Cradle of Ragtime
First of Two Parts
by S. Brunson Campbell and R. J. Carew
On Tuesday, the twenty-fourth day of November in the year 1868, a momentous event occurred in a humble household in Bowie County, Texas, on the site of what is now Texarkana, Texas. The event probably went unnoticed by the locality in general, except for the household concerned, where there was doubtless considerable bustle and activity, for on that Tuesday, over three-quarters of a century ago, there was born a baby to a negro couple; a baby boy who was destined to achieve fame, if not fortune, as one of the greatest negro composers of all time, one whose name was to become practically synonymous with that great innovation in American music, Ragtime. The time being so soon after the Civil War, it is almost a certainty that the parents had been slaves, and we may be permitted to presume that they had taken up their abode in Bowie County with an ambition to accomplish something with their newly realized freedom. It seems that the father was a natural musician, or that he had received some instruction in music, since it is a matter of record that he was a violin player. Thus it may well be that the child inherited his musical talent from his parents. Very few facts are available about the boy’s childhood, and we have no information to lead us to think that he was anything other than a normal pickaninny in a small but growing community. However, when he grew old enough to receive an introduction to the piano, he immediately displayed traits not usually found in boys, for, instead of being reluctant to practice, he enjoyed it, and was so fascinated by the instrument that he practically had to be forced away from it. This intense desire to play ordinarily would be gratifying to any boy’s parents, but since the father was a violinist, he had discovered that playing did not pay any too well in those days, and he wanted his son to learn a trade or take up something that promised more substantial results financially than playing the piano. As time passed there must have been many family arguments about the matter, arguments which were never settled, for the youth finally left home, determined to make his living from his music. And thus, at about the age of twenty, began the musical career of SCOTT JOPLIN, later to be known as THE KING OF THE RAGTIME WRITERS.
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It would be interesting indeed to know of a few of the innumerable places where Joplin must have played as he moved about from place to place, making his music bring him his living, but it seems that most of that period of his life must remain a mystery. However, there is evidence that he kept himself as much in the forefront as possible. He apparently realized that he must sell his wares to the public, and in the musical line that meant that he must be an entertainer. Either alone, or as a member of a group, Joplin offered his music for the entertainment of the public. At about that time, during the late 1880’s or the early 1890’s, negroes were getting in a greater measure the opportunity to perform in better places, to demonstrate their abilities to a widening audience. There were several possibilities for Scott: he might have gone barnstorming with a small minstrel or variety show, or perhaps with a medicine show; those of us who are not so young can remember those old medicine shows, often presented from the back of a truck, where an entertainer or two would play and sing and ballyhoo a crowd for the “Doctor” or “Professor” who gave a pseudo-scientific lecture, exhorting his listeners to buy something. We can just barely remember those little street shows put on by the Wizard Oil vendors . . .
By 1895 Joplin was a member of The Texas Medley Quartette, an outfit that seemingly got as far away from Texas as Rochester, New York. Before this time Joplin had begun to compose, his first compositions being along the lines of the popular songs of that era, an era now familiarly known by the nostalgic and somewhat misleading designation of “The Gay Nineties.” Judged by their popular songs, much of the music of those days was not so gay; in fact, some of it was pretty sad. Probably the greatest success among the ballads of The Gay Nineties was After the Ball, by Charles K. Harris, a song hit which swept the country about 1892. There were many, many others written, and Joplin wrote his. It is not known how many he may have written, but two, dated 1895, have been preserved, sad enough to please the weepiest of The Gay (?) Nineties. Just read the words of
A PICTURE OF HER FACE
Words and Music by
This life is very sad to me, a sorrow fills my heart,
My story I will tell to you, from me my love did part,
The village church bell sadly tolled, the one I loved had died,
She was a treasure more than gold, when she was by my side.
But now she’s gone beyond recall, in a silent tomb she sleeps,
The one I loved yet most of all has left me here to weep;
Though death so ruthless stole my love, my dear and only Grace,
I’ve yet a treasure in this world, a picture of her face.
It brings joy to me when ofttimes sad at heart,
Her picture I can see, and sad thoughts then depart;
Although my love is dead, my only darling Grace,
My eyes are ofttimes looking on a picture of her face.
Seemingly A Picture of Her Face and Joplin’s other sad ballad, Please Say You Will, did not “sweep the country,” although they compare favorably with a host of other lugubrious waltz songs of that period. Perhaps we should be thankful that they did not achieve great success, for, if they had, Joplin might have dedicated himself to that type of music, and lovers of genuine American music would have been the losers. Joplin’s next contributions to published music consist of three instrumental numbers, Harmony Club Waltz, Combination March, and The Crush Collision March, published in Temple, Texas, in 1896. It is not known what degree of popularity these numbers had, but they measure up to the music of that class in the middle nineties, and suffice to show that Joplin was pushing himself forward, keeping abreast of the popular music of the day, and was displaying ability that compared favorably with that of contemporaneous composers.
In the year 1859, at a point in Pettis, County, Missouri, about 189 miles west of St. Louis, and 96 miles east of Kansas City, General George R. Smith marked out the site for a town. Up to 1859 the country at this point had been rolling prairie, but the frontier was being pushed farther west rapidly, and the right of way for a railroad was projected through that section. General Smith realized the opportunity and bought a thousand acres of land along the surveyed right of way, and it was there that he planned the town. He first platted a small place and named it Sedville, after his daughter Sarah, whom he affectionately called “Sed.” A little later he recorded another plat for a larger town, two and a half miles square, which included Sedville, and named the second town Sedalia. The first settlement was made in the new town in 1860, and the railroad reached the place in 1861. Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, Sedalia became a Union Military Post, which it remained until 1864. At the end of the war, Sedalia began its peacetime life, and lost little time in becoming an industrious, thriving community.
Conveniently located in the western part of Missouri, surrounded by a fertile country-side, the town became a center of activity, and on being chosen the county seat of Pettis County, it assumed additional importance. It became a hub of railroad connections, — the terminal point of four divisions of the Missouri Pacific Railroad, and of three divisions of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad, including main lines and branches. The Missouri, Kansas and Texas general car and repair shops, covering thirty-seven acres, were located there. The country surrounding Sedalia was very prolific, producing corn, wheat, oats and a wide variety of vegetables, fruits and berries in abundance, with livestock also profitably raised. These farm products found their way to Sedalia to be processed, packed and shipped in all directions. By the middle 1890’s the town had a population of close to 15,000, and due to its being a terminal and transfer point for the railroads, it had a floating and transient population of many more, and it boasted of over one hundred commercial and industrial concerns, — jobbing, distributing, packing and shipping houses. About 1895, this prosperous little city, with its red brick houses, and residential streets well shaded by an abundance of elm and maple trees, was seriously considered as a new location for the state capital. The Pettis County Fair (later the State Fair) was located in Sedalia, the fair grounds being at Sicher Park. Another park, Forest Park, was located two miles south of the town.
Because of Sedalia’s position as a Union Military Post during the Civil War, it doubtless attracted many negroes from the very beginning, and with its growth as a railroad center, and the demand for cheap labor, they continued to come to the town, where they formed a considerable segment in the population. Negro men found employment with the railroads, working on the road, in the shops, and on the trains; as laborers in the commercial and industrial houses; on the nearby farms; as porters in the hotels, saloons, restaurants and barber shops. Some also ran their own barber shops and other little businesses. Some, with a woman in the white folks’ yard, saw no necessity for working at all.
There is an old saying, common among pitchmen, we believe, to the effect that a “fast nickel is better than a slow dollar,” the truth of which is obvious. For equally obvious reasons, it can be readily understood that a lively small town is better than a slow big town for many classes of people. There is more to be made where money doesn’t hide in banks or in home strong boxes. A town where the payrolls are substantial and sure, where the workers are not reluctant to spend, and where folks want entertainment, amusement or excitement, will attract those elements that cater to such potential free spenders. Such a town quickly gains a reputation as good, fast, wide-open. Fifty or sixty years ago there were a great many more such towns in the United States than there are at present, due to reasons not necessary to enumerate any more than to say that moving pictures, phonographs, automobiles and the radio have changed the whole aspect of American life. In the days when we didn’t have those luxuries, folks liked to get to a lively town and enjoy themselves, to let themselves out, to have a “little fling.” They liked to be in a place where there was some excitement, some interest. Any travelling man would go an extra fifty miles to avoid a dull town, and spend the week end in a lively place.
Sedalia was such an attractive town in the 1890’s. It was a good payroll town, a terminal and lay-over point on two railroads, and a fine place to stop off on the trip between St. Louis and Kansas City. Lively money was in circulation, gambling houses were running, and those houses with the drawn shades angled for patronage. These factors might help explain the town’s eight hotels, twenty restaurants and thirty-one saloons, catering to all classes of patrons. It is interesting to note that the prices for restaurant meals in those days ranged from 10c in the cheapest places up to $15.00 or $20.00 in the swellest, depending on how much one could afford to pay, and how much of a gourmet (or glutton) one might be. We haven’t the name of the place where the price was 10c, but one of the high class places was Pehl’s Fulton Market, featuring the best of sea food.
There is little doubt that, as he moved about the country, Scott Joplin had passed through, and very likely had stopped in, Sedalia. He probably had friends there who told him what a good town it was, with plenty of work. Here was a “wide open” town, where a good piano player would have the chance to work as he wanted to, where he could enjoy himself, — gambling if he wanted a little excitement, with cheap meat and drink when he wanted them. As to ability, Joplin had no need to be concerned about holding his own with any of the local boys at Sedalia; he had played his way back and forth over much of the country; he had been a member of the Texas Medley Quartette; he had composed waltzes, songs and marches, even including sound effects in one of the marches. He was up to date with his music, and if Sedalia wanted music, he could supply it, any kind. Better still, here was an active town, a growing town in a growing country, and Joplin was an active young negro, with some new musical ideas of his own, and an ambition to make progress in his chosen vocation; for aside from occasional temporal digressions, his music was his entire interest, — he was really absorbed in it. He liked a little beer, and gambled some, but he never let such things interfere with his music. All things considered, Sedalia looked attractive, but if it turned out to be not so good, — well, it was only three hours by train to Kansas City and six hours to St. Louis. So Scott Joplin went to Sedalia, probably some time in 1897. He was then about twenty-nine years old, a very black negro, solidly built, about five feet seven inches tall; a good dresser, usually neat, but sometimes a little careless with his clothes; gentlemanly and pleasant, with a liking for companionship. Judging from a picture taken about that time, it can be seen that he had poise, and a sort of calm determination in the expression, with confidence in his ability to look out for himself. Still, a piece of merchandise can’t be judged by its wrapper, and Joplin’s arrival in Sedalia probably didn’t create any great stir. Here was a man who was to develop a distinctive style of American music that would take the country by storm, yet if his arrival was noticed at all, it was probably by someone whose thought might have been “just another railroad worker.”
(Concluded Next Month)
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The above article was first published in The Record Changer magazine, dated May 1945, Vol. 4, No. 3, pages 3, 5, 25—26 and is reprinted by kind permission of Richard B. Hadlock, owner/publisher of The Record Changer.