11 Of The Greatest Ragtime Composers You Should Know

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

At the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, ragtime music swept across America and Europe. This captivating art form is marked by offbeat accents and unexpected rhythmic patterns.

There are many musicians that have made a significant impact on American music, but not many people know about the ragtime composers. These men and women created some of the most memorable melodies in American history.

In this post, we’re going to take a look at 11 of the greatest ragtime composers and explore their lives and music. Without further ado, let’s get started!

1. Scott Joplin

Famous African-American composer Scott Joplin had one of the shortest careers in ragtime history, yet he is affectionately known by many as the King of Ragtime.

He was born in 1868 in Texas. His family members worked as railway workers for a living and as musicians as a hobby. Joplin, therefore, grew up playing music, and by the time he was in his 20s, he left his job as a railway worker himself to pursue a musical career.

Joplin traveled throughout the United States, making money as a piano teacher, with a number of students going on to become famous ragtime artists themselves, including Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden (who we’ll look at later).

He is most well known for composing “The Entertainer” and “The Maple Leaf Rag,” which is probably the most famous rag of all time and sold 75,000 copies of sheet music in the first six months alone!

In 1916, Joplin unfortunately developed syphilis-induced dementia, passing away three months later. He was only 48 years old.

2. Jelly Roll Morton

Ferdinand Joseph Lemoth, a.k.a.Jelly Roll Morton, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1890, with his family being part of the Creole community.

He had a tough upbringing and began playing the piano in brothels at the age of 14, earning him the nickname Jelly Roll Morton.

He was close to his grandmother during this period of time, but she disowned him when she found out where he was playing his music.

In the early 1900s, Jelly Roll started touring the South in minstrel shows, and by 1920, he was composing in Hollywood and Chicago. “Wolverine Blues” was one of his most famous pieces during this period.

In the late 1920s and 1930s, his career took off in New York, including his “King Porter Stomp,” which became Benny Goodman’s first real hit.

Nevertheless, Jelly Roll continued to struggle financially and faced racial segregation until his death in 1941 from respiratory problems, a complication of a stabbing he suffered in 1938.

3. James P. Johnson

One of the pivotal figures in American music is James Price Johnson. He was born in 1894 in New Jersey, though he spent his formative years immersed in New York City’s vibrant music culture. His mother, a self-taught pianist and church choir singer, played a significant role in fostering his musical upbringing.

As an admirer of the esteemed Scott Joplin, Johnson turned his passion for music into a career in 1912 when he secured his first job as a pianist. This marked the launch of his journey in music.

Soon, Johnson emerged as a household name on the East Coast, gaining widespread popularity as a ragtime pianist. Among his array of notable works, “Harlem Strut” and “Carolina Shout” hold a special place and continue to be celebrated for their timeless appeal.

The Great Depression dealt a blow to Johnson’s career as it did to many others. However, he managed to stay afloat through grants and by hosting his highly successful “Spirituals to Swing” concerts in the late 1930s.

Johnson’s life came to an end in 1955, four years after a severe stroke in 1951. Nevertheless, his legacy in American music continues to inspire and influence generations of musicians.

4. Eubie Blake

Next up, we have James Hubert “Eubie” Blake, a significant figure in the annals of ragtime music, who was born in 1887 in Baltimore, Maryland. Out of his numerous siblings (he remembers having ten), he was the sole one to survive past childhood.

Blake’s exceptional musical talent surfaced early when, as a young boy, he ventured into a music store and started teaching himself to play the organ. Recognizing his raw potential, the store manager persuaded the Blake family to purchase an organ. Subsequently, Blake received formal music lessons from the organist at his local church.

Blake started to pen down the melody for his now-iconic composition, “Charleston Rag,” which he had conceived many years prior. This piece marked the beginning of his prolific career as a composer.

Blake’s later career saw remarkable success, particularly with his 1969 album The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake. His fame led to numerous appearances on popular television shows like The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The Merv Griffin Show.

Blake’s life, spanning almost a century, was dedicated to music. His long and illustrious career came to an end just shy of his 100th birthday, leaving behind an enduring legacy.

5. Joseph Lamb

Born in 1887 in New Jersey, Joseph Francis Lamb holds a unique place in music history as one of the few non-African American artists noted for his contributions to ragtime music.

From a young age, Lamb exhibited a strong affinity for piano, teaching himself to play. In 1907, a chance encounter with his idol, Scott Joplin, while purchasing Joplin’s music marked a turning point in his career.

Impressed by Lamb’s talent, Joplin introduced him to John Stark, a music publisher. This endorsement paved the way for the publication of Lamb’s music, and from 1908 to 1919, Stark published a total of 12 of Lamb’s rags.

His compositions varied stylistically, with some being heavier and dominated by melody. These included pieces like “Ethiopia Rag” and “The Top Liner Rag.” In contrast, his lighter works featured narrower melodies, as exemplified by “Champagne Rag” and “Bohemia Rag.”

Despite his death from a heart attack at the age of 72, Lamb continued to compose music throughout his life, leaving an indelible mark on the world of ragtime.

6. Arthur Marshall

Next, born in Missouri in 1881, Arthur Owen Marshall was introduced to the world of ragtime music at an early age. At just 15, he had the unique opportunity of hosting Scott Joplin in his hometown of Sedalia, with Joplin staying with his family.

Marshall, along with his friend Scott Hayden (who we’ll look at next), became protegés of Joplin, learning the intricacies of ragtime music. Further expanding his musical knowledge, Marshall studied music at George R. Smith College, earning a teaching license.

Despite the racial discrimination prevalent at the time, Marshall was undeterred, participating in as many music tours and competitions as possible. His collaborations with Joplin were noteworthy, with their joint effort “Swipsey Cake Walk” standing out as a significant piece.

Although Marshall announced his retirement from music in 1917, his passion for ragtime led him back to participate in various ragtime revivals later in his life. He passed away in 1968, leaving behind a rich musical legacy.

7. Scott Hayden

Born in Missouri in 1882, Scott Hayden began his musical journey in high school when he, alongside Arthur Marshall, became a student of the famed ragtime composer Scott Joplin. This bond deepened when Hayden lived with the Joplin family for some time and was further strengthened when Hayden’s sister-in-law married Joplin.

Despite his promising start in music, Hayden’s life was marked by adversity. His first wife, Nora, tragically passed away in 1901 during childbirth. Stricken with grief, Hayden relocated to Chicago, where he remarried and found employment as an elevator operator.

Hayden’s life was cut short due to tuberculosis in 1915. However, despite his short career and personal hardships, he made significant contributions to ragtime music. His collaborations with Joplin resulted in well-regarded pieces such as “Something Doing” and “Kismet Rag.”

In addition to his collaborations, Hayden also composed solo works. Among these was “Pear Blossoms,” a piece he sadly never managed to complete. Although his life was filled with challenges, Hayden’s influence on ragtime music is indisputable.

8. James Scott

Born to former slaves in 1885 in Missouri, James Sylvester Scott began his musical journey in unlikely circumstances. In 1902, he started working at a music store, initially washing windows. However, his affinity for music soon led him to the store’s pianos, and his impromptu performances quickly charmed patrons.

Recognizing Scott’s talent, the shop owner started publishing his work, leading to the creation of notable pieces like “A Summer Breeze,” “March and Two Step,” and “On the Pike March.”

In 1905, Scott embarked on a quest to find Scott Joplin, who introduced him to music publisher John Stark. This introduction proved beneficial for Scott, as Stark would go on to publish many of his compositions, including the celebrated “Frog Legs Rag.”

However, Scott’s life and career began a downward spiral as motion pictures replaced theatre in popularity. Following the death of his wife, he moved in with his cousin.

Despite these personal and professional setbacks, Scott never lost his passion for music. Continuing to teach, compose, and lead an eight-member band, Scott remained devoted to his craft until his death at the age of 52 from dropsy.

9. Ben R. Harney

Born in 1872, Benjamin Robertson Harney had his origins contested among historians, with debates regarding whether he was born in Kentucky or Tennessee and whether he was white or African American. It was eventually determined that he was a white individual from a prominent intellectual family.

In his early years, Harney received formal piano training. However, as a teenager, he found himself more drawn to the pulsating rhythms of ragtime music that echoed from the saloons in Louisville.

This passion prompted him to begin composing music. His early works, notably “You Been a Good Old Wagon but You Done Broke Down” and “Cake Walk in the Sky,” gained recognition in the early 1890s.

In 1896, Harney made the move to New York City, which marked a significant milestone in his career. In addition to his performances, he authored Ben Harney’s Rag Time Instructor, a guide on the nuances of ragtime music.

Despite his active career, Harney’s life was cut short by health issues. A heart attack in 1928 marked the end of his musical journey, and a decade later, another heart attack led to his death at the age of 66.

10. Tom Turpin

Born in Savannah, Georgia, in the early 1870s, Thomas Million John Turpin left an indelible mark on the landscape of ragtime music. Although details about his early life remain obscure, it’s known that he opened a saloon in his twenties, which became a popular gathering spot for ragtime artists of the era.

Turpin’s composition “Harlem Rag,” composed in the 1890s, is believed to be the first rag published by an African American musician, signifying a significant milestone in music history.

A towering figure, both literally and figuratively, Turpin stood over 6 feet tall and weighed approximately 300 pounds. He was so tall for his time that his piano had to be raised on blocks for him to play comfortably.

Apart from composing and publishing renowned rags such as “Ragtime Nightmare” and “St. Louis Rag,” Turpin was also a notable figure in the political sphere. He served as a deputy constable and was considered one of the first politically active African American individuals in the St. Louis area.

Turpin’s death around 1922 is shrouded in mystery, much like many aspects of his life. Despite this, his contributions to ragtime music and his influence as a trailblazer in his community are enduring aspects of his legacy.

11. Fats Waller

Born in 1904 in New York City, Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller was the fifth of eleven children to survive infancy. His father, a reverend, and his mother, a musician, undoubtedly influenced his early exposure to music. By six years old, he was already playing piano; by ten, he was playing the organ.

By the time he was 16, he had already composed his first rag, demonstrating his immense talent. His initial works included tunes like “Muscle Shoals Blues” and “Birmingham Blues.”

Waller’s success continued to grow, and in 1935, his composition “A Little Bit Independent” claimed the top spot on Your Hit Parade for two whole weeks.

Despite his sudden death from pneumonia in 1943, Waller’s musical career was full of remarkable achievements. He was in the midst of a cross-country tour, and his hit song “Early to Bed” was enjoying a successful run on Broadway. Waller’s contributions to music, particularly in the realm of ragtime and jazz, continue to be celebrated and enjoyed.

Summing Up Our List Of Famous Ragtime Composers

As you can see, ragtime is a style of music that not only has an interesting history but also has powerful influences on other genres.

And while you probably have heard of Scott Joplin, some of the other ragtime composers on our list are ones that not many have heard of.

Are there any that you think we’ve missed off? Let us know, and we’ll add them to our list of ragtime composers soon.

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.