Scott Joplin

On this date in 1868, composer Scott Joplin, the "King of Ragtime," was born. Joplin's early musical career took place in centers of entertainment, not in church. He played piano in a brothel, and in a club (the famous Maple Leaf) that was shut down due to pressure from local churches, whose pastors were ashamed of the "iniquitous practices" (dancing and cards) taking place there. Ragtime was America's first uniquely national style of music. Scott Joplin, born in Texas and raised in Missouri, did not invent ragtime, but it was his incredible compositions that propelled the style to national prominence, especially after his 1899 "Maple Leaf Rag" became a huge hit, followed by dozens more, including "The Entertainer," which is still popular today. He was married in a home, not a church, and his funeral was not conducted in a church.

In the opera Treemonisha, dealing with the fact that the African-American community was still living in ignorance, superstition, and misery, Joplin tells his audience that the way out of this condition is through education. He does not propose religion as the solution. "Ignorance is criminal," he tells us. Treemonisha, a woman who promotes education, is a leader who is more persuasive than the useless pastor in town. To the conjurer Zodzetrick, she says: "You have lived without working for many years, All by your tricks of conjury. You have caused superstition and many sad tears. You should stop, you are doing great injury." Revealing a freethought attitude, Joplin named the pastor "Parson Alltalk"--all he does is talk and exhort the people to be good; he is totally ineffectual, unable to see the people's real needs and, being uneducated, unable to provide leadership. The opera contains no gospel music, no hymns or religious melodies that would have been expected of such a community. D. 1917.

“There is no harm in musical sounds. It matters not whether it is fast ragtime or a slow melody like 'The Rosary'.”

—Scott Joplin. Quoted in King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era, by Edward A. Berlin. Oxford University Press, 1994

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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