Cradle of Ragtime
Second of Two Parts
by S. Brunson Campbell and R. J. Carew
(Continued from last Month)
Sedalia was a going concern musically in 1897. About that time the town could boast of two good band outfits: the Sedalia Military Band, a reed and brass band of eighteen members, with an orchestra of fourteen members in connection with it, and the Independent Band, a brass band of twelve members. For a town of around 15,000, that was a very good showing. These were white outfits, but with a substantial negro population, there is little doubt that they had their counterparts among the negroes. There were a number of negro piano players in that locality, with out of town players dropping in with regularity. One notable character who visited Sedalia was Blind Boone, a negro pianist, who toured Missouri and the surrounding states giving concerts. A black, chubby negro, he could play any number called for, grand opera selections or popular tunes, although he was stone blind. He had a manager, and his performance caused a sensation. Among the local boys were Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden, both of whom collaborated with Joplin later on several ragtime numbers. Another Sedalia player was Otis Saunders, a pianist with some technical training, who became Joplin’s special pal. Louis Chauvin, who also wrote a number with Joplin in Chicago some years later, spent some time in Sedalia, and Tom Turpin, who knew Joplin in Chicago, made visits there. It was a friendly group, and making friends as he did, Joplin was always accompanied by a few of his cronies when he strolled about the streets, or idled on a corner. He and Otis Saunders were inseparable; if one were seen, the other wouldn’t be far off.
It turned out that Joplin was fortunate in having Saunders for a good friend. Although there were plenty of players around Sedalia, Joplin had no trouble in getting himself a comfortable berth. With twenty restaurants, thirty-one saloons and eight hotels in operation, some with gambling tables running, music had a definite part in the setup. Throughout the ages gambling, drinking and roistering have called for an accompaniment of music, and it wasn’t long before Joplin had a steady job playing piano in a tavern, which, among its other attractions, had a gambling establishment upstairs. The customers were white, but it seems that they were entirely satisfied with the quality of music being furnished by the dark negro. Certainly there was no need in this western tavern for that famous sign which read:
Don’t shoot the pianist; he is doing the best he can.
Joplin was very fortunate in getting work in this tavern, for the proprietor was a musician himself, and he recognized in his professor potential ability far out of the ordinary. Even in those early days, Joplin had developed a piano style that was unusual, and his chords and harmonies sounded different from those of the ordinary pianist; he had the gift of perfect pitch, and could recognize and identify any chord he heard, even though he couldn’t see the player. The tavern keeper saw the possibilities, and advised the young player to study music seriously and really make something out of himself. Otis Saunders added his advice to that of Joplin’s boss, and together they convinced him that he should get some good instruction. Here again Joplin had good fortune, for in Sedalia there was the Smith School of Music. It seems that this school was a department of the George R. Smith College for colored people, which was located in the suburbs of Sedalia, being installed in a substantial three-story brick building with stone trimmings, placed upon a twenty-four acre tract of ground. The land for this college had been donated by two daughters of General George R. Smith, the founder of Sedalia. Here was Joplin’s opportunity, and he took it; he enrolled as a student in the Smith School of Music.
Musical America was changing drastically during the 1890’s, — a revolution was on. Popular dances were changing also, with the two-step supplanting the polka, schottische, and other earlier dancing forms. Right along with the two-step, came a dance of American negro origin, that had a tremendous vogue, — the cake-walk. The name “cake-walk” was applied to the dance and likewise to the music for it, although the dance could be done to any good two-step music. However, we believe it is of historical importance that the cake-walk music was syncopated systematically, — deliberately. Syncopation had been used much earlier, but usually incidentally, in songs and accompaniments. Also generally only a bar or two would be syncopated. The cake-walk, however, was a syncopated piece of music, and it caught the public fancy, which the earlier samples had failed to do. Originated by the negroes and first performed by them, the dance and music were appropriated by the whites and became the rage of all classes, in all sections. Located in the midwest, with a substantial negro element in the population, Sedalia was right up in the front with the cake-walk. The dance enjoyed great popularity in the town. Joplin was a pioneer in the new musical form, and made the claim that he composed one of the first cakewalks, The Black 400 Ball. Seemingly the number never was published, but in view of his record it is not hard to credit the statement.
The Sedalia negroes went in for cake-walks in a big way, and, in the summer, when the weather was favorable, a big cake-walk would provide the grand finale for an all day outing. Well advertised in advance, a grand picnic at one of the parks or picnic grounds would feature games, exercises, contests and drills, followed by a feast of fried chicken, watermelons, etc., in the afternoon. Then, in the evening, the cake-walk would be the big feature, with possibly a piano playing contest. Sometimes the whole affair would wind up in a fight, but what a time they all had! On the musical side, Joplin doubtless had an active part; he had played before the public, was familiar with the dances, and with his self-assurance and recognized ability, we may be sure that he was one of the active managers of the affairs. (In later years, Joplin promoted ragtime playing contests in Sedalia that were pretentious, creating at least state-wide interest; players would show up from Kansas City and St. Louis, probably bringing with them loyal supporters and “rooters.” At these times the regular boys of the home town would all be rallying behind Joplin, and when it came to choosing the winner of the contest, he always won by acclaim.)
It can be readily understood that Joplin’s studies at the Smith School of Music came at a very propitious time; the new forms of popular music were coming into favor, and it was along those lines that Joplin had some revolutionary ideas of his own. With the cake-walk pretty well established, it is natural that a musical genius would see many possibilities in the syncopation field. The new form was beginning to be called “ragtime,” on account of the uneven time of the treble or melody part of the composition. Joplin had some material of his own that he thought he could do something with, and as soon as “rag” numbers began to appear in published form, in 1897, he began to put his ideas into manuscript form. He was probably encouraged by the fact that his good friend, Tom Turpin of St. Louis, had been successful in having his Harlem Rag published. If the Harlem Rag was worth publishing, he knew that he had something a little more advanced that he should be able to place. So he took a trip to Kansas City, where he was successful in selling his Original Rags to Carl Hoffman, a music publisher in that city. Evidently Joplin’s arrangement wasn’t quite in the proper shape, for the title page of Original Rags carries the wording “Picked by Scott Joplin, Arranged by Chas. N. Daniels.” Returning to Sedalia, he continued at the school, and proceeded to put into manuscript form several other ragtime compositions ; it was while he was at Smith’s, probably sometime in 1898, that he worked up his first manuscript of the Maple Leaf Rag. (Incidentally, it is probable that the name for this rag was suggested by one of the principal shade trees of Sedalia, the maple.) Later with the help of his good pal, Otis Saunders, he rearranged the composition, and gave it the form which most of the world knows today. Little need be said of the Maple Leaf Rag, — it is the popular ragtime classic of all time. One of the first rags written, it has never been surpassed, and seldom equalled, except by the old master himself. About this time Joplin was collaborating with Arthur Marshall on Swipesy Cake Walk, and with Scott Hayden on Sunflower Slow Drag. He then took one of those rare steps that turn out to be moves with destiny; he took his manuscripts to John Stark and Son, a Sedalia music house. Mr. William P. Stark of the firm looked over the numbers and immediately recognized their merit and possibilities. He bought the numbers from Joplin, and made a contract with him to write only for the Stark firm for five years. The Starks then proceeded to publish Maple Leaf Rag, and a little later Swipesy was published. From the time of the publication of the Maple Leaf things began to hum in the ragtime field, although the sale of the sheet music was slow for some time. All the boys, white or black, who had been playing in Sedalia began to exploit the new style for all it was worth, spreading it wherever they went. Louis Chauvin and Otis Saunders were the first negroes to carry Joplin ragtime to Oklahoma City and Memphis; one of the authors of this article, S. Brun Campbell, a white pianist, introduced Joplin numbers among white people all through Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas. Campbell enjoys the distinction of being the only white player to receive instruction from Joplin personally, having learned the Maple Leaf Rag from him as it was first written. Joplin himself was playing his ragtime in bigger and better places. In Warrensburg, Missouri, a short distance from Sedalia, Joplin played his music for the college students, and was favorably received; there should be old students from those days who remember such events.
Those must have been happy days for Joplin; things were coming his way and the future looked bright. As the popularity of the Maple Leaf Rag increased, he saw his own reputation spreading far and wide. The composition was used by performers as a show piece, and traveling outfits carried it up and down the country. Amateurs practised it with persistence, and played at it with pride. In various communities Joplin fans organized Maple Leaf Clubs, and popularized his numbers. In those Sedalia days Joplin couldn’t foresee that in later years his Maple Leaf Rag would become a standard teaching number, that musicians’ unions would use it as a qualifying test for admittance, that Les Copeland, the great ragtime pianist with minstrel shows, would play Joplin rags at a command performance before the King of England. Scott couldn’t foresee these things, but he knew he was on the right track. He had known all along he could do things with music, and he knew he could do even better — he would prove it — he would write Opera, Ragtime Opera that would put ragtime right up on a level with the best of music.
John Stark and Son had ideas too. With such compositions as Joplin’s numbers in their catalogue, Sedalia wouldn’t be large enough for them; they would expand and publish their sheet music in a bigger town and a richer territory. A short time later they moved their outfit to St. Louis. All of which was satisfactory to Scott Joplin; he could hold his own in a bigger field. So he packed his belongings and said good-bye to Sedalia, the Cradle of Ragtime. He was bound for St. Louis and greater fame.
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The above article was first published in The Record Changer magazine, dated June 1945, Vol. 4, No. 4, pages 36—37 and is reprinted by kind permission of Richard B. Hadlock, owner/publisher of The Record Changer.