Joplin Popularizes Ragtime Music and Dance

Scott Joplin’s ragtime composition “Maple Leaf Rag,” the first song to sell more than one million copies of sheet music in the United States, ignited a musical and dance craze that swept the country. Ragtime, the first truly American form of music, greatly influenced the development of jazz.

Summary of Event

In 1899, the tiny midwestern publishing company John Stark & Son published a piece of piano music entitled “Maple Leaf Rag” by a little-known African American pianist and composer named Scott Joplin. The irresistible instrumental composition quickly became a national success and ushered in a ragtime craze that swept the United States in the early years of the twentieth century. Copies of the sheet music for rags and ragtime songs, written by scores of composers, both black and white, were sold by the thousands. Joplin, Scott
Ragtime music
African Americans;music
[kw]Joplin Popularizes Ragtime Music and Dance (1899)
[kw]Popularizes Ragtime Music and Dance, Joplin (1899)
[kw]Ragtime Music and Dance, Joplin Popularizes (1899)
[kw]Music and Dance, Joplin Popularizes Ragtime (1899)
[kw]Dance, Joplin Popularizes Ragtime Music and (1899)
Joplin, Scott
Ragtime music
African Americans;music
[g]United States;1899: Joplin Popularizes Ragtime Music and Dance[6360]
[c]Music;1899: Joplin Popularizes Ragtime Music and Dance[6360]
[c]Dance;1899: Joplin Popularizes Ragtime Music and Dance[6360]
Scott, James
Stark, John

The most immediately distinctive feature of ragtime music is its bouncy, syncopated rhythm. The pulse and bounce of ragtime is achieved by a balancing of rhythms between the pianist’s left and right hands. The steady, even rhythms played by the left hand provide the basis for the syncopated melodies and counter-rhythms supplied by the right hand. (“Syncopated” refers to rhythms that accent the offbeats, rather than the regular beats that are normally accented.)

In ragtime’s heyday, the music was played everywhere—from honky-tonks and clubs to middle-class parlors. In the motion-picture theaters that were springing up in the early years of the twentieth century, ragtime piano players provided live accompaniment for many silent Motion pictures;and ragtime music[Ragtime music] films. Ragtime was the first music of African American derivation that crossed over to reach a wide white audience (discounting the clichéd, bastardized music used in minstrel shows), and it did so at a time of deeply entrenched discrimination and segregation.

Ragtime grew out of African American folk music, with its emphasis on lively, syncopated rhythms that urged listeners to dance. Ragtime could have evolved only in the United States, as in many ways it is actually a combination of African musical traditions (as passed on and adapted by generations of African slaves in the American South) and European musical forms such as the march. There is a significant difference, however, between rags and earlier African American musical forms: Rags were written down in standard European-style musical notation.

“Maple Leaf Rag” was not the first rag ever written or published, and Joplin was not the first ragtime composer. Different sources date the beginnings of ragtime anywhere from the 1840’s to the 1890’s. By the 1890’s, there were a number of African American piano players in cities and towns along the Mississippi River who were playing in a style that was becoming known as “rag” or “rag time” music. By 1895 or 1896, music had been published that was ragtime in nature, if not in name. “Mississippi Rag,” a composition by white Chicago bandleader William Krell Krell, William that was published in 1897, is often cited as the first published rag. “Harlem Rag,” by black pianist Tom Turpin Turpin, Tom , was published later that year. It was the success of Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” however, that launched the ragtime craze nationally.

Born in 1868, Joplin moved to St. Louis during the mid-1880’s, before he was twenty years old. He was already an accomplished pianist. He moved to Chicago in 1893 and to Sedalia, Missouri, a few years later. This move, made because Sedalia’s large red-light district could provide employment for a black pianist, turned out to be propitious. In Sedalia were both a new college for African Americans and a white music publisher named John Stark Stark, John . The George R. Smith College for Negroes (which merged with Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1933) gave Joplin the chance to study music theory and notation. Then, in the summer of 1899, Stark heard Joplin performing in the Maple Leaf Club, for which the most famous of all piano rags was named. Stark was impressed, and he agreed to publish “Maple Leaf Rag”—two other publishers had turned it down—and signed Joplin to a five-year contract. The huge success of “Maple Leaf Rag” brought Joplin fame and, if not riches, at least a measure of financial security.

The song’s success shifted the ragtime phenomenon into high gear. Joplin was one of the most prolific composers of instrumental piano rags, writing about thirty himself and another six or seven in collaboration with others. Among the many Joplin rags that appeared in the first years of the twentieth century were “Peacherine Rag” (1901), “The Entertainer” (1902), and “Palm Leaf Rag: A Slow Drag” (1903). Joplin was a particularly influential ragtime figure both because his sheet music sold so many copies and because his work was admired by other ragtime musicians and composers.

Other notable composers of piano rags included James Scott Scott, James , Joseph Lamb, Tom Turpin, and Scott Hayden (a Joplin protégé). Turpin’s “Harlem Rag” and “St. Louis Rag” and Scott’s “Frog Legs Rag” and “Hilarity Rag” became standards in the ragtime repertoire. Scott, like Joplin, started young; he had published two rags by the time he was seventeen. Scott’s rags are particularly difficult to play, and his music has been called more flamboyant than those of Joplin. Lamb, a white devotee of Joplin’s style, is sometimes considered the third great composer of classic rags (alongside Joplin and Scott). There were also a number of women ragtime composers; May Aufderheide’s “Dusty Rag,” from 1908, was one of the most popular rags written by a woman.

A distinction should be made among “classic” ragtime (instrumental piano rags), ragtime songs, and the more general use of the term “ragtime” to denote an era and nearly any up-tempo music or dance of the time. A piano rag, strictly speaking, is an instrumental composition. Ragtime songs, less complex than the rags, had both music and words (many of which perpetuated grotesquely stereotyped and racist views of black life). The term “ragtime” is now often used in a general sense to evoke a bygone era existing between the 1890’s and the 1920’s—a slower, quieter time of pre-World War I innocence and optimism. In this sense, “ragtime” has come to refer to a range of music and dances of the time before the jazz age, including rags, cakewalks, novelty songs, and the popular songs turned out by early Tin Pan Alley composers and musicians.

The defining characteristic of the classic rags was their inventive syncopation, but by 1910 or so, publishers were referring to nearly any up-tempo popular song as “ragtime.” The famous song “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” for example, written by Irving Berlin in 1911, contains virtually no syncopation. As “Maple Leaf Rag” can in some ways symbolize the beginning of ragtime, so the hugely popular “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” symbolizes its coming end. By 1915, ragtime had become watered down by commercial imitation and, as a creative musical form, had run its course.


Although the ragtime era lasted for only twenty years at most after publication of the first rag, the effects of the music were felt much longer. Ragtime influenced both the development of jazz and, to a much lesser extent, twentieth century classical music. It would be wrong to claim that ragtime developed into jazz, but jazz would not have developed quite the way it did had it not been for ragtime.

One major contribution that ragtime made to jazz was simply the role of the piano. As the music that was evolving into jazz moved from the parade into the dance hall, honky-tonk, and brothel, the piano began to assume greater importance. The early jazz players’ approach to the piano was deeply indebted to ragtime.

There was considerable cultural resistance to the ragtime craze, some of it coming from guardians of morality and some from arbiters of musical taste. Many conservative community leaders considered rags and ragtime dances to be destructive to the morals of youth, much as jazz and rock and roll would be deplored in later generations. There was undeniably a racist element in many of these arguments. Ragtime was also hotly debated in music societies, magazines, and journals, with many classical musicians excoriating it. One conductor declared that ragtime “poisons the taste of the young”; a classical pianist likened it to a “dog with rabies” that had to be exterminated. Nevertheless, ragtime elements began to appear in the work of more open-minded and influential twentieth century composers, both in Europe and in the United States.

Three European composers notable for their inclusion of raglike musical figures were Claude Debussy Debussy, Claude , Erik Satie Satie, Erik , and Igor Stravinsky Stravinsky, Igor . American composers drawing upon ragtime have ranged from Henry Gilbert Gilbert, Henry to John Alden Carpenter Carpenter, John Alden , but the best known are Charles Ives Ives, Charles and George Gershwin Gershwin, George . All four were seeking to write classical music with a uniquely American sound; among the sources with which they experimented were spirituals, hymns, folk songs, American Indian music, ragtime, and jazz.

Although ragtime music had faded from mass popularity by World War I, it never quite disappeared. Any piano players who entertained by playing “old-time” or honky-tonk piano had ragtime pieces or ragtime-influenced songs in their repertoire. Moreover, a number of performers and composers (including Eubie Blake Blake, Eubie , who lived to the age of one hundred) kept the style alive and passed it on to new generations.

During the 1940’s, periodic ragtime revivals began occurring, reflecting both the interest and the evolving stylistic interpretations of new devotees. The biggest single ragtime revival occurred in the early and middle 1970’s. In the ensuing years, popular interest in ragtime waned once again, but the many recordings and performances of ragtime, as well as the substantial body of scholarship on the music, ensure Joplin and ragtime a secure place in the history of American music.

Further Reading

  • Berlin, Edward A. King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. A comprehensive biography focusing on Joplin’s music, with updated information from archives and newspapers. Contains photographs, illustrations, listings of Joplin’s works, extensive notes, and a bibliography.
  • _______. Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History. 1980. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. A perceptive analysis of the musical and cultural influences on ragtime, with examples.
  • Blesh, Rudi, and Harriet Janis. They All Played Ragtime. New York: Oak, 1971. This pioneering and painstakingly researched study remains an excellent survey of the music, its players, and its composers.
  • Curtis, Susan. Dancing to a Black Man’s Tune: A Life of Scott Joplin. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1994. Scholarly biography with an interpretation of the communities and societies of Joplin’s era. Contains extensive chapter notes and a bibliography.
  • Gammond, Peter. Scott Joplin and the Ragtime Era. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975. One of a number of short biographies of Joplin written for the newcomer to ragtime. Alternates between chapters on Joplin’s life and chapters containing contextual information on ragtime and its era.
  • Hasse, John Edward, ed. Ragtime: Its History, Composers, and Music. New York: Schirmer Books, 1985. An amazingly wide-ranging collection of fine essays on ragtime. Includes essays on Joplin and other major figures, women ragtime composers, musicological examinations, and ragtime’s influence on early country music. Also includes Gunther Schuller’s “Rags, the Classics, and Jazz.”
  • Jasen, David A., and Gene Jones. That American Rag: The Story of Ragtime in the United States. New York: Schirmer Books, 2000. A comprehensive historical overview of ragtime’s development in the United States. An excellent reference.
  • Schafer, William J., and Johannes Riedel. The Art of Ragtime. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973. Aimed at the serious student of ragtime, this work covers a broad area. A scholarly account, rich in detail.
  • Waldo, Terry. This Is Ragtime. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1976. The author, a onetime protégé of ragtime pianist Eubie Blake, surveys ragtime from its beginnings to its resurgence in the 1970’s. He devotes separate chapters to ragtime in the 1940’s, 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s.

First Minstrel Shows

Rise of Tin Pan Alley Music

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i><br />

Frederick Douglass; Paul Laurence Dunbar; Scott Joplin; Harriet Beecher Stowe. Joplin, Scott
Ragtime music
African Americans;music