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Joplin's Ragtime Style Lives on in Print and Song

American composer and pianist Scott Joplin (1868 - 1917). Credit: MPI/Getty Images.
MPI/Getty Images
American composer and pianist Scott Joplin (1868 - 1917). Credit: MPI/Getty Images.

Scott Joplin was once among America's most popular songwriters. The son of a former slave, the composer's Ragtime music swept the nation more than 100 years ago.

Joplin's house in St. Louis is thought by some to be haunted. A visit to the home inspired author Tananarive Due to write her latest book, Joplin's Ghost.

Due's book brings Joplin into the present as a ghost that is haunting a young R&B singer — a woman who has already survived a crushing encounter with an antique piano.

For those seeking a more concrete connection with Joplin, there are still piano rolls holding his compositions. The composer would have played a piano that punched tiny holes in rolls of paper. When fed into a player piano, the rolls re-create music from Joplin's era, and maybe even his own hand.

St. Louis music collector Trebor Tichner has collected Joplin rolls, but it would be hard to prove that Joplin actually made the piano rolls that bear his name.

One roll in Tichner's collection, however, is likely to have been produced by Joplin's own hand. The playing on the 1916 roll in question is poor, and it's well-known that Joplin was a better composer than he was a player.

Scott Joplin's furniture is gone from the house in St. Louis. Many of the facts of his life are gone, too. And one of his biographers points out that many details of his life are in dispute. What remains is the music he wrote and perhaps the traces of Scott Joplin's hands on the keys of a player piano.

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Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.