The King of Ragtime
Scott Joplin was born to Jiles and Florence Joplin near Marshall, Texas, in 1868. (Historians still debate the exact date.) He exhibited musical talent at an early age. By age 11, this child prodigy was able to play several musical instruments and compose and improvise his own music. Mastering both the formal structure of classical music and the free-flowing, improvisational and artistic expression of Black musicians from the minstrel tradition, Joplin eventually became the leading exponent of a new, syncopated musical genre. He became "The King of Ragtime."
Traveling throughout the Midwest, Joplin plied his musical trade in railroad towns and riverfront cities; his audiences were largely patrons of saloons, brothels and skid row restaurants. But, his musical reputation soon transcended Black audiences and backroom venues and captured the listening ear of the middle class white community. Sometime during this transient period, he established roots in Sedalia, Missouri, where he completed a degree in music at the George R. Smith College for Negroes. While in Sedalia, his experimentation with intricate musical rhythms led him to create his first well-known published work, the "Maple Leaf Rag." In an era before radio, MTV or CD players, "Maple Leaf Rag" became a national sensation in the form of sheet music, printed by Joplin's Sedalia publisher and friend, John Stark.
Buoyed by the success of "Maple Leaf Rag" and a growing national reputation, Joplin moved to St. Louis in the spring of 1900 with his new wife, Belle. They moved into the flat at 2658A Morgan St., now Delmar Boulevard. While living there between 1900 and 1903, he produced some of his better known compositions: "The Entertainer," "Elite Syncopations," "March Majestic" and "Ragtime Dance." With royalties coming in from his musical creations, he began to perform less and became more of a teacher and composer. During this productive time in St. Louis, Joplin also wrote his first major serious composition, an operatic piece called "A Guest of Honor," which had as its setting the Missouri Governor's Mansion in Jefferson City. The original score for this work was lost, and it can no longer be performed.
In 1907, Joplin moved to New York to increase national recognition and further his success. Following the financial failure of the most ambitious work of his life - his opera "Treemonisha" - and weakened by a broken spirit and a fatal disease, he died April 1, 1917, at the age of 49. He was buried in a pauper's grave that remained unmarked until 1974.
Ragtime enjoyed a renaissance in the early 1970s when the motion picture "The Sting" used "The Entertainer" as its them music. Today, ragtime remains a somewhat muted but permanent part of the American musical scene.
In 1976, Joplin's St. Louis home was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1984, the owner, Jeff-Vander-Lou, Inc., donated the property to the Department of Natural Resources' Division of State Parks. The house is dedicated wholly to the presentation of African American contributions to Missouri's cultural history.
The visitor center exhibits depict St. Louis and the neighborhood as Joplin knew them, and additional details about his life and work. The operating player piano in the music room allows visitors to listen to piano rolls of the ragtime era, including some that were cut by Joplin himself.
Not many authentic details of Joplin's life at 2658A Delmar are known today. It is certain that his financial success was only just beginning when he lived here, so the second-floor flat he and Belle occupied has been furnished unpretentiously, in turn-of-the-century style. Gas lights, calcimine paint and second-hand furnishings re-create the modest beginnings of Joplin's St. Louis years.
Complementing the restored Joplin house is the New Rosebud Cafe, a replica of the turn-of-the-century bar and gaming club that once operated in the area.
Ralph W. and Emma VanGennip of St. Charles have donated a 1905 to 1910 T. Bahnsen Piano Manufacturing Co. piano to Scott Joplin House State Historic Site. The piano has a connection to the Scott Joplin house as the piano company also published music, including Joplin's "Bethena," "Sarah Dear" and "Binks' Waltz." A special thanks goes to "Perfessor" Bill Edwards and Dr. Dave Majchrzak, who helped connect the house and the donor and to the Friends of Scott Joplin, who donated the funds to move the piano.