Scott Joplin personified ragtime; he was its chief champion, the figure most closely associated with its composition. It was Joplin's short, hard-driving melodies- -and the syncopated backbone he furnished themthat helped define the musical parameters of ragtime, a style that gave voice to the African American experience during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Sadly, for all his accomplishments in putting a new musical form on the map, Joplin spent his final years madly obsessed with a fruitless crusade to enter, if not conquer, another arena: opera, the staid, classical venue accepted by a white community that had for so long ridiculed ragtime as cheap, vulgar, and facile black music.
Many of the details of Joplin's life, like much of his music, have been lost to history. He was born November 24, 1868, in Texarkana, a small city straddling the border of Texas and Arkansas. Joplin's father, Giles, was a railroad laborer who was born into slavery and obtained his freedom five years before his son's birth. Florence Givens Joplin was a freeborn black woman who worked as a laundress and cared for her children. Like many in the black community, the Joplins saw in music a rewarding tool of expression, and the talented family was sought out to perform at weddings, funerals, and parties.
Scott, whose first foray into the world of scales and half notes came on the guitar, discovered a richer lyrical agent in his neighbor's piano. At first, Giles Joplin was concerned that music would sidetrack his son from a solid, wage-earning trade, but he soon saw the clear inventive genius in Scott, who, by the time he was 11, was playing and improvising with unbelievable smoothness. A local German musician, similarly entranced with Scott Joplin's gift, gave the boy free lessons, teaching him the works of European composers, as well as the nuts and bolts of musical theory and harmony.
In a move not uncommon for young blacks at the time, Joplin left home in his early teens, working as an itinerant pianist at honky-tonks and salons of the Midwest, South, and Southwest. Although some revisionist historians have placed the birth of ragtime at the feet of white composers, such as Irving Berlin, who published "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in 1911, the true origin of the music was to be found in these low rent musical halls. In explaining the black roots of the musical form, Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis wrote in They All Played Ragtime, "Piano ragtime was developed by the Negro from folk melodies and from the syncopations of the plantation banjos. As it grew, it carried its basic principle of displaced accents played against a regular meter to a very high degree of elaboration." The signature fast and frenetic pace of ragtime reflected the jubilant side of the black experiencecompared with the melancholy-heavy bluesand the music became, according to Blesh and Janis, America's "most original artistic creation."