When often thinking of legends, there is a tendency to remember those more well known, but so many legends go forgotten, simply hanging on by word of mouth from those who remember them. Scott Joplin, Texarkana, Arkansas, native, is somewhere between the two states, in a sort of purgatory waiting to be revitalized and remembered.
Joplin is by definition legendary, composing over 44 original ragtime pieces, one ballet, and two operas. Though not officially confirmed, rumor has it that Joplin sold over half-a-million copies of sheet music for Maple Leaf Rag over his lifetime, making it the first great instrumental sheet music hit in America. Maple Leaf Rag is considered the commencement of Ragtime music, laying down the archetype for other composers to emulate and follow, though never as successfully as Joplin. (Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Scott Joplin.”)
Joplin’s birth date and location is contested to this day, but many agree it was somewhere between the years 1867 and 1868 on November 24 near Texarkana, Arkansas, maybe Linden, Texas. He later died on April 1, 1917 from dementia due to advanced syphilis. His father a former slave who worked on railways, later divorced Joplin’s mother, forcing her to raise he and his 5 siblings alone.
His mother fully supported his musical endeavors, purchasing Joplin a used piano so he could take lessons at 7 years of age with the help of some local teachers and eventually a mentor. Most of his formal education was taught by German-Jewish music professor, Julius Weiss, who immigrated to Texas in the late 1860’s. Joplin quickly learned piano and other instruments such as the mandolin and guitar, later forming a quartet before traveling as a musician.
Texarkana was the hallmark of Joplin’s inspiration, a melting pot of classical music, gospel hymns, and European melodies from his German mentor. Joplin’s innate skill, along with mentoring, helped him develop such a distinguishable style early on. (http://texarkanarmhc.org/joplin)
Joplin ventured to Chicago for the World Fair of 1893, later contributing to the craze of ragtime along the Midwest in the late 1890’s. His publication of Maple Leaf Rag in 1898 brought Joplin stardom. Continuing to compose, Joplin moved to St. Luis but never achieved the success he once had with Maple Leaf Rag.
Joplin fell into financial problems, later having belongings confiscated in 1903 for non-payment of bills, along with many compositions which are now considered lost. Despite his financial downfall, he continued to compose and later moved to New York City to produce a new opera, Treemonishia.
By 1917, Joplin was admitted to a mental facility in January and three months later passed at the young age of forty-eight. The death of Joplin led to the decline of Ragtime, but helped develop more mainstream genres like swing and jazz.
There was a short revival of ragtime music during the 1970’s when other composers and producers portrayed his works. In 1972, Joplin’s Opera, Treemonisha, was produced and taken to the stage, winning him a posthumous pulitzer prize.
Treemonisha tells the story of a former slave community in town near Texarkana in 1884, where an eighteen-year-old woman, Treemonisha, is taught to read by a white woman. She then leads her community of slaves against the elitists. Treemonisha is captured and barely escapes death by wasps’ attack when her friend, Remus, rescues her. The community comes to the realization that they need education, choosing Treemonisha as their teacher, freeing them from the liability of ignorance.
It wasn’t unlike Joplin to take inspiration from his life, Maple Leaf Rag is written about a short-lived bar that Joplin frequented, other compositions include “The Entertainer,” “Peacherine Rag,” “Cleopha,” “The Chrysanthemum,” “The Ragtime Dance,” “Heliotrope Bouquet,” “Solace” and “Euphonic Sounds.” (“Scott Joplin.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television)
More recently, local authorities and citizens have taken additional steps to ensure that Joplin’s legacy is not forgotten, that it is appreciated for its significant impact on music and the community. The Scott Joplin Mural, originally completed in 1984, was recently restored by local artist , Art Pletcher, in 2015. Other local Joplin landmarks include his childhood home on Laurel Street in Texarkana, Arkansas.
Joplin paved the way for Texarkana to become a cultural hub for musicians and artists alike. His contributions to ragtime and composers to this day continues. Joplin’s great, great niece, LaErma White, 98, still resides in Texarkana, appreciating how the community has commemorated her extended relative’s works.
“For a while people forgot about his music, it wasn’t until the 1970’s that his music became popular all over.”
White had the honor of placing the first brush stroke upon the improvements on the mural. She emphasizes how important it is to support the arts in the community, keeping their legacy alive, just as her uncle Joplin’s grows as a legend to this day, and to never forget.
“Scott Joplin.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 19 Jan. 2018, www.biography.com/people/scott-joplin-9357953.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Scott Joplin.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 23 May 2018, www.britannica.com/biography/Scott-Joplin.
“Scott Joplin, 1868-1917.” Apple Computers: This Month in Business History (Business Reference Services, Library of Congress), Victor, www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200035815/.