The Father of Ragtime was a very serious fellow. To compensate, perhaps, for the scorn heaped upon so-called “raggedy music” in his day, Joplin struggled mightily to assert the dignity of his music — and this meant looking askance at vaudeville. But this wasn’t so much the case in his early years. Considered a bit of a child prodigy, young Joplin received a good amount of musical training growing up in his native Texarkana. In the early 1880s at the age of about 14 he began to travel the southern states as an itinerant musician, working black vaudeville houses, minstrel shows, saloons and bawdy houses, where his style of syncopating the rhythms of the popular music of the day excited patrons. He was present at the seminal Chicago World’s fair in 1893, which is where he formed his first band. By 1897, ragtime was a national craze. Ever ambitious, Joplin wrote dozens of rags (some famous in his own day, many more famous in ours), moved to New York, and wrote the opera Treemonisha before finally succumbing to syphillis (sadly common among performers in those days) in 1917. He was only 49; his actual birthdate is unknown. Joplin was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave, an injustice that was not rectified until after the massive Joplin revival that occurred in the wake of the success of the 1973 film The Sting, which used much of Joplin’s music. He received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976.
To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.