A St. Louis history tour wouldn’t be complete without an introduction to the important role the city has played in America’s musical history. A great place to start is the Scott Joplin State Historic Site, in the former home of the legendary Ragtime composer. Though he only lived here for a few years, this is where he composed some of his most famous pieces including “The Entertainer,” and helped to set off an international Ragtime craze. Even if you’ve never heard of ragtime, Joplin is an interesting American figure as one of the first American musical celebrities and one of the first in a long line of African American musicians to make a big impact on the evolution of American music and, by extension, popular music around the world. At the Scott Joplin House, you can explore his life and times and “play” a real player piano.
Scott Joplin was born in 1868 in Texarkana, Texas and showed musical talent at a young age. His father was a formerly enslaved man from North Carolina who played the violin and his mother was a free-born woman from Kentucky who sang and played the banjo. His music teacher was a German Jewish immigrant who made a living teaching music lessons to wealthier families but taught Joplin folk, classical, and opera for free. By the time Joplin was 16, he was singing in a vocal quartet, playing piano, and teaching guitar and mandolin.
After receiving a college degree in music and committing to a career as a professional musician, Joplin found that paid jobs for black performers were limited. Playing piano in saloons, brothels, and inexpensive restaurants around the Midwest, he found his way to Sedalia, Missouri, (between St. Louis and Kansas City) in the mid-1890s.
At that time the St. Louis area was a popular first stop for African Americans moving north to escape segregation in the South. The mixing of country and urban culture made it a hotbed for new musical styles. Ragtime began here in St. Louis and likely evolved from the Cakewalk, a style of dance and music originated by enslaved people on Southern plantations.
Both the Cakewalk and Ragtime stood out from other music at the time because of a feature called “syncopation,” which is when a musician stresses notes that fall on beats that are not usually stressed. Though syncopation can be found in both African and European musical traditions (such as jigs), at this time in the US it was strongly associated with the music played by black musicians in saloons and brothels, sometimes called “jig piano.” Ragtime piano-players typically played a baseline with a steady rhythm with the left hand and right-hand part with a syncopated or “ragged” rhythm.
Joplin was in St. Louis for the 1893 World’s Fair and noticed that although African American musicians were not prominently featured at the fair, their music in the saloons and brothels nearby was extremely popular with visitors. To many Americans at the time, Ragtime sounded, as described by the St. Louis Dispatch, like “a veritable call of the wild, which mightily stirred the pulses of city-bred people.”
Before the era of sound recording, the music industry sold sheet music to professional and amateur musicians. Though music publishing has been around since the Baroque era, it became a big business in the US in the late 19th century as copyright laws were better enforced and published companies tried new marketing techniques such as “plugging,” paying musicians to perform songs so that the songs would become popular.
Music publishers were starting to notice Ragtime and Joplin began composing with publishing in mind. While Ragtime performance was often improvisational, Joplin’s pieces were meant to be played as written. In Sedalia, he met John Stillwell Stark, an entrepreneur who would publish his first big hit, “Maple Leaf Rag,” in 1899.
That success allowed Joplin to move to this house in St. Louis with his wife Belle. Here he wrote several more hits, including “The Entertainer,” that helped to start a Ragtime music and dance craze in the US and Europe. Joplin’s music was also produced as player piano rolls, and starting in about 1906, as phonograph recordings.
The Ragtime craze only lasted a few years, but it paved the way for the commercial success of two much bigger genres: Jazz and the Blues. St. Louis plays an important role in the stories of each of these forms that began in African American subcultures, made use of syncopation, and sounded “wild” to mainstream listeners. Jazz and the Blues, in turn, contributed the musical foundations for R&B, Rock & Roll, and Hip Hop. (In Rock, the syncopation is called the “backbeat.”)
Shortly after moving to St. Louis, the Joplins had a baby girl who died when she was only a few months old. The couple divorced a few years later. In 1904, Joplin married his second wife Freddie, who passed away only a few months later. Joplin continued writing ragtime but also wrote music in other forms, including two operas. In 1907, he moved to New York to try to get the operas produced.
In the 1970s, Joplin’s music had a resurgence in popularity when it was used in the soundtrack for the popular movie The Sting starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford that takes place in the 1930s. A version of “The Entertainer” recorded for the movie by Marvin Hamlisch hit #1 on the pop charts more than 70 years after Joplin composed it.
In 1984, the owner of Joplin’s former house donated it to the state to become a historic park. Visitors can explore exhibits about Joplin’s life and St. Louis at the turn of the 20th century. These include the “Rosebud Café,” a replica of a real bar and gaming club from that time.
Cover Photo: Kevin Staff, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.