In 1916, Joplin recorded the Maple Leaf Rag on a piano roll on the Connorized and Aeolian Uni-Record labels, along with his other ragtime pieces - Something Doing, Magnetic Rag, Ole Miss Rag (composed by W.C. Handy), Weeping Willow and Pleasant Moments - Ragtime Waltz.
It is more carefully constructed than almost all previous ragtime tunes, and the syncopations, especially in the transition between the first and second strain, were arrestingly novel at the time.
While not an extremely difficult piece rhythmically or musically, a pianist must have a well developed command of his or her left arm in order to perform the piece successfully—especially the third section. When it was first published, it was considered significantly more difficult than the average Tin Pan Alley and early ragtime sheet music common at the time.
The Gladiolus Rag, a later composition by Joplin, is a beautifully developed variant of the Maple Leaf Rag, showcasing Joplin's increasing musical sophistication, and is usually played at a somewhat slower tempo. In addition, the first part of Joplin's The Cascades is very close to Maple Leaf Rag's first part.
Joplin wrote the Maple Leaf Rag circa 1897, in honor of the Maple Leaf Club, a black social club that existed briefly during the late 1890s in Sedalia Missouri. Shortly after its completion, Joplin told fellow ragtime composer Arthur Marshall that "the Maple Leaf will make me King of ragtime composers." It was published in September 1899 (finally after Joplin submitted the rag to three publishers) on sheet music by John Stark & Son, after and in its first six months sold 75,000 copies, becoming "the first great instrumental sheet music hit in America."
Over 1 million copies of the sheet music were eventually sold, making Scott Joplin the first musician to sell 1 million copies of a piece of instrumental music. In addition to sales of sheet music, it was also popular in orchestrations for dance bands and brass bands for years.
The tune continued to be in the repertoire of jazz bands decades later, with artists such as the New Orleans Rhythm Kings in the 1920s, and Sidney Bechet in the 1940s giving it up-to-date adaptations, maintaining a timeless quality to it. As an indication of its persistent popularity and recognition, it was performed on phonograph records six times in each of the three decades following its publication In 1930, it makes an appearance in the gangster movie classic, The Public Enemy. As two characters plot a crime, in a scene set in 1914, the tune can be heard being played very slowly in the background, by a pianist still in the process of learning the piece.
The "Maple Leaf Rag" is still a favorite of ragtime pianists, and has been described as an "American institution... still in print and still popular."
As the copyright has expired, the composition is in the public domain. It appears in the soundtracks of hundreds of films, cartoons, commercials, and videogames. Long before the Scott Joplin revival that began with the feature film The Sting, the tune can be heard in the film The Public Enemy from 1931, as in one scene a piano player can be heard slowly working through the piece. Also, Walt Disney used it too (It was played repeatedly through the 1932 Mickey Mouse cartoon "The Whoopee Party").
In 2004 Canadian radio listeners voted it the 39th greatest song of all time.
Maple leaf rag.(GLOBAL NEWSSTAND: ESSAYS, ARGUMENTS, AND OPINIONS FROM AROUND THE WORLD)(Maclean, vol. 118, no. 41)(Periodical review)
Mar 01, 2006; Maclean's, Vol. 118, No. 41, Oct. 10, 2005, Toronto The first issues of what would become Maclean's magazine did not bode well...