Tracking Scott Joplin’s Career through Primary Sources

Scott Joplin, now considered the most premier composer of ragtime, led a complicated professional and personal life. He found extreme fame within his traditional ragtimes, including “The Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer,” however, was consistently on the poverty line, forced to sell his possessions and manuscripts. In examining newspaper articles, we can examine the public perception of Joplin and also review these writings with historical perspective. 

Newspaper from Joplin’s early career.

Article describing the Joplin’s opera A Guest of Honor

This article, published in the Plaindealer of Topeka, Kansas, predicts Joplin’s rise to fame following the publication of the Maple Leaf Rag. Joplin had yet to become the “King of Ragtime,” a moniker that he would later inherit. 

This article from The Freeman, an Indianapolis  newspaper, references “The Guest of Honor,” Joplin’s opera. An opera company of 30 toured the opera during the early 1900s, however, nearly all traces of this opera have been lost. In what we could consider the worst streak of archival luck, during the tour, the receipt stubs were stolen, and Joplin was forced to sell his manuscript to pay for the opera’s boarding house fees. We know that this opera existed from these types of articles, however, the opera itself is completely lost. 

Newspaper article describing the end of Joplin’s life

Joplin fell ill to syphilis around 1910, and this article, also from the Freeman, references Joplin’s losing battle. While this newspaper was published in 1916, Joplin struggled with dementia related to his syphilis as early as 1914, and he was hospitalized in January 1917 and died in April. 


“Best on the American Stage. World’s Fair Band Gives Third Grand Ball-Against ‘Jim Crowism’.” Freeman (Indianapolis, Indiana) XVI, no. 7, February 14, 1903: [2]. Readex: African American Newspapers.

“Jack Trotter’s New York Notes of Stage And Sport Stars That Shine On Many Circuits.” Freeman (Indianapolis, Indiana), October 21, 1916: 4. Readex: African American Newspapers.

“Personal Notes.” Plaindealer (Topeka, Kansas) II, no. 35, August 31, 1900: [3]. Readex: African American Newspapers.

“Scott Joplin A King His Long Suit Is Catchy Rag Time Music. [Illegible] Raised In.” Sedalia Times (Sedalia, Missouri), June 13, 1903: 1. Readex: African American Newspapers. 


Friar, Kendra Kay. “Scott Joplin: A Guide for Music Educators PART I—A Ragtime Life.” General music today 34, no. 3 (2021): 29–35.

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