Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from P-T » Sedalia and St. Louis: Ragtime - WHAT IS RAGTIME?, THE RECORDING INDUSTRY PRIOR TO 1917, ST. LOUIS IN THE 1920S,  


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The genesis of ragtime was in the unrecorded and undocumented playing of working pianists during the mid- to late 1800s. These musicians operated as one-man bands, performing at bars, establishments, and parties, often “ragging” popular melodies by using syncopated rhythms. By the time the music solidified in 1897, the centers of ragtime were Sedalia, Missouri, where Scott Joplin lived, and St. Louis, the home of such ragtime composers as Tom Turpin, Louis Chauvin, and Artie Matthews. In addition, nearby Carthage was where the up-and-coming composer James Scott resided, so for the first time in its history Missouri was the home for a major musical style.

Of all the ragtime composers, Scott Joplin towered over the rest. He was born in Texarkana, Texas, where his father played violin and his mother was a banjoist. Joplin learned the piano early and was a professional pianist as a teenager. In time he became a teacher and sang with a quintet, but it was as a composer that Joplin made his mark. In the mid-1880s he moved to St. Louis, working as a soloist in bars and with bands. At the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, early ragtime was performed, and Joplin was quite impressed. He settled in Sedalia the following year, studied harmony and composition, and began to compose seriously. Within two years his works were published by John Stark, who became one of his major champions.

Joplin wrote regular songs, marches, and waltzes, but his rags were most popular. During the late 1890s he often worked at the Maple Leaf Club in Sedalia, and the establishment lent its name to his 1897 composition “Maple Leaf Rag,” which was destined to become the most famous of all the rags. Published in 1899, it only sold 400 copies of sheet music the first year but then became a giant hit in 1900, essentially launching the ragtime era; in time it sold over a million copies of sheet music.

Joplin became known as “The King of Ragtime” due to the high quality of his compositions, his productivity, the fact that his pieces solidified and defined what classic rags were, and because of “Maple Leaf Rag.” He was not the first ragtime composer, since he had been preceded in 1897 by the publication of William Krell’s “Mississippi Rag” and Tom Turpin’s “Harlem Rag,” but he was its biggest success story and most famous celebrity. Ragtime caught on fast in the late 1890s: twenty rags were published in 1897, two years later 120 came out, and Joplin was a large part of the reason.

Sedalia, a small Midwestern town, may seem an odd place to be the center of a major music style; but ragtime, unlike jazz, is as much a composer’s art form as a forum for performers. Joplin enjoyed the quiet city and found the time to Page 3  write many of his most famous rags there. In 1901, however, after John Stark had moved to St. Louis, Joplin also relocated, becoming part of that city’s ragtime community. During his St. Louis period, Joplin evolved, writing such rags as “The Ragtime Dance,” “The Entertainer,” “The Easy Winners,” “Elite Syncopations,” and “Solace,” using a tango rhythm on the last. He was the main inspiration for most of the younger ragtime composers, including James Scott and Joseph Lamb, the latter a talented white composer from New Jersey.

A serious and distinguished man, Joplin wanted his rags to be played as written and not at flashy tempos. He considered ragtime to be art music, and he sought to uplift ragtime from being thought of as bordello and bar music into an art form comparable to Western classical music. In 1903 he wrote the first ragtime opera, A Guest of Honor , about Booker T. Washington’s 1901 dinner at the White House with President Theodore Roosevelt. Joplin formed an opera company and went on a tour of the Midwest, but it was somewhat disastrous. Someone stole the box office receipts at one point, the show was largely ignored by the press, and after a few weeks Joplin was unable to pay the performers. All of his possessions were confiscated, most notably the music from the opera, which was lost forever. Joplin had better luck with his more conventional pieces, writing “Cascades” for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, an event that frequently featured performances by ragtime pianists.

An establishment owned by Tom Turpin called the Rosebud Bar became a major hangout for ragtime pianists and composers in St. Louis during the prime years. Turpin only wrote five rags in his life, but he was an important force in the music, encouraging pianists and hosting jam sessions that gave up-and-coming musicians such as Joe Jordan, Louis Chauvin, and Charlie Warfield an opportunity to show their stuff.

While it lasted, ragtime attracted many composers. In addition to the big three (Joplin, Scott, and Lamb), the major ragtime composers of the classic era included Artie Matthews, Eubie Blake, Charles Hunter, Tony Jackson, Arthur Marshall, and Euday Bowman who wrote “Twelfth Street Rag.” Other than Blake, few of the composers ever recorded. There are no recordings of Scott Joplin (though he did cut a few player-piano rolls), or of the man considered the number two ragtime composer, James Scott. Very few solo pianists recorded before 1917, although banjoists Fred Van Eps and Vess Ossman cut some rags, as did some military bands.

For a period ragtime seemed to be everywhere, spreading beyond Missouri to the rest of the nation. Rags were added to the repertoire of the orchestras of John Philip Sousa and Arthur Pryor and of local ensembles that played band concerts. As with all styles of music that suddenly and unexpectedly catch on, however, businessmen who cared little about art and music managed to turn it into a fad. By 1910 many popular songs were being called rags even though they had no real relation to ragtime. Irving Berlin’s early hit “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” was a major example of a pop song being mistakenly called a rag, and it seemed to symbolize the decline of ragtime. With so many inferior songs being Page 4  called ragtime, by 1915 the general public had become tired of the fake rags and the ragtime fad, and its attention went elsewhere. Few musical styles have faded as quickly or as thoroughly as ragtime did between 1915 and 1920. Replaced in the public mind by the popular songs of Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern and the boisterous jazz music, ragtime was virtually forgotten except as nostalgia, and the ragtime composers either switched to other styles of music or retired altogether.

In 1911 Scott Joplin moved from St. Louis to New York, symbolically ending St. Louis’ reign as the center of the music. Joplin would not last much longer, worn down both by syphilis and frustration at not succeeding with his second ragtime opera Treemonisha , which had only a single performance during his lifetime. He passed away in 1917, by which time ragtime was considered a thing of the past.



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