Scott Joplin: “The King of Ragtime”


With Minstrelsy on its way out, a new form of music was emerging. This music was called Ragtime. Ragtime is an interesting genre as it is difficult to put an actual definition to. There was so much room for innovation and creativity that, like todays pop and alternative genres is hard to verbally confine with a definition. The best way to distinguish this new music was by its use of syncopation. The syncopation of this genre made the music lively and springy which was fresh and new.

Scott Joplin was, as the title gives away, “The King of Ragtime”. Joplin had always been musically inclined, even at a young age. By the time he was in his twenties, Joplin had been playing as an itinerant pianist in saloons for years, and in 1890 settled in St. Louis to study and develop his new genre of music called “Ragtime”.

After touring for a while with his Texas Medley Quartette, Joplin came out with one of his first compositions, “The Great Crush Collision” around 1896. This piece was inspired by a railroad locomotive crash near Waco Texas. Though this was one of the first pieces, it was not anywhere near as popular as his hit “The Maple Leaf Rag”, named after the business in which he had been working, the Maple Leaf Club. “The Maple Leaf Rag” was later followed by perhaps one of the best known Ragtime pieces of all time, “The Entertainer”. Though many may not know it by name, “The Entertainer” is a tune not soon forgotten, for its spring-like and happy nature would make appearances in several comedy “Picture shows” in the future.

Over the next two decades, Joplin added about 60 songs to his list of compositions and soon moved to New York City to pursue his “Treemonisha” which became the first grand opera composed by an African American. Though Joplin would never see Treemonisha successfully performed in his lifetime, it later won the pulitzer prize in 1976. Joplin died in 1917 at the age of 48, and like many great musicians throughout the years, didn’t receive recognition as a serious composer until nearly a half-century after his death.

“History of Ragtime [article]:Article Description: Performing Arts Encyclopedia, Library of Congress.” History of Ragtime [article]:Article Description: Performing Arts Encyclopedia, Library of Congress. The Library of Congress, 29 Sept. 2006. Web. 28 Jan. 2015.

“Maple Leaf Rag Played by Scott Joplin.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 27 Jan. 2015.

“Scott Joplin – The Entertainer.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2015.

Teichroew, Jacob. “Ragtime (Genre) – Origins, Characteristics, and Composers.” N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2015.




Minstrelsy: What’s That?

Popular music generally reflects the time in which it was produced. Minstrelsy is a term representing a genre of music that arose in the early-to-mid 19th century. During this time period the chains of the civil war were being broken, but the racial tensions were stronger than ever.  The music of this genre exaggerated actual black circumstances and strengthened vicious stereotypes.

Minstrelsy was synonymous with the term blackface. Blackface describes the way in which minstrel entertainers would perform. As if the word itself didn’t already give it away, the performers would paint their faces black and act out exaggerated skits or dance wildly around the stage. They would also perform songs in which the black stereotypes of the day were reinforced. Since this era lacked the technology of recording, what we know of minstrel shows comes from what has been seen and passed on. What we know of minstrel music however, comes from sheet music. One example of minstrel music that is on the more mild side of the spectrum would be Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home”.

When viewing the sheet music to “Old Folks at Home” it becomes apparent that Foster is portraying a runaway slave. He even writes the words as if they are being sung in the dialect of a southern slave, for example, “All de world am sad and dreary ebry where I roam”. This particular piece is portraying a slave that longs to be back on the plantation. This song was written before the end of the Civil War in 1851 and was probably meant to discourage slaves from running away, as well as to entertain whites. “Old Folks at Home” has remained popular throughout history though, as one of the most popular minstrel songs. Here is a link to listen to a version of the song being performed.

Minstrel shows would bring in crowds of middle class white people looking for some good entertainment. They considered this to be exotic as blacks and slavery were merely a distant idea to these pre-civil war northerners. While the acts were dehumanizing as well as inaccurate, this offensive performance did pave the way for black performers to bust onto the scene post Civil War.

Example of a 1950s Minstrel Show:



1. “Old Folks At Home. Suwanee [sic] River. Route to Florida. A Souvenir. – The Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection.” Old Folks At Home. Suwanee [sic] River. Route to Florida. A Souvenir. – The Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection. Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University, 2013. Web. 26 Jan. 2015.

2. “Cotton and Chick Watts Blackface Minstrel Show Comedy.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2015.

3. “OLD FOLKS AT HOME – Original 1851 Verses – Tom Roush.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2015.

4. “Blackface!Minstrel Shows.” Blackface! N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2015.