The original Ragtime Kid of the 1890s
by Floyd Levin
A penny postcard actually cost one cent back in 1950! This magnificent chunk of information came to my attention while browsing through my files in search of some interesting facts about my friend Brun Campbell. (The ‘files’ are actually several large cartons stuffed with letters, clippings, photos, and accumulated trivia which, I keep telling myself, should be sifted, sorted, and filed — someday!)
The postmark on the card was August 29, 1950 mailed in Venice, Calif. and it stated:
I just brought a box of 15 records of ‘12th Street Rag’ played by Euday Bowman, the composer. I got them from the estate. There were only 600 in the estate which have all been sold. They cost me $1.50 each. While they last, I am selling them for $2.00 per copy. If you want one at that price, drop over after the 11th September. I have been presented with a life membership card by the New Orleans Jazz Club. I have several such cards. Best wishes
Known as ‘The Original Ragtime Kid’ back in the 1890s, Brun had quit professional music in 1908. He was now 66 years old and earned his living as a barber. His small shop in Venice was the meeting place for several of the local ragtime enthusiasts who enjoyed hearing Brun’s endless tales about the men who created ragtime. He very vividly recalled most of the musicians who played in the Market—18th Street—Chestnut area of St. Louis before the turn of the century.
Brun Campbell greets Kid Ory
A customer was in his chair when I entered Brun’s shop to claim my copy of the Bowman record. I thumbed through a worn copy of National Geographic while my friend completed his task. When the customer departed, Brun hung the Closed sign on the door, pulled the shade and invited me to relax with him. It was a hot September afternoon and he felt like talking. His mind was crammed with memories of the ragtime era and he always welcomed an attentive listener.
Brun told me about the first rag he had ever heard, a two-step called Mississippi Rag written by William Kell (Krell) in 1897. This was shortly followed by Tom Turpin’s Harlem Rag, the first ragtime piece published by a Negro composer. Campbell recalled Turpin’s lightning-fast St. Louis style. Turpin[,] whose real name was Tom Million Turner (Turpin), operated several gambling houses, dance halls, cafes, and sporting houses in St. Louis’ bawdy district. His death in 1922 brought an end to an era that saw the birth and development of ragtime music.
Campbell remembered many of the St. Louis ragtime masters. He had particular praise for Louis Chauvin, a young student of Tom Turpin’s who became one of ragtime’s greatest pianists. While Chauvin’s fame was primarily as a performer, Brun felt that Turpin had probably incorporated several of Chauvin’s ideas in his compositions. Louis Chauvin’s name appears on Scott Joplin’s Heliotrope Rag (Heliotrope Bouquet) which indicates that Joplin also probably drew from the young pianists ideas.
Most of the great ragtime piano players worked in Tom Turpin’s establishments. Brun’s stories were generously sprinkled with tales about Arthur Marshall, Otis Saunders, Sam Patterson, Charley Johnson, and Euday Bowman. Eventually, his conversation would always lead to his personal hero, Scott Joplin. Joplin’s famous Maple Leaf Rag, published by John Stark in 1899, certainly must be termed the classic of rags. His tremendous influence on the American music scene cannot be overestimated. Brun looked upon Joplin as the creator of a genuine form of serious music that later became the foundation of traditional American jazz.
While St. Louis did play an important part in the colourful history of ragtime, it was actually about 100 miles away, in the small town of Sedalia, Missouri, where the music’s basic roots were initially established. No one really knows why Sedalia had the distinction of fathering this exciting new sound. One reasonable theory refers to the old George R. Smith School of Music in Sedalia which attracted many young Negro musicians from the mid-west. Scott Joplin went to Smith College to study harmony and composition. He wrote The Original Rags in 1897 while attending the Sedalia school.
Brun Campbell was about 15 years old when he met Scott Joplin; this would have been about 1900. He learned to play Joplin’s tunes from the original manuscripts and proudly reminded me that he was Joplin’s only white pupil. In 1950, Brun played Maple Leaf Rag and Sunflower Slow Drag exactly as Joplin had taught him more than half a century earlier. Here was a living link with the men who created ragtime!
Scott Joplin was born in Texarkana, Texas on November 24, 1868. During his lifetime, he published almost 70 compositions and wrote two completed operas, but Maple Leaf Rag will always stand as his monumental achievement. Joplin was very enthusiastic about his opera Treemonisha which filled 230 pages when the piano version was published in 1911. It was performed only once. Joplin could not interest producers in financing the huge project. Finally, in 1915, at his own expense, Scott Joplin presented the single performance in an effort to secure backers. He produced the opera without scenery or an orchestra. He personally played the entire piano score. The reviews were not favourable and the show closed after a single performance. Joplin never recovered from his great disappointment. He brooded and became ill and died in Manhattan State Hospital on September (April) 1, 1917 at the age of 49. His request that Maple Leaf Rag be played at his funeral was not approved by his widow Lottie Joplin. His funeral was a memorable event attended by most musical luminaries of that time.
About six months after our long conversation in his barber shop, I received the following letter from Brun Campbell:
It is with pleasure that I can now tell you on April 17 (1951) at Sedalia, Mo., a great event will take place there memorializing Scott Joplin. The Sedalia Men’s Choral Club will present the Hubbard High School with a bronze plaque in memory of Scott Joplin for what he did in early American music. The plaque will be permanently placed in the music room of Hubbard High School. Fox will take a newsreel of the event also two scrolls will be made. One to be sent to Mrs. Joplin and the other goes to Brun Campbell. Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag will be played by a Sedalian and The Choral Club will sing a fitting song in memory of Scott Joplin. A transcription by the radio station will be made and sent to N.Y. to be rebroadcast over Mutual Network. Prominent speakers from Sedalia will participate in the event. I am trying to lure Louis Armstrong to present the scroll to Mrs. Joplin on a newsreel on behalf of Sedalia and myself. There is more, but I can’t tell you all at present.
You are fortunate in having Dink Johnson as your pianist. He plays in the old Sedalia style, not New Orleans. I wish you success and I hope you have a wonderful evening. So long.
sincerely, Brun Campbell
(Dink Johnson was the scheduled guest at the forthcoming meeting of the young Southern California Hot Jazz Society. I had been publicizing his appearance on my radio programme and referred to him as ‘a New Orleans style pianist’. Brun took exception to this reference in the last paragraph of his letter!)
To document the Scott Joplin tribute mentioned in Campbell’s letter, my files also disclosed a long forgotten copy of The Kansas City Star dated April 16, 1951 with the bold headlines:
‘RAGTIME PIONEERS IN SEDALIA, MO.
GAVE THAT MUSIC A BIG BOOST
Scott Joplin to be memorialized by The Choral Club tomorrow night. Composed many off-beat numbers which Americans were playing in the first two decades of this century.’
The lead story on the editorial page under the byline of Clyde B. Neibarger, The Star’s musical editor begins:
‘Hit the offbeat with your right hand up here in the treble, while you stay right on the beat with your left hand down here in the bass (sic). This bit of instruction deals with the rhythmic ingredients of the syncopated cakewalking craze called piano ragtime that swept the country before the turn of the century . . .’
Mr Neibarger continues through almost half a page of Sedalia history and adds:
‘S. Brunson Campbell, nicknamed ‘The Ragtime Kid’, says Kansas City, too, can claim the credit for the ragtime fad. Campbell took lessons from Scott Joplin in Sedalia, Mo. in 1898. Currently his activities and articles about ragtime have boosted interest in ragtime. He is striving now to promote the making of a Hollywood movie about Scott Joplin . . .’
During the several years I knew Brun Campbell, he seemed obsessed with the dream of popularizing ragtime in general and his personal hero, Scott Joplin in particular. He wrote many articles that were published in JAZZ JOURNAL and the old RECORD CHANGER magazine dealing with his favourite subject. He also wrote a barrage of letters to music publishers, record firms, radio stations, and film producers urging that they provide pure forms of ragtime for the public to enjoy. Assisted by Ray Avery, Brun recorded a few ragtime solos for the Brun label to demonstrate the pure forms of his music. These records were blank on one side. (‘If they want to hear two tunes, let them buy two records!’ Brun could be cantankerous!)
This is what Brun had to say about Scott Joplin:
‘His music was in the finest traditions; and in my opinion, he deserves the same sort of acclaim given to the old classical masters. Scott Joplin was a pioneer who carved his music from the pulse of a new nation. He adhered to the guide posts of many of the old classical traditions, but what Scott Joplin created, despite its turbulent path, may eventually eclipse even the undying greatness of the old masters he revered.’
Brun was disturbed by the various hybrid forms of ragtime that had achieved commercial popularity; he felt that these distortions completely missed the point and lost the grace and beauty of pure ragtime. It was as these purest forms of ragtime that found their way to New Orleans to later appear in the music of Tony Jackson, Jelly Roll Morton, and Clarence Williams. Kansas City Jazz took its inspiration from the same roots and the aura of Sedalia is evident in the works of Bennie Moten, Julia Lee and Pete Johnson. Sophisticated New York musicians also drew heavily from the midwest innovators. Proof of this can be heard in the early efforts of Luckey Roberts, Willie The Lion Smith, Jack The Bear, and James P. Johnson. The spell of ragtime can also be felt in the styles of Chicagoans like Pine Top Smith, Meade Lux Lewis, and Albert Ammons.
The ragtime influence also fell into the eager hands of commercially minded Tin Pan Alley publishers who gleefully rushed into the scene to provide popularized versions that greatly diluted the original sound. In fact, many of the tunes employing the word Rag in their titles contained little, if any, of the basic ragtime ingredients. (Want to hear ‘The Swanee River’ played in ragtime? Come on along!) The awful products of the so-called Ragtime Era of popular music were viewed with disgust by Brun and his friends. They overcame the bitter taste of Tin Pan Alley’s efforts with the sweet reminder that Maple Leaf and Original Rags were constructed from a much finer fabric than ever could be woven in the workshops of Irving Berlin.
While most of Brun’s conversations reflected his tremendous admiration for the men who had created ragtime, he also recognized the talents of several young men who were actively keeping his beloved music before the public. He often expressed great fondness for the playing of Armand Hug in New Orleans. He referred to Hug as ‘one of the greatest in this generation!’ Wally Rose, carefully coached by Brun, was another of his favourites. Campbell also had kind words for such youngsters as Don Ewell, Johnny Wittwer, Knocky Parker, Marvin Ash, Ralph Sutton, and Burt Bales. It is interesting to note that most of these fine pianists are still exponents of ragtime music.
Brun, at 66, relentlessly pursued his driving efforts to place the colourful history of ragtime carefully in its proper historical perspective. Shortly before his death in 1952, a final letter came from Brun Campbell:
My typewriter is on the bum and if it would not be asking too much of you, I would appreciate it if you would type the enclosed and mail it back to me.
(Armand Hug is writing a story about me and all this adds up to keeping Two-Beat Jazz before the public).
I hope you are well and happy. I am about the same.
Thanks, best wishes,
Enclosed with his letter was a four page manuscript written in pencil entitled: ‘Two-Beat Music is Very Much Alive’ by S. Brun Campbell, The Original Ragtime Kid of the 1890s.
I dutifully returned the typed material as Brun had requested. His original hand-written article remains in my files. I do not think it was ever published. Perhaps, on another occasion, I’ll share those wonderful thoughts Brun had expressed in those pencilled words. It seems appropriate to conclude with a quote from his final paragraph, perhaps Brun’s last written words:
‘Ragtime is a form of music characterized by a strong syncopated melody superimposed on a strongly accented accompaniment. If two-beat music is dead, then there are millions of us who like it who are dead and don’t know it!
All I can say is, if you don’t like ragtime music, you’d ‘Better Lay Your Burden Down’ ’.
§ § §
The above article was published in the Jazz Journal magazine, dated December 1970, Vol. 23, No. 12, pages 26—27.
Note: See also Peter Hanley’s essay of Sanford Brunson Campbell accompanied by his WWI Draft Registration Card.