Sept. 18, 1899

Credit: Wikipedia

Scott Joplin, known as “the King of Ragtime,” copyrighted the “Maple Leaf Rag”, which became the first song to sell more than 1 million copies of sheet music. The popularity launched a sensation surrounding ragtime, which has been called America’s “first classical music.” 

Born near Texarkana, Texas, Joplin grew up in a musical family. He worked on the railroad with other family members until he was able to earn money as a musician, traveling across the South. He wound up playing at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, where he met fellow musician Otis Saunders, who encouraged him to write down the songs he had been making up to entertain audiences. In all, Joplin wrote dozens of ragtime songs. 

After some success, he moved to New York City, hoping he could make a living while stretching the boundaries of music. He wrote a ragtime ballet and two operas, but success in these new forms eluded him. He was buried in a pauper’s grave in New York City in 1917. 

More than six decades later, his music was rediscovered, initially by Joshua Rifkin, who recorded Joplin’s songs on a record, and then Gunther Schuller of the New England Conservatory, who performed four of the ragtime songs in concert: “My faculty, many of whom had never even heard of Joplin, were saying things like, ‘My gosh, he writes melodies like Schubert!’” 

Joplin’s music won over even more admirers through the 1973 movie, “The Sting”, which won an Oscar for the music. His song, “The Entertainer,” reached No. 3 on Billboard and was ranked No. 10 among “Songs of the Century” list by the Recording Industry Association of America. His opera “Treemonisha” was produced to wide acclaim, and he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his special contribution to American music. 

“The ragtime craze, the faddish thing, will obviously die down, but Joplin will have his position secure in American music history,” Rifkin said. “He is a treasurable composer.”

More on this day


Something went wrong. Please refresh the page and/or try again.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.