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The tragic life and hopeful legacy of America's first pop star: Scott Joplin

It is not far from a scientific certainty that you would have heard the music of Scott Joplin, whether you know it or not. His classic composition ‘The Entertainer’ has become so ubiquitous in modern culture that off the back of hearing two notes alone, the majority of the western populous would be able to hum out the rest of the tune themselves. It is the classic caper accompaniment to silent movies, the frequent calling card of the Ice Cream Van and bound to have been a polyphonic ringtone at one point. 

Such is the way with a lot of songs that transcend music to such an all-encompassing degree, the visionary skill behind it has been bleached out in the sheer amount of light of day that it has seen. Thus, Scott Joplin – a man who can rightfully be called America’s first pop star without it being overly bombastic or meaningless – has faded into the unreturned library book section of history and tragically this journey towards obscurity began while the artist was still very much alive. 

Joplin was dubbed the King of ragtime, and for a while, he wore that crown proudly and profitably. In 1899 he released the ragtime melody ‘Maple Leaf Rag’. Music historians now posset that the piece may well have been the first-ever instrumental song to sell over a million copies within the composer’s lifetime. That is no mean feat in of itself, but what makes it truly Promethean is that he managed to propagate the first pop music craze in doing so. 

Popular culture is a mixed-up milieu that unfurls in a kaleidoscopic blur with no clear beginning, middle, or end, just like some mad mass of creative atoms bumping and bonding, forming new off-shoots and mutating the old. That being said, there is so much about ragtime reflected in pop music today, and in particular, the way in which it reached the population en masse, that if you had to pin the ‘first pop star’ badge on anyone, Scott Joplin is the guy who would make you look least foolish. 

All of this is quite remarkable considering that Joplin was a Black man born in the American South in 1968, only three years on from the armistice of the American Civil War. And sadly, the fateful end to his life serves as a reminder of how large tragedy still loomed. Considering the enormous success that crowned him the King of Ragtime, his deathly destitution is perhaps most inexplicable of all.

Ragtime itself is a genre with roots firmly anchored in the fertile creative soil of trouble and unrest, however, on this occasion music didn’t merely form a place for spiritual emancipation from troubles but was rather intrinsic to the trouble itself. ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’ by John Philip Sousa was a marching song that bands played during the war, and stylistically it can be considered a precursor to ragtime in many ways. The piece rumbles on a brisk walking beat of 2/4 time with notes very much on the beat, with a musical style that encourages movement, as opposed to typically introspective pieces of classical music. 

In the American South, this marching band style entered the melee of African music and was beat-up into ragtime. The African Folk tunes were chocked with syncopation, a musical technique that stresses notes in unexpected places, as musician and famed Daft Punk collaborator, Chilly Gonzales, explains, “notes crop up before or after they are expected, in order to create the notion of musical questions and answers.” This can be seen profusely in modern pop.

There was a third and greatly unsavoury chapter in the mix of ragtime, that was nevertheless vital in its formation and exists as a nettlesome point in the mire of pop music history. However, not to mention Minstrel Music simply because of its condemnable nature would not only be a betrayal of the tricky truths of history, but it would also brush over one of the most defining chapters of Joplin’s life. Minstrel Shows were not just racist plays performed by white people, many Black people also made their living as musicians in these shows and it was within them that ragtime found a commercial home.

The finishing touch that defined ragtime was the enforced necessity of reduction. Without the masses of a marching band to play with, the piano pieces had to be made primitive and simple. 

From one of the most damning chapters in human history, the poetry of popular music found itself etched into the margins of the print. Sadly, the life of Scott Joplin would be dictated more by the text than the poetry surrounding it, poetry which he helped to gild and embolden into the ever-giving boon to life that music exists as today. 

After the profound success that Scott Joplin had experienced with a slew of popular ragtime pieces, he vowed to ensure that he and his fellow Black performers would be respected as the musical luminaries that they were. However, he did not merely want respect; he wanted to use any esteem he could gather to impart an important message, a message that would change America into an egalitarian state. 

To fulfil this goal, Scott Joplin sequestered his ragtime success and set about creating an epic opera. He would name the opera Treemonisha, and it would accelerate the civil rights movement by celebrating the power of education. The story of the opera would follow a young, freed woman who taught her community the ways of unity and liberalisation. Through the epic tale, Joplin wished to impart the change he sought in the world. 

However, despite millions listening to his music, nobody was willing to publish the play. Ultimately, Joplin had to fund it all himself, and the epic that he had in mind was distilled down to a small staging in 1915 in a venue not much large than a bar. His music may have provided a balm to life for millions, but when he wanted to embolden that simple exultation into something rather less subversive, his art met with deaf ears. 

Scott Joplin would tragically die two years after this failed performance on the 1st of April 1917. He succumbed to syphilis and dementia and died in a psychiatric hospital, so penniless that he had to be buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. He was unquestionably one of the most preeminent music figures in history, his impact was not only the spiritual tonic that he provided through art in his lifetime, but the presiding influence that he had on the Jazz that followed and thereafter rock ‘n’ roll. And despite all of this he was left to be forgotten. 

Thankfully our tale does not stop there and neither does Joplin’s. In 1970 Joshua Rifkin rediscovered Joplin’s music sheets and put out a record entitled Scott Joplin Piano Rags. This record filtered its way into record stores and fevered collectors began to drive up interest in ragtime, so much interest in fact, that several of Joplin’s songs made their way onto the Robert Redford and Paul Newman movie The Sting.

From the ash heap of history, the legacy of Joplin rose once more and in 1972 the triumph of his defiance would finally see itself reach rightfully rarefied celestial heights. His opera, Treemonisha, was unearthed and his opus was finally given the treatment it deserved. It was performed by Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and it crystallised the legacy of an artist whose impact time may have faded, but it was too inviolable to forget. The coal of the nearly forgotten opera was transfigured into the triumphant jewel in the legacy of the King of Ragtime’s crown. The opera was a blistering success. In 1974, he was exhumed from his unmarked grave and given a headstone that is now eternally showered in the grateful flowers left behind by people whose lives he has touched, and in 1976 he received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for the opera that nearly never was. 

Scott Joplin was a true music luminary whose legacy may be marked by the imperfections of history, but behind it all is the soul of a man who dared to make a change, and despite all of the tragedy that unfurled, he gloriously succeeded.