon. In August 1899 they contracted with Sedalia music store owner and publisher John Stark to publish The Maple Leaf Rag, which was to become the greatest and most famous of piano rags. The contract specified that Joplin would receive a one-cent royalty on each sale, a condition that rendered Joplin a small, but steady income for the rest of his life.

Sales in the first year were slight, only about 400. 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.

Within weeks of the Maple Leaf’s publication, Joplin completed The Ragtime Dance, a stage work for dancers and singing narrator. It is a folk-ballet of sorts, illustrating the type of dancing that was done in the Black 400 and Maple Leaf clubs. Stark announced its publication in September 1899, but then delayed issuing it until 1902. However, the work was staged at Wood’s Opera House in Sedalia on November 24, 1899, performed by a group of talented, young Sedalians from the Black 400 Club.

Joplin published one more rag while in Sedalia, Swipesy, a collaboration with his student Arthur Marshall. He then moved, in 1901, to St Louis with his new wife, Belle, the widow of Scott Hayden’s older brother. Reportedly he per-formed rarely, concentrating on teaching and composing. The Joplins later had a daughter, who lived only a few months. The couple separated in late 1903.

In St. Louis, Joplin associated with ragtime pioneer and saloon owner Tom Turpin and with other ragtimers, but he performed little, preferring to devote his time to composition and teaching. His publisher John Stark had also moved to St. Louis, and Joplin frequently passed time at the publishing office, talking with other ragtimers and with Stark’s daughter Eleanor, a highly accomplished classical piano recitalist. Eleanor was part owner in her father’s firm and was his major musical advisor. Her influence on both her father and on Joplin seems to have been significant, for Stark called his publishing firm “The House of Classic Rags,” and Joplin further developed his aspirations as a classical musician. It was probably through her, also, that Joplin met in 1901 with Alfred Ernst, conductor of the St. Louis Choral Symphony Society, the city’s most important music organization. In a newspaper interview following this meeting, Ernst commented on Joplin's musicality, his interest in classical music, and declared him to be a genius as a composer of ragtime.

Among Joplin’s significant publications in St. Louis were Sunflower Slow Drag (a collaboration with Scott Hayden), Peacherine Rag, The Easy Winners (all in 1901); Cleopha, The Strenuous Life (a tribute to President Theodore Roosevelt), A Breeze from Alabama, Elite Syncopations, The Entertainer, and The Ragtime Dance (all in 1902).

Early in 1903 he filed a copyright application for an opera, A Guest of Honor. A few months later, he formed an op-era company with personnel of 30, rehearsed the work at the Crawford Theatre in St. Louis, and embarked on a tour scheduled to take him to towns in Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska. Early in the tour, someone associated with the company stole the box office receipts, seriously damaging the company’s financial position. It was probably in Pittsburg, Kansas, a couple of weeks later, that the tour ended, with Joplin unable to meet his payroll. Furthermore, unable to pay for the company’s board at a theatrical boarding house, all of his possessions, including the music from the opera, were confiscated. Copies of the score were never filed with the Library of Congress and the music has never been recovered.

Comments in newspapers revealed what the opera was about, black leader Booker T. Washington’s dinner at President Roosevelt’s White House in 1901. This was an event that polarized the nation, with African - Americans, naturally, taking pride in the event. It was for this reason that Joplin paid tribute to Roosevelt with his piano rag A Strenuous Life, and then tried to memorialize the event with his opera.

Joplin had expected Stark to publish the opera, and indicated this in his copyright application. Stark’s decision not to publish it may have caused a temporary break between the two, leading Joplin to publish with other firms in 1903, including Something Doing (another collaboration with Hayden), Weeping Willow, and Palm Leaf Rag.

Following the failed opera tour, Joplin went to Chicago for a few months, and then returned to Arkansas to visit relatives. His marriage with Belle having ended, he married Freddie Alexander in Little Rock. She was a 19 year old woman, and he was so taken with her that he dedicated The Chrysanthemum to her. Following the marriage, the couple traveled by train to Sedalia, stopping at towns along the way so that Joplin could give concerts. Early in July they arrived in Sedalia, where Joplin continued his concertizing. Tragically, Freddie developed a cold that progressed into pneumonia, and she died at the age of 20 on September 10, 1903, ten weeks after their marriage. After Freddie’s funeral, Joplin left Sedalia and never returned.

Probably because ragtime was considered in many circles to be a disreputable form, Joplin sought to endow this rag with more dignity by portraying it as “An Afro-American Intermezzo.” The music was published by Stark in the early spring of 1904, and in April Joplin returned to Sedalia, where he distributed copies and gave several concerts. From there he went to St. Louis for the opening of the World’s Fair, where his Cascades, written for the Fair, received much play. Two other significant rag publications from this year are The Sycamore and The Favorite.

Through the next few years his career seems to have floundered and, having lost much of his money on the failed opera, he was in a poor financial condition. he spent most of the time in St. Louis, picking up insignificant playing jobs for little money. His Binks'’ Waltz was written as a commission from a local businessman. Still, he issued several outstanding works during this period. In 1905, his publications included the ragtime waltz Bethena, the ragtime song Sarah Dear and Leola, in which he further develops musical ideas first used in the Maple Leaf, and The Rose-Bud March, dedicated to his friend Tom Turpin, who operated the Rosebud Bar. Of these, only The Rose-Bud was published by Stark, although Leola was issued by a company that may have been associated with Stark. In 1906 Stark issued the march Antoinette and a piano version of the Ragtime Dance. Eugenia, a significant rag, went to a Chicago publisher.

Joplin spent part of 1907 in Chicago, living for a while with his Sedalian friend Arthur Marshall. While in Chicago he got together with Louis Chauvin, a brilliant young pianist he had met in St. Louis, and together they composed Helio-trope Bouquet, one of the most enchanting of all rags. Chauvin died several months later, Heliotrope being his only published rag.

In the summer of 1907 Joplin went to New York to make contacts with new publishers and to find financial backing for Treemonisha, an opera he had been working on for the past few years. Stark was also in New York at this time, and Joplin renewed his friendly relationship with the publisher and his family. It was while at the store connected to Stark’s office that Joplin met Joseph Lamb, a young white man who composed ragtime as an avocation. The two became friends and on Joplin’s recommendation Stark published Lamb’s Sensation in 1908. Lamb went on to become one of ragtime’s great composers and during the rest of the ragtime years published only with Stark.

Joplin published Nonpareil with Stark in 1907 and Fig Leaf Rag and Heliotrope Bouquet with him in 1908, but sought out new publishers for his other works: in 1907, Searchlight Rag and Gladiolus Rag (another Maple Leaf clone) with Jos W Stern, and Rose Leaf Rag. In 1908 he self-published his ragtime manual School of Ragtime, but then turned it over to Stark and others to market it. His most significant new publisher became Seminary Music, a firm that shared office space and was closely associated with Ted Snyder Music, a publisher that employed the young Irving Berlin, destined to become America’s greatest songwriter. Seminary issued Joplin’s Sugar Cane and Pine Apple Rag in 1908, and in 1909 Wall Street Rag, Solace, Pleasant Moments, Country Club, Euphonic Sounds, and Paragon Rag. The last was dedicated to the C.V.B.A. - the Colored Vaudeville Benevolent Association - an organization that he had just joined and with which he would be active during the next few years.

In 1909 Joplin and Lottie Stokes were married; she ran a theatrical boarding house while he operated a ragtime conservatory. Between 1910 and 1914 Joplin published only six more rags, some solo, some collaborations. The final rag published during his lifetime was Magnetic Rag in 1914. Before long, he became obsessed with his second opera, Treemonisha. He devoted his time to finding a publisher. He abandoned writing rags, trying to raise more money by teaching.

According to historical accounts, ‘his preoccupation with Treemonisha was nothing less than a mania, and even his teaching began to suffer. Many pupils left and others were neglected. His wife believed in his work to such an extent that she descended to running the house as a brothel ...”

Treemonisha was first published in 1911, and Joplin did everything possible to find a producer. Finally in desperation, in 1915 Joplin presented an informal, unstaged performance of Treemonisha in a rented hall in Harlem with himself playing piano. It was a dismal failure, and Joplin reportedly was crushed by the audience’s indifference.

Joplin published only one rag in 1910, Stoptime Rag (with Stern), but completed his opera and tried to get it published. He told his friends that he had turned it over to Irving Berlin at Snyder/Seminary, but that Berlin rejected it a few months later. The following spring, in 1911, Irving Berlin published his greatest hit song up to that time, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, and Joplin complained to friends that the song’s verse was taken from the “Marching Onward” section of “A Real Slow Drag” in Treemonisha. Joplin then altered that section and published the opera himself in mid-May, 1911.

The opera’s story, written by Joplin, takes place in a rural, black community in Arkansas, not far from his childhood home of Texarkana. In part, the opera is a tribute to both his mother, for the way that Treemonisha obtains her education, and to Freddie, with the opera’s action occurring in September 1884, the month and year of Freddie’s birth. The opera’s story relates how Treemonisha, the only educated member of her community, leads her townspeople out of the bondage of ignorance and superstition. The story is an allegory of how Joplin viewed the problems of the African - American community of his time, proposing the view that racial equality would come with education.

Joplin gave a copy of the score to the editor of the American Musician and Art Journal, an important music magazine. In the June issue the magazine published a lengthy review of the score, declaring it to be the most American opera ever composed, far more so than Horatio Parker’s Mona, which had just won a $10,000 “American opera” prize from the Metropolitan Opera.

Encouraged by this review, Joplin set about to arrange a performance of the opera, but he was unsuccessful. Through the next four years, he announced several full productions, but none were realized. In 1911, he mounted an unstaged run-through with piano accompaniment, but it failed to win him the financial backing he sought. He may have had a partial performance in 1913 of “A Real Slow Drag,” the opera’s closing number, in a theatre in Bayonne, NJ; and in 1915 the Martin-Smith Music School of Harlem, included in its year-end concert an orchestral performance of “Frolic of the Bears,” the Act 2 ballet. But Joplin was never to witness a completely staged performance of his opera.

His futile efforts to have the opera produced apparently detracted from his other creative work. Stark published Felicity Rag in 1911 and Kismet Rag in 1913, two works that Joplin had composed in collaboration with Scott Hayden a decade earlier. In 1912 Stern published Scott Joplin’s New Rag. In 1913 Joplin formed, with his new wife Lottie, his own publishing company, and they issued Magnetic Rag in 1914. During the next two years, Joplin composed several new rags and songs, a vaudeville act, a musical, a symphony, and a piano concerto, but none of these were published and the manuscripts have been lost.

By 1916, Joplin was experiencing the devastating physical and mental effects of tertiary syphilis, a disease he had probably contracted almost two decades earlier. By mid-January, 1917, he had to be hospitalized, and was soon transferred to a mental institution where he died on April 1, 1917 in New York City.

At the time of his death, he was almost forgotten. Interest in ragtime, too, was quickly waning as the new style of “jazz” took center stage. But Joplin never slipped totally into oblivion. His Maple Leaf Rag continued to exercise its magic on successive generations of musicians and music lovers.

Scott Joplin: The King of Ragtime

Scott Joplin was the most sophisticated and tasteful ragtime composer of the era. But he aspired to more. His goal was to be a successful composer for the lyric stage and he continually worked toward this end.

That he called himself “King of Ragtime Writers,” omitting a claim for his piano playing, reveals his recognition that not all of his musical skills were on the same high level. His piano playing was described as mediocre, perhaps due to early effects of syphilis. He also played cornet and violin, but put little effort into developing himself on those instruments. He is reported to have had a fine singing voice, and performed at times as a singer. He also had perfect pitch and, on becoming proficient at music notation, composed away from the piano.

As a person, he was intelligent, well-mannered and well-spoken. He was extremely quiet, serious and modest. He had few interests other than music. He was not good at small talk and rarely volunteered information, but if a subject interested him, he might become animated in his conversation. He was generous with his time and was willing to assist and instruct younger musicians. He had a profound belief in the importance of education.

In the 1940s, a group of jazz musicians seeking to revitalize their art with the spirit of the past, included ragtime in their development of “traditional jazz.” This inspired a “ragtime revival,” and though it was slight, it continued to slowly gain adherents.

The revival peaked in the 1970s as new recordings of Joplin’s music, produced for the first time on classical labels, set classical sales records. At the same time, the noted music became available through reprinted collections, most notably a two-volume set issued by the New York Public Library, and Joplin’s second opera, Treemonisha was successfully staged, finally reaching Broadway. This quickly growing presence inspired a film director to use Joplin’s music in his film The Sting, which became immensely popular and brought Joplin to the notice of the mass public. The result was unprecedented in music history. Led by music that Joplin composed more than a half-century earlier, ragtime became a current and universally loved style. Piano recitalists programmed it alongside Chopin muzurkas, dancers stepped to its rhythms in discos, and pop artists played in it stadiums filled with thousands of de-lighted rock fans. Recordings of Joplin’s music reached the top rungs of the marketing charts for both classical and popular categories. Ragtime was back. In recognition of his significant achievements, the Pulitzer Committee in 1976 issued a posthumous award for Scott Joplin's contribution to American music.

An extensive Scott Joplin archives once on display in the, “Maple Leaf Room,” at State Fair Community College is safely stored waiting future plans.  The collection includes hundreds of items of ragtime memorabilia, including the original score of Joplin's opera Treemonisha; piano rolls; sheet music; a portion of a heavy wooden bar presumably from the Maple Leaf Club; scrapbooks; and an original Maple Leaf Club membership card.

The Scott Joplin International Ragtime Foundation sponsors a Scott Joplin Festival in early June, drawing thousands of ragtime performers and enthusiasts from around the world. For more information:

Invocation/Dedication Prayer for Joplin Memorial Park - Sedalia, Missouri - June 1, 1999

“O Holy God,           

          You have called us to sing a new song,
          to rejoice over the creativity and ingenuity of the human spirit which 
          You have planted deep within the soul

          This place, O God, calls to mind one such soul.
          From a segregated moment in history, there arose one who spoke the 
          universal language of the heart.

          From the pathos of pauperism there emerged a giant who enriched us with 
          sounds that make us glad to be alive.

          From the dives of a dance hall, a new song swept over the land to set our toes 
          to tapping and our feet to dancing.

          Today, we dedicate this place to the memory of Scott Jo-plin, father of 
          ragtime, mother of a new musical art form, child of God."
- Reverend Marvin Albright


“King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era”: Ed Berlin,

“Rags and Ragtime, A Musical History”: by David Jasen and Trebor Jay Tichenor

“They All Played Ragtime”: by Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis

“Scott Joplin, Composer”: by Katherine Preston

“Dancing to a Black Man’s Tune, a Life of Scott Joplin”; by Susan Curtis

Ron Jennings, The Sedalia Democrat


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