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The Legacy of Ragtime Music: From Scott Joplin to Jelly Roll Morton

Introduction to Ragtime Music

Music is universal, and every genre has a unique story behind its origin. Ragtime music is a distinct genre that gained popularity in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

It was the music of the African American community, and it has a rich musical and cultural heritage. In this article, we will dive into the definition of ragtime music and its historical background.

We will also discuss the importance of ragtime composers and highlight the significance of one the most famous ragtime musicians,

Scott Joplin.

Definition and Historical Background

Ragtime music is an American musical genre characterized by its syncopated rhythm and its “ragged” or broken melodies. It emerged from the Mississippi Delta region in the late 19th century and spread throughout America by the early 20th century.

The genre was primarily played on the piano, and it quickly became popular in bars, dance halls, and brothels. Ragtime music gained its name from the practice of performers playing an original tune and then improvising new melodies while adding syncopated rhythms.

Ragtime music has its roots in African American culture. The genre borrowed heavily from the musical traditions of the African diaspora and incorporated elements of classical music.

Ragtime music was initially popular among African Americans, but it gained widespread popularity among the white middle class by the early 20th century.

Importance of Ragtime Composers

Ragtime composers have left an indelible mark on American music. Ragtime music was instrumental in shaping American music and creating a unique sound that is still recognizable today.

Some ragtime composers, like

Scott Joplin, have become household names, while others have been forgotten. The melodies of ragtime music were memorable and easy to play, which contributed to its popularity.

Ragtime music inspired other genres such as jazz and blues and influenced famous musicians like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. One of the most significant impacts of ragtime music was breaking down racial barriers in music.

Before ragtime, most popular music was strictly segregated. However, with the rise of ragtime, African American musicians could perform for white audiences and gain widespread recognition.

Ragtime music was an essential step in the struggle for civil rights for African Americans in music.

Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin is perhaps the most famous ragtime composer of all time. He was born in Texas in 1867, and his family was among the first generation of African Americans born into slavery to become free.

Joplin’s father was a former slave, and his mother was a freeborn Black woman. Joplin earned his living as a railway worker before pursuing a career in music.

Joplin learned to play the piano at a young age and quickly became proficient. He began teaching piano at age 16 and eventually worked his way to St. Louis, where he became a successful composer and performer.

Joplin’s most famous compositions include “The Entertainer” and “The Maple Leaf Rag.”

Joplin’s legacy extends far beyond his famous compositions. He is credited with elevating ragtime music to a level of respectability, and he was the first African American composer to receive acclaim in the classical music world.

Joplin also became known as the “King of Ragtime,” and his contributions to music have been celebrated for over a century.


Ragtime music continues to be a vital part of American music. Its unique style and syncopated rhythm still inspire musicians today.

The genre’s historical significance in the fight for civil rights for African Americans cannot be overstated. Ragtime music paved the way for other genres to break down the barriers of segregation and inspired musicians for generations.

Scott Joplin, one of the most famous ragtime musicians, will forever be remembered for his contributions to the genre and his legacy in American music.

Jelly Roll Morton

Jelly Roll Morton is another legendary figure in the history of ragtime music. Born Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe in New Orleans in 1890, he grew up in the city’s vibrant Creole community.

His nickname, “Jelly Roll,” was a term that referred to a variety of flavors mixed together, similar to the mixture of cultures and musical styles that he incorporated into his music. Morton’s musical career began in the red-light district of Storyville, where he played piano in the city’s famous brothels.

He later toured in minstrel shows and vaudeville acts, perfecting his distinctive style. In 1923, he recorded “Jelly Roll Blues,” which became the first published jazz composition.

Morton’s compositions, such as “King Porter Stomp,” were unique in their complex harmonies and rhythm structures and were highly influential in the development of jazz. Despite his success as a musician, Morton faced many challenges.

Racial segregation was a significant issue in American society, and it affected the music industry as well. Even though Morton was a top-tier talent, he struggled to find work in some parts of the country due to his race.

Additionally, financial difficulties led to periods where he was unable to record or tour. Morton’s health also deteriorated in later years, and he died in 1941 from respiratory problems.

Despite his struggles, Morton’s contribution to the development of ragtime music left a lasting impact that continues to inspire musicians today. James P.


James P. Johnson, born in New Jersey in 1894, was the son of a musical family.

His father was a violinist, and his mother was a pianist. Johnson showed great talent at an early age and became a fan of ragtime legend

Scott Joplin.

He received formal training at the age of 16 at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Johnson’s career as a ragtime pianist took off in the 1920s when he began recording jazz solos.

He became famous for his piano style, which blended classical technique with the syncopated rhythms of ragtime. Johnson’s career took a hit during the Great Depression, with the public’s interest in jazz declining.

Despite this setback, he continued to work in music and played at the famous “Spirituals to Swing” concerts in the late 1930s. Johnson faced health issues in the latter part of his career, suffering a stroke in 1951 that temporarily paralyzed his right side.

However, he continued to work on his playing, focusing on his left hand technique, and was eventually able to resume his career. He continued to compose and arrange music, returning to prominence in the 1950s.

Johnson passed away in 1955, but his contributions to the development of ragtime and jazz music continue to influence and inspire musicians around the world.


Ragtime music has a rich history, and the contributions of musicians like Morton and Johnson are invaluable to American music. These musicians overcame significant challenges to create groundbreaking music that still resonates with audiences today.

Their unique styles and contributions helped to shape the sound of American music, and their legacy lives on in the works of countless musicians who continue to build upon their foundation.

Eubie Blake

Eubie Blake was born in Baltimore in 1887, to parents who were former slaves. As a child, he showed a raw talent for music and began taking organ lessons at a local church.

Blake went on to hone his skills playing in local clubs and even in bordello establishments. His unique sound eventually caught the attention of prominent ragtime figures such as James P.

Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith. Blake’s career skyrocketed in 1921 when his hit “Charleston Rag” became one of the most famous pieces of ragtime music ever recorded.

He went on to record several more successful hits and even composed music for Broadway shows. Despite his early successes, Blake had financial difficulties in the 1930s.

However, he made a comeback in the 1960s, with the release of his album “The Eighty-Six Years of

Eubie Blake.” He continued to perform for enthusiastic audiences and even appeared on several television shows. Blake passed away in 1983, but his contributions to ragtime music will always be remembered.

Joseph F. Lamb

Joseph F.

Lamb was a self-taught pianist born in New Jersey in 1887. He developed an early interest in music and began composing his own works.

In the early 1900s, he met

Scott Joplin, his biggest inspiration and influence. Joplin took an interest in Lamb’s compositions and helped to get them published.

Lamb’s musical style was melody-dominant, and his compositions were known for their upbeat and catchy tunes. Among his most famous works are “Ethiopia Rag,” “Top Liner Rag,” “Champagne Rag,” and “Bohemia Rag.” His music had a lighter, more playful feel compared to other ragtime composers, making it easier and more enjoyable to listen to.

Despite his talent, Lamb’s music wasn’t widely recognized until the 1950s when a renewed interest in ragtime music sparked a revival. Today, his music remains popular among musicians and fans of the genre.


The contributions of

Eubie Blake and Joseph F. Lamb to the development of ragtime music are immeasurable.

Both overcame significant challenges to create groundbreaking music. Blake’s hit “Charleston Rag” and his album “The Eighty-Six Years of

Eubie Blake” continue to resonate with audiences.

Meanwhile, Lamb’s unique style and catchy melodies have made him a favorite among fans of the genre. The legacy of these two musicians lives on in their music, and their impact on American music will always be celebrated.

Arthur Marshall

Arthur Marshall was born in Missouri in 1881 and became one of

Scott Joplin’s star pupils. He attended a music school in Sedalia, Missouri, where Joplin was teaching, and developed a close working relationship with his teacher.

Their collaborations produced several successful works, including the popular “Swipsey Cake Walk,” which is still performed today. Despite his talent and achievements, Marshall retired from music at the age of 29.

He announced in 1910 that he was leaving the music industry to pursue other interests. He led a quiet and private life in Missouri until the ragtime revival of the 1950s when his music was once again celebrated by fans of the genre.

He made some appearances and even recorded some of his earlier works. Marshall died in 1968, but his contributions to ragtime music remain significant.

Scott Hayden

Scott Hayden, born in Missouri in 1882, grew up in the same town as

Scott Joplin and lived with the Joplin family for a time. Like

Arthur Marshall, he learned from the same music school and studied under Joplin’s guidance.

Hayden became known for his compositions and collaborations with his mentor. One of his most famous works was “Something Doing,” which he co-wrote with Joplin.

However, Hayden’s personal life was marked by tragedy. His wife passed away in 1909, and he was later diagnosed with tuberculosis, a disease that plagued him for years.

Despite his illness, Hayden continued to compose music. One of his most notable works was “Pear Blossoms,” which he completed while recuperating from his illness.

Sadly, Hayden’s life was cut short, and he passed away in 1915 at the age of 33. He left behind an unfinished piece, a testament to his talent and the tragedy of his untimely death.


Arthur Marshall and

Scott Hayden may not be as widely recognized as some of their contemporaries, but their contributions to ragtime music cannot be understated. Both were talented musicians who learned from the great

Scott Joplin and collaborated with him on several successful works.

Marshall’s early retirement and subsequent return to music illustrate the unpredictable nature of the industry, while Hayden’s personal struggles and early death are a reminder of the fleeting nature of life. Their music remains a testament to their legacies and will continue to inspire musicians for generations to come.

James Scott

James Scott was born in Missouri in 1885 to parents who were former slaves. He began working at a music store in his teens, where he gained an appreciation for the piano and began composing his own music.

By the early 1900s, Scott had earned a reputation for his piano compositions, which included works such as “A Summer Breeze,” “March and Two Step,” and “On the Pike March.”

Despite his talent, Scott faced many struggles in the music industry. He initially tried to publish his music himself but was unsuccessful.

However, publisher John Stark recognized Scott’s talent and began publishing his work, starting with “Frog Legs Rag,” which became one of his most famous pieces. Scott’s career declined after the rise of motion pictures, which led to the decline of theater music.

Scott also suffered from deteriorating health throughout his life, and he passed away in 1938. Ben R.


Ben R. Harney was born in either Tennessee or Kentucky in 1871 and received formal piano lessons as a child.

As a teenager, he became interested in ragtime music and began composing his own works. Harney’s most famous composition was “Cake Walk in the Sky,” which was the first ragtime piece to sell over a million copies.

Harney moved to New York in 1898 and began performing in clubs and theaters. He eventually published his own instructional book, “Ben Harney’s Rag Time Instructor,” which became popular among musicians of the time.

Harney’s career took a hit in 1912 when he suffered a heart attack, which affected his ability to perform. However, he continued to be involved in music, producing ragtime pieces and mentoring younger musicians.

Harney passed away in 1938 at the age of 66.


James Scott and Ben R. Harney were important figures in the development of ragtime music.

Both faced challenges in their careers, from struggles with getting their music published to declining popularity due to changing tastes in music and health issues. However, their talents and contributions to the genre cannot be

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