The Sedalia Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival

Originally published in The World and I,
vol. 8, no. 9 (July 1993), 182-189.
Constant Syncopations: The Sedalia
Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival
by John C. Tibbetts
Usually writer/filmmaker Buck
Henry (The Graduate) can be found on
a Hollywood back lot, dressed
informally, sporting his signature
baseball cap and tennis shoes. But
tonight he was on stage at Convention
Hall in Sedalia, Missouri, dressed in a
nifty tuxedo, and hosting a program of
ragtime music for the l3th annual Scott
Joplin Ragtime Festival. "Before I first
began coming to these Scott Joplin
Festivals, I thought of Sedalia as a
mythic city," he said. "I even named
my own production company in
Hollywood after Sedalia. Now I keep
coming back here, year after year; and I
guess I've became a part of that myth."
Buck is only one of thousands of
myth seekers who flock to Sedalia
every year to attend the Scott Joplin
Festivals. These are learned
enthusiasts, many of them performers
and educators, and you won't find a
solitary soul who thinks Marvin
Hamlisch composed the music for The
Sting. They not only know that ragtime
was America's first truly national song,
dominating the popular music scene
from the late l890s to World War I, but
they heartily subscribe to its spirit, best
described in lyrics Ira Gershwin wrote
to one of brother George's early songs:
Each nation has a creative vein,
Originating a native strain
With folksongs plaintive and
others gay. . . .
Copyright 1993, 2005 John C. Tibbetts
The real American folksong is a
rag, a mental jag,
A tonic for the chronic blues. . . .
The Joplin Festival began in l974
and, excepting a lapse of several years
in the late l970s, has continued ever
since. Few can dispute Sedalia's claim
to be, in the words of historians Rudi
Blesh and Harriet Janis, the "cradle of
ragtime." The central Missouri town
was a major rail center for the Missouri
Pacific and the Missouri-Kansas-Texas
Railroad in the l890s and an important
stopping place for many itinerant black
musicians, like Scott Joplin. It was the
home of Joplin's publisher, John Stark,
and of several of Joplin's collaborators,
Scott Hayden and Arthur Marshall.
Because Sedalia was more tolerant of
blacks than was typical of the times,
these young artists had plenty to do in
the active musical community. There
were ten amateur bands (including the
Queen City Cornet Band, for which
Joplin played second cornet), numerous
minstrel shows, both black and white,
several legendary black clubs, like the
fabled Maple Leaf Club (whose name
was appropriated by Joplin for his
most famous rag) and the Black 400
Club, and (most importantly) a thriving
bordello district along Main Street's
"sporting district" where dozens of
black pianists kicked around the new
ragtime style. Sedalia was also a
thriving intellectual community with
black newspapers and a progressive
black college, established by the town's
founder, George R. Smith.
Today, many of the historic
landmarks are gone. The George R.
Smith College was destroyed by
lightning in l925. The Maple Leaf
building was demolished in the late
l950s, after suffering damage from
several fires and a tornado. Actor Jack
Oakie, a former Sedalia native and
owner of the Maple Leaf, later declared
that had he known the historical value
of the structure, he would never have
allowed it to be torn down. Nowadays,
thanks to an active Scott Joplin
Foundation, surviving landmarks are
being located, identified, and preserved.
It was announced at this year's Festival,
for example, that two historic buildings,
at ll4 and ll6 East Main, directly
opposite the former site of the Maple
Leaf Club, have been purchased. They
mark the future site of the Scott Joplin
Foundation offices and Museum.
At times, during the long weekend of
June 3-6, I felt I was in a most agreeable
time warp. Sedalia was decked out in
its turn-of-the-century ragtime best.
White banners fluttered in the mild
breezes. Ice cream socials advertised
home-made ices and pies. Somebody
was playing ragtime at every street
corner and park, it seemed. Costumed
bands with colorful names like the Blind
Boone High Steppers, the St. Louis
Ragtimers, the Paul Price Society
Orchestra, and the Et Cetera String
Band led parades. Performers with
hothouse names like Sister Jean and
Laundry Fat, as well as Festival
reliables like Glenn Jenks, Dick
Zimmerman, David Thomas Roberts,
and Ian Whitcomb, performed at all
hours in the three big white tents strung
out along Main, Osage, and Ohio
Streets. What a pleasant thing it was to
stroll along, catching the vagrant strains
Copyright 1993, 2005 John C. Tibbetts
of the "Maple Leaf Rag," the quirky
measures of the "Stop Time Rag," and
the strange lyrics of forgotten music hall
ditties. Ragtime is essentially dance
music, as various commentators never
failed to remind us; and one of the most
popular daytime stops was Professor
Desmond Strobel's Antique Academy
of Genteel Dance at the Tea Time
Dance Tent. Under the attentive eye of
the good professor, men donned their
derbies and spats, and women plucked
up the hems of their long gowns to
launch into a variety of two-steps,
quadrilles, and waltzes. And if you
think any of this is easy, just try it. . . .
"This is one of the only music
festivals I know of that brings a lot of
the music to the people for free,"
explained Dick Zimmerman, renowned
ragtime specialist and Music Director
for all thirteen Festivals. "Much of it is
right outside, on the main streets, where
you can walk along and hear some of
the world's top ragtime artists. We
have the merchants of Sedalia, and the
local Chamber of Commerce, to thank
for that. And the people who come
here take it all quite seriously, not just
out of some half-baked nostalgia. They
know it came out of hard times among
the black people, but they also know it
expressed something we don't find in
today's popular music--an optimism
and enthusiasm that young people had
about themselves. Listen to our young
people's music today. Do you hear
anything positive?"
The range of musical events was
enormous and full of surprises. I have
especially fond memories of an
afternoon concert in which a number of
musicians played rags in unusual
instrumental combinations--"Stop
Time" on the xylophone, "Maple Leaf"
in John Stark's arrangement for
mandolin, guitar and banjo, and a song
from Treemonisha for a capella voice
duet. During one of the outdoor tent
concerts Japanese pianist, Masanobu
Ikemiya (who now presides over the
Arcady Music Festivals in Maine)
performed a program of ragtime
parodies of classical music. "Almost
everybody at the turn of the century
was ragging the classics," Ikemiya
explained, before sitting down to Felix
Arndt's takeoff on Dvorak's famous
"Humoresque"--aptly entitled
"Desecration Rag." "This sort of thing
caused the Musicians Union to raise a
protest. Nowadays, ragtimers are still
at it. William Albright's 'Night on Rag
Mountain' is a great example."
The evening concerts were also
spiced with unexpected pleasures.
Pianist Glenn Jenks performed a tribute
to Will Marion Cook, a tantalizing
medley of tunes from Cook's pioneering
Broadway musical, In Dahomey (l902).
The Paul Price Orchestra played Victor
Herbert's delicious blend of Indian and
Latin idioms, Panamericama (l90l). And
William Bolcom and Joan Morris chose
a delightful blend of music by
Gershwin, Cole & Johnson, and Joplin.
(Bolcom also played his own signature
piece, the enchanting "Ghost Rag.")
Renowned pianist Dick Hyman created
a sensation with what might best be
described as a "ragtime Jekyll and
Hyde" routine. After sensitively
negotiating his way through classic rags
by Jelly Roll Morton and Joplin, he
Copyright 1993, 2005 John C. Tibbetts
reappeared minutes later in the guise of
"Knuckles" O'Toole, a colorful
personna he made popular in a series of
recordings in the l950s. "Knuckles"
tore through several outrageous rag
pastiches using a piano that had been
"prepared" a la John Cage (destroyed is
perhaps a better way of putting it!),
with paper strips and strings of paper
clips that had been placed over the
innards by colleague Dick Zimmerman.
The routine brought down the house.
And if you could stay awake long
enough, some of the best music to be
heard came later, much later, at the
"After Hours" sessions at the local Best
Western Hotel. Assorted performers
appeared with all manner of wash
boards, tubas, and other exotic
instruments to let down their hair and
take turns belting out "l2th Street Rag"
in a kind of "Duel of the Ragtimers"
that lasted well into the early morning
In this writer's opinion, the real heart
of the Festival was the two-day series
of symposia in Liberty Center headed
by the distinguished ragtime historian
and Joplin specialist Edward Berlin.
These sessions were, for the most part,
not dry exercises in academia attended
by a mere handful of the faithful; rather,
they were lively confrontations in a
packed room that held at least four
hundred people. Highlights included
world premieres of two hitherto
unknown rags by Joseph Lamb,
presented by Joseph Scotti, who
currently is editing Lamb's works for
the Smithsonian Institution Press; slide
tours of Sedalia's ragtime past by Joplin
Foundation historian Robert Ault and
moderator Edward Berlin, and a
discourse about the redoubtable
Broadway comedienne, May Irwin, by
John Graziano of the City University
of New York. "Irwin's importance is
now only being understood," Graziano
said, as he guided his audience through
slides and song demonstrations. "She
introduced the syncopated song, or
dialect song, to the Broadway musicals
in the first decade of this century. She
stands at the beginning of a new kind of
American musical theater, a period of
transition that led to the glory days of
Tin Pan Alley. Before this you had
popular songs influenced by Gilbert and
Sullivan, Offenbach, and the Viennese
waltz. She gave the dialect songs a
boost and they became such a potent
force that mainstream composers like
Irving Berlin and Reginald De Koven-later Gershwin--began to write them."
In my opinion one of the most
valuable presentations was by pianist
Tony Caramia of the Eastman School of
Music. He took us into the musical
workshop of Pulitzer-Prize winning
composer William Bolcom, whose
distinguished rags rank among his finest
compositions. Describing them as
"blatantly pianistic," Caramia selected a
number of them for expressive,
harmonic, and rhythmic analysis.
Negotiating these fiendish pieces is
difficult under any circumstances, he
confided, but to have Bolcom and wife
Joan Morris in the audience made it
especially nerve-wracking! Yet
Caramia's wit never failed him. While
demonstrating the harmonic peculiarites
of "The California Porcupine Rag," for
example, Caramia cracked that it
displayed "a left hand continuing a
Copyright 1993, 2005 John C. Tibbetts
search for intelligent life in some sort of
tonic form." And concerning the
relentlessly chromatic vagaries of the
"Poltergeist Rag," he drily accused
Bolcom of writing it "during a sale in
accidentals at a local K-Mart." Caramia
concluded the session with an
uninterrupted performance of six rags,
polishing off the set with a hair-raising
rendition of Bolcom's spectacular
"Serpent's Kiss."
The audience went crazy while
Bolcom, obviously moved, joined
Caramia on the platform for a hug and
some discussion. Bolcom is one of
today's most active and prestigious
proponents of the ragtime style and
was responsible for the revival of
Joplin's ragtime opera, Treemonisha.
He even included what he calls "raggy"
material in his recently premiered opera,
McTeague. He reminded us of how
new the current ragtime revival was.
"In l967 few people even knew who
Scott Joplin was," he said. "And so
many people in the jazz community
dismissed him as too 'academic,' too
stiff, somebody whose works you
didn't--and shouldn't fool around with.
I had already done some 'raggy' stuff in
my show, Dynamite Tonight in l963
and was teaching at Queen's College
when Rudi Blesh [co-author of the
seminal They all Played Ragtime, l950]
brought my attention to Joplin's opera,
Treemonisha. I just fell in love with the
stuff. This was at a time when
American music was overwhelmed by
what I call the 'International Fellowship
Style'--you know, you had to write
atonal stuff to win a Guggenheim, or
something. (It's still true, by the way!)
We felt it was terribly limiting and I
wanted to write real tunes in two-four
with key signatures and ending cadences
and everything. It felt so good after
being a card-carrying Modernist for so
many years. Like Chopin Mazurkas,
another body of dance music, rags are
things that people think they can do
themselves. You see, it's hard to listen
and just sit there. And that's part of
their value. But we haven't yet learned
to treat them seriously, like jazz-although that's more out of guilt than
real love."
An underlying theme of the
symposia--indeed, it simmered at the
heart of the entire Festival, was the
controversy surrounding the popular
progenitor of the ragtime movement, the
"coon song," or dialect song craze that
swept the country in the l890s. Today,
many historians of black culture are
dismayed at the dialect song, whose
typically racist lyrics, while popular in
May Irwin's day and an important
influence on the development of
American popular song, are offensive to
today's listeners. Everybody had
something to say about the issue.
"Ragtime songs were the first truly
American songs," insisted Ian
Whitcomb, a historian of popular song
(After the Ball) and host of a nightly
Los Angeles radio program on the
subject. "And the dialect song,
specifically, came out of our need to
free ourselves from the puritannical
strictures of victorian manners. Whites,
particularly, saw in minstrel shows and
the dialect songs an image of a black
man or the black woman--the 'red hot
mama'--a mythical image that was
Copyright 1993, 2005 John C. Tibbetts
powerful and even dangerous. But it
was also liberating. I see this as typical
of most eras in our popular music, from
the cakewalk to rock 'n roll. The victim
of all this, of course, was the black man.
You can look at so many important
black composers, like Will Marion
Cook, who was essentially a bourgeois,
European-trained composer, but who
was forced to perpetuate the myth of
the 'hot black man.'"
"That's a whole era of songs that we
can't do any longer," lamented Buck
Henry who, like fellow actor George
Segal, is an amateur ragtime musician.
"And I can understand when a black
person rejects the lyrics that refer to
'coons.' They are offensive. But the
songs tell a story of survival and
prevailing among the blacks that is
really valuable. Personally, I'd like to
hear more of these songs, but I can
understand the objections."
Bolcom and Morris, who performed
Cole and Johnson's "Castle on the Nile"
at one of the evening concerts, a song
about a black man's yearning to return
to Africa, explained their own
ambivalence about the problem: "Our
feelings are, in general, that we shouldn't
do some of the more problemmatic
songs in public. About ten years ago
we used to do some Babe Conners
numbers that May Irwin made so
popular, like 'The New Bully,' which is
about a swaggering black man. We did
this at the Yale Cabaret and all the black
students came up to us and thanked us
for the chance to hear it. On the other
hand, today there's a certain class of
white liberal who practices a political
correctness that verges on bigotry.
Eubie Blake used to tell us that he was
accused of being an 'Uncle Tom' because
he performed this kind of material.
That's real nerve, if you ask us. We
can't really know the pressures on
blacks in the past to behave a certain
way and perform a certain way. Let's
not have this false Mrs. Grundy
attitude that says, 'Don't touch that!' If
you do these things at all nowadays
you have to put them in quotes,
apologize for them, that sort of thing.
We feel that the time has come that
people should put aside their
discomfort and confront it head on."
"I think there is too much posturing
about black studies today," says Dick
Zimmerman. "There aren't enough
people willing to confront this aspect of
ragtime, as we do here at the Festivals.
And yet even here in Sedalia
Copyright 1993, 2005 John C. Tibbetts
we wish more black musicians and
historians would attend. America is
rediscovering its cultural roots and this
is no time to sweep things like this
under the carpet."
In the end I'm left with a chance
remark by Bill Bolcom at one of the
symposia. Music, he said, any music,
has no race, no ownership. "No one
'owns' ragtime," he said. "Once it's out,
it's in the world and then it's for
everybody." Maybe, in the final
analysis, that's what a truly correct
diversity is all about.
John C. Tibbetts