5 Scott Joplin Piano Pieces to Know

This blog post is part of my Ragtime Project, which encompasses an upcoming EP of Ragtime-inspired music, blog posts about the history of the music, and a forthcoming self-published collection of essay about what in this music and its history resonates with me as a performer and composer.

Content warning: racist drawing accompanying 5th (last) piece discussed
What is a content warning?

1. Maple Leaf Rag (1899)

Maple Leaf Rag, as played by Scott Joplin on a piano roll

Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag (1899) was the first piece of written music to sell 1 million copies. It also set the standard for the Ragtime sub-genre “Classical Ragtime,” a phrase coined by one of Joplin’s primary music publishers, John Stark. Countless imitation and inspiration pieces followed. A notable one is Jelly Roll Morton’s Maple Leaf Stomp (1938), an adaptation of the rag into the stomp style.

It took years for Joplin to convince a publisher to take on his masterpiece. The financial success of Maple Leaf Rag enabled Stark to relocate his publishing business from Sedalia, MO to St. Louis, MO to New York, NY. While Joplin also benefited from the success of Maple Leaf Rag, he was only granted a 2% royalty for each copy sold.

Maple Leaf Stomp, as played by Jelly Roll Morton

Joplin’s own Gladiolus Rag (1907) was heavily inspired by Maple Leaf Rag. Some consider it to be even more refined than the original.

Gladiolus Rag, as played by Joshua Rifkin in his album Scott Joplin Piano Rags (1970). This album was among the catalysts for the ragtime revival of the 1970s and was nominated for a Grammy award.

2. Great Crush Collision (1896)

A piano roll performance of Great Crush Collision

This piece was written to commemorate the train crash in “Crush, TX.” The train crash was a marketing scheme for the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad Company. They built a fake town and named Crush after the railway agent William Crush who planned the event. Crush found two trains that were going to be retired and commissioned them to crash into each other, head-on. About 40,000 people showed up for the spectacle, including Scott Joplin. Two people died and many were injured, but spectators still rushed toward the collision to find a piece of the exploded trains as a souvenir.

More on the Crush Collision.

3. Bethena – A Concert Waltz (1905)

Bethena, as played by Joshua Rifkin in his album Scott Joplin Piano Rags (1970).

While rags are generally in a duple meter, there are ample rag waltzes in the literature. Bethena is said to be among Scott Joplin’s most masterful rag waltzes.

Bethena, as played by the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble under the direction of Gunther Schuller.

4. Solace (1909)

Solace, from the Motion Picture soundtrack of Sting (1973), which played a role in the 1970s ragtime revival.

Subtitled “A Mexican Serenade,” this is the only known Scott Joplin piece to utilize tango elements. Pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941) took this idea further, coining the phrase “Spanish Tinge.”

5. Original Rags (1899)

Original Rags on a pianola

This is the first Scott Joplin rag ever published. The original credits on the sheet music cover read “Picked By Scott Joplin” and “Arranged By Chas. N. Daniels.”

The racist imagery on the cover of Original Rags. From Wikipedia.

The term “picked” implies multiple meanings. This could refer to the phrase “picking the piano,” which was a slang term for Ragtime music. The second meaning could be in reference to rag-picking, or picking trash off the street. This meaning seems more intentional when considering the sheet music cover design, which depicts an elderly Black man picking up trash in front of a dilapidated cabin. The imagery is deeply racist, and unfortunately very commonplace for sheet music published in that era (late 1800s thru mid 1910s).

Ragtime scholar Rudi Blesh suggests that Charles Daniels’ name appears most likely because he was the one who suggested that the rag be published and it is unlikely that he made substantial – or any – musical contributions. This crediting practice may have been common-place as a way to help budding composers break into the industry. Years later, Scott Joplin gave up-and-coming composer Joseph Lamb permission to use his name on Lamb’s first published work, Sensation Rag (1908).

Pianist Cory Hall performs Sensation Rag

Are these the pieces you would include on your list? Let me know in the comments!

Learn More About Ragtime

This is a collection of the sources I have used for my research on ragtime. I am always looking for more places to learn, so please let me know if you have any recommendations.


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: