1. Exceptional natural talent and intelligence
2. Texarkana's infamous saloons, one of the cradles of American popular music
3. Julius Weiss
Those are the 3 things that had to line up for Scott Joplin to become numbered in most top ten lists of the greatest American composers. Remove any one and he would either be unknown or a footnote. Even the recognition he has received so far may increase as greater understanding of the incredible combination of talent, classical theory, and American popular influences becomes better understood.
As with comedies, no matter how wonderfully written, acted, shot, and edited, never win a major Oscar, "popular" music rarely gets noticed in "classical" circles. To some extent, Joplin is an exception to this, but it still inhibits full appreciation of the mastery of theory, compositional complexity and depth, and sheer virtuosity required of any attempting to play his works as he wrote them that is his legacy. Many have noted that truly great and timeless music can be identified by how well it translates to other instruments and ensembles. Bach can be played on a harmonica and the greatness comes through. Joplin demonstrates this quality in most of his music.
In researching for this page, I found almost every citation about Joplin to have one or more errors. His birthplace is all over the place, and Julius Weiss, one of the critical components in his becoming one of the greatest American composers, is left out entirely many times. In these pages I shall attempt to gather the most reliable information possible. Please contact me if you dispute any or have other information to share.
Most evidence seems to point to the area around Linden, Texas, as his birthplace. The precise date is not known, but likely sometime between August and December of 1867. His parents were Giles and Florence Joplin. His father was an ex-slave, but his mother was free born. He was the second of six children. His father had learned violin and played on the plantation, so Scott was introduced to music early on.
By the age of 7 the Joplins were living in Texarkana and his mother was laboring as a domestic to help feed the family. Scott was allowed to play the piano in his mother's employer's home whilst she worked. At some point in the early 1880s, Giles abandoned the family. Some have speculated that Giles objected to Scott spending time with music rather than learning "manly" skills and that it may have been part of the reason Giles left with another woman. Scott's exceptional natural talent and extraordinary intelligence cannot be questioned. In fact, I feel it can be justifiably said that if he had been born white and in Europe he would be known as one of the great classical composers of his day.
Downtown Texarkana ca. 1900. Probably only a bit changed.
This opinion is born out by close listening and study of the marvelously complex structures of his compositions that blend the best of American popular music, classical theory, and sheer ecstasy of his works that please all manner of people regardless of their normal musical tastes. He is described by those who knew him as ambitious and hard working. He practiced after school and every spare moment. Before moving on with Scott's story, we should spend a bit of time describing the environment in which he spent his formative years. Texarkana, Arkansas/Texas was booming as he grew up, nearly tripling in population in 20 years time. There was probably more rail traffic through Texarkana in those years than any other city between Kansas City and New Orleans. Rail lines converged from all directions bringing large numbers of passengers, laborers, transients and diversity through the city. These people were entertained in the numerous saloons and bawdy houses. Most of them had a piano player known as a "perfesser." The music was rarely for dancing as women were not allowed in saloons or (other than those employed) bawdy houses. It was loud, hard driving, rowdy music to accompany drinking, carousing, and revelry. Most of the "perfessers" were black, so African influences were very prevalent in the music. There is no question that this background of dueling pianos that, along with cursing wagon drivers, steam engines and whistles, and clanking bottles that made up the soundscape of late 19th century Texarkana is what formed the basis of Joplin's music. If that had been all there was to it, Joplin would likely have been yet another unknown "perfesser." Except for the Professor..
It is unlikely that Julius Weiss ever played any of the music of the saloons. Weiss could, in a sense, be credited with ragtime, however, by at least one theory of provenance. He almost certainly taught young Joplin Brahm's Hungarian Dance #5, which is remarkably "ragtimey." It may well have been the "glue" that bound Joplin's mastery of popular saloon music and his classical training together. Joplin was in a struggle all his life between his classical training and the realities of being a black musician/composer. Here I wish to credit "Perfessor" Bill Edwards (www.perfessorbill.com) for the mention of the "ragish" qualities of the Brahms. From that, I realized as mentioned it would have had a profound influence on a young musician trying to make sense of the theory and structure of the music he was learning from Weiss and the ever present, driving popular music that was omnipresent in his life. Compare the "straight" version in the YouTube video to the right to the "ragged" version to hear this connection I believe that young Scott made and changed music history. American composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk also was likely a strong influence on Joplin.
Julius Weiss was born in Saxony in 1840 or thereabouts. Before the age of 20 he graduated from the a university in Saxony (which one is not certain) with a music degree. For reasons unknown, he emigrated to the U.S. in his 20s. He was residing in St. Louis when he was engaged by Col. Robert Wooding Rodgers of Texarkana as a teacher.
Rodgers had moved his family and business to Texarkana after the breaking up of the last of the Great Red River Raft left his original Texas home of Jefferson high and dry with no way to ship out his lumber. A Confederate veteran, Rodgers was present at the sale of the first town lots in 1873 and therefore was a founding father of the city. His family remained prominent for several decades.
Whether the Colonel brought Weiss to Texarkana to teach in the public school system of which he'd been appointed Trustee or as a tutor for his children is unclear. There is no evidence Weiss ever taught public school and it appears he spent his time in Texarkana as a private music, German, astronomy, mathematics, violin, and piano teacher for a variety of students, though he was employed by the Colonel and may well have lived at the Rodgers home.
Soon after assuming his duties at the Rodgers home, Weiss convinced the
Colonel to replace the old piano they'd brought from Jefferson with a
new one. Several scholars speculate, reasonably, that Weiss managed to
get it sold to Giles Joplin for Scott's use. While it is know that Giles
wasn't keen on his son's musical bent he was certainly there as the 1880
census has the Joplin family intact. It is very likely that Weiss had
come to know Scott and his talent very early on, most likely through Florence
doing laundry either for the Rodgers family or for the male tenants there.
However it happened, Weiss took a keen interest in Scott and provided
free lessons for him as long as Weiss lived in Texarkana. Col. Rodgers
died in April, 1884 and Weiss left Texarkana never to return. With his
father gone, and now his intellectual guide as well, it was probably about
this time Scott ventured off to find his own fortune. One thing is certain:
It was Weiss that provided Joplin with the foundation in classical music
theory and composition that propelled him to greatness. This is confirmed
by evidence that Joplin sent money to him in Weiss's declining years until
his death, possibly in Houston, in the early 1900s. In "Tremonisha," Joplin
has the heroine as being tutored by a kindly white teacher beginning at
age 7, and begins the opera with her leaving home in 1884. This appears
to correspond to his believed Texarkana residency and his education by
"Maple Leaf Rag" was only 4 years away.
Current aerial view with overlay map showing the Rodgers home, 3rd and Maple. "Maple" is now Texas Ave. and the site is the "Uptown Mall" flea market and antique store.
Some reports have the Joplin residence in the 600 block of Hazel. This is the first Sanborn map, 1896, to show that block. Large houses, obviously not a black neighborhood. However, note the "servants" quarters behind 603 and 615. It is quite possible that the Joplin's lied in one of those houses.
Maple Leaf Rag was Joplin's first national hit. Copyrighted in 1896, it was his most durable
With all due respect to the good citizens of the wonderful town of Sedalia, Missouri, a bit of sharing is in order. While Joplin resided there, he arrived fully armed with everything he needed to become one of the greatest American composers in history. His talent was natural, his exposure to American popular music was from the saloons of Texarkana, and his education was courtesy of Julius Weiss. Given that two other prominent ragtime composers, both trained by Joplin, were from Sedalia and he composed many of his works there, I shall concede to them the title "Cradle of Ragtime." However, Texarkana must be considered its birthplace as he arrived in Sedalia fully armed to become the King of Ragtime.
"Maple Leaf Rag" was copyrighted in 1899, and probably written before. While it commemorates the Maple Leaf Club, a black establishment in Sedalia, it is clearly rooted in Joplin's education from Weiss and the music experienced in Texarkana. "Magnetic Rag" (1914) was Jopli's last composition before his death in 1917. By then, the popular attention was turning to other styles and the phonograph was replacing the piano as the center of home entertainment. In a sense, this freed Joplin to experiment with composition with the use of a form close to classic sonata form. Joplin yearned for recognition as a serious composer, and this work was his final will and testament.
Most believe it was "The Sting" (1973) that brought attention to Scott Joplin. However, it is better attributed to Joshua Rifkin who recorded Joplin's complete works on the legendary Nonesuch label in 1970. He was responsible for presenting Joplin as Joplin wished, as a classical composer. That work is to be recommended as the definitive piano versions in modern recording format. It is available on CD at www.nonesuch.com. You can also find the LP if you search.
The recordings below are good quality mp3s made from piano rolls attributed to Joplin. "Attributed" in the sense that he probably recorded some of them, but it is difficult to tell if they may have been manually embellished. A piano player may hear something that is physically impossible for a human...that would be an embellishment. However, these are an excellent means of traveling along Joplin's developmental path from 1899 until the year of his death. These are in order of his recording sessions, not necessarily date of composition.
1899 - Maple Leaf Rag
1899 - Original Rag
1901 - The Easy Winners
1903 - Palm Leaf Rag
1903 - Something Doing (Hayden)
1903 - Weeping Willow
1904 - The Cascades
1904 -The Favorite
1904 - The sycamore
1907 - Gladiolus Rag
1907 - Lily Queen (Marshall)
1907 - Searchlight Rag
1907 - The Nonpareil
1908 - Pineapple Rag
1909 - Euphonic Sounds
1909 - Paragon Rag