Although for most people the strains of “The Entertainer” and other rags now primarily evoke quaint, scratchy images of silent films projected at the wrong speed, when ragtime first appeared around the 1870s, it was the soundtrack of Missouri‘s whorehouses, parlors and gambling clubs.
Ragtime was also one of the first truly and distinctly American musical forms. After cakewalk, ragtime was one of the first global music crazes. That Ragtime’s cradle was the river towns of the Missouri Valley shouldn’t be a surprise. Missouri, located at the center of the country, has long been and remains a crossroads of cultural exchanges. No state borders more than Missouri and noted ragtime musicians came from all the neighbors and spread to them (except Nebraska and Iowa, states whose people are known to be deaf to the joys of melody and dance). The character of ragtime — drawing from folk, European and American marches, minstrelsy, spirituals and other forms — connects Europe, Africa and North America, town and country, classical and popular, black and white.
Though ragtime is primarily written for the piano, it was also played on other instruments, notably the banjo. Although its syncopation is generally discussed as a defining characteristic, not all ragtime truly is and the term “syncopated” was applied much as “swing” was later, as a sort of shorthand for an indescribable feeling. Scott Joplin even wrote, “Play slowly until you catch the swing,” and described the effect as “weird and intoxicating.”
As insisted upon by “The King of Ragtime,” Scott Joplin, ragtime was meant to be played exactly as written. Although discouraging improvisation, James P. Johnson stated that he and other New York pianists would routinely appropriate sections of ragtime and improvise, unaware even of the song’s authorship, giving birth to a style known as stride.
THE BIRTH OF RAGTIME
Ragtime is usually said to have first appeared in the 1890s (when it first was published) and 1897 is usually named as the year of ragtime’s emergence. However, E.A. Phelps’s “The Darkies’ Patrol,” published in 1892, is a rag — a fact noted on the sheet music by the publisher. Ragtime had, in fact, been around many years before it was commited to paper. Scott Joplin heard ragtime when he first arrived in St. Louis in 1885. Blind Boone, skipping school in the mid-1870s, did as well. The place they both heard it was St. Louis’s famed Chestnut Valley tenderloin/red light district, where sporting houses employed pianists to provide a score for their client’s various activities. Chesnut Valley had a reputation for being so hot that supposedly cops wouldn’t set foot in it. It was in Chesnut Valley, on Targee St. in 1899, where Allen (Johnny) Britt got killed by Frankie Baker a lover’s quarrel, a crime immortalized in the song “Frankie & Johnny.”
ST. LOUIS’S CHESTNUT VALLEY
Artie Matthews Joe Jordan Charles Hunter
Louis Chauvin Tom Turpin Charley Thompson Ralph Sutton
Georgia-born Thomas Million John Turpin, aka Tom Turpin, had strong ties to Chestnut Valley. Turpin’s father, Honest John Turpin, ran the Silver Dollar Saloon. Turpin the younger opened two of the most famous venues for ragtime when, in 1900 (the same year he met Scott Joplin), he opened the Rosebud Bar, an enormous venue (with rented rooms upstairs) which featured many of the city’s best ragtime musicians. The Rosebud also played host to many traveling musicians and was the sight of cutting contests between pianists from various locales. His other venue was the nearby Hurrah Sporting Club.
For his patronage, work as a publisher, and as a ragtime composer himself, Turpin earned the nickname “The Father of Ragtime.” Other venues for ragtime in the district existed too. Arthur Marshall was employed at The Spanish Café. Madam Betty Rae ran a bawdy house that employed Louis “Bird Face” Chauvin and Sam Patterson. The Magic Horshoe was yet another venue.
The Rosebud Bar Chestnut Valley
As ragtime’s popularity grew, the district attracted composers from nearby states. Artie Charles Hunter came from Tennessee and gained fame there. Charlie Warfield came in 1897 when he was just fourteen. Artie Matthews came from across the river in Illinois. Joe Jordan came from Ohio. Charlie Matthews moved there from Illinois in 1905.
Other musicians associated with the city over the years, including natives and transplants, are Sonny Anderson, Paul “Can-Can” Sedric, George Reynolds, Walker Farrington, Owen Marshall, Conway Casey, Rob Hampton, Gertrude “Sweety” Bell, Louella Anderson, Thehodosia Hutchison, Lucian Porter Gibson and Harry Belding. In response to the influx of musicians and composers, publishers like Jos. F. Hunleth Music Co., Buck and Lowney and Placht and Son soon appeared.
THE SEDALIA SCENE
Scott Joplin Arthur Marshall Scott Hayden
No city is as closely associated with ragtime as the tiny Missouri town of Sedalia. It may seem odd that a place with only a few thousand residents could claim primary parentage of so large a phenomenon but several factors made that possible.
First, the George R. Smith School of Music was founded there to provide a respectable education for blacks and soon attracted many aspiring composers and musicians from around the south and midwest, including Texas-born Joplin, Indiana-born Etilmon Justus Stark and Arthur Marshall, of nearby Saline County. Marshall and Joplin, after receiving a musical education, themselves turned to teaching. Without a doubt, their most celebrated pupil was a local Sedalian, Scott Hayden.
Another factor allowing for the tiny town’s contribution to ragtime was the surprisingly vibrant nightlife. East Main Street was the location of Sedalia’s sporting district, where townies and railroad workers alike went after the sun went down in search of sport at bars and clubs like the Williams Brothers‘ The Maple Leaf Club, Tony Williams‘s The 400 Dance Club, and Hustlers’ Hall and guest houses run by Nellie Hall and Mrs. L. Wright. At these venues, the aforementionEd respectable and talented ragtime pianists (and others, like Otis Saunders) found employment, earning up to $1.50 a night (plus tips).
In 1885, John Stark came to town with his publishing company, John Stark & Son. Soon after his arrival, he and Scott Joplin would sell over one million copies of the sheet music for “Maple Leaf Rag” — the first million-selling instrumental piece in American history. So strong was the pull of the ragtime scene that, at just fifteen, S. Brunson Campbell (Brun Campbell) wisely left Kansas in search of Joplin and Saunders. He found them and they nicknamed the precocious teenager “The Ragtime Kid.”
Sedalia’s ragtime scene came to a screeching halt with the arrival of reform. Totalitarian teetotalers soon completely succeeded in destroying the town’s culture and ragtime musicians responded by heading for greener pastures. Not surprisingly, John Stark & Sons and most of the local musicians headed downriver to Chestnut Valley. Soon after, in 1901, Hustler’s Hall closed. By 1909, the sporting belt was dead and all vestiges of culture disappeared. Today, KMOS Channel 6 (the local PBS affiliate for Central Missouri) is the only sign of cultural life.
KANSAS CITY’S 18TH AND VINE
Charles L. Johnson Euday Louis Bowman Calvin Lee Woolsey
Though less-widely recognized, Kansas City, Missouri’s 18th & Vine district, in Downtown East, is of equal importance as more famed music-associated streets like Basin St., 52nd St., Beale St, and Central Ave. It was there that ragtime flourished, with ragtimers like Ed Kuhn, E. Harry Kelly, Irene Cozad, Maude Gilmore and Mamie Williams all representing Kansas City.
Later, 18th & Vine would be the center of Kansas City’s vibrant and more commonly-celebrated jazz scene, but it was ragtime that first took hold, a fact not lost on locals. In the 1930s, “Kansas City’s finest outdoor theater for colored people,” the Highland Garden Theater was enclosed and renamed the Boone Theater after the pioneering ragtime musician.
Though he lived in Fort Worth, Texas, Euday Louis Bowman routinely journied to Kansas City to promote and sell his compositions, including songs like “Fort Worth Blues,” “Kansas City Blues” and “Twelfth Street Rag,” which became popular with early jazz performers like Bennie Moten and Louis Armstrong. Calvin Lee Woosley was drawn to Kansas City from nearby Tinney’s Point.
Kansas City was an early center of ragtime publishing too. Local ragtime composer/publisher Charles Neil Daniels bought Joplin’s 1898 “Original Rags” and arranged it for Carl Hoffman Music Co. of Kansas City. With ragtime’s exploding popularity and the resulting emergence of Tin Pan Alley in New York, there was a talent drain on Kansas City and local composers such as Daniels moved to New York. According to Jelly Roll Morton, by 1911 there were no decent pianists in the city. However, some composers stayed, such as Charles L. Johnson, who preferred KC to NYC. He owned his own publishing company (Charles L. Johnson & Co.) and was so prolific he also published under the alias Raymond Birch. Ethel May Earnist and Fannie Bell Woods were long thought to be other aliases of his but recent discoveries have suggested that both women were quite real. Earnist was a Nebraska-born composer and Woods was from Louisville. Other local publishers included JW Jenkins’ Sons Music Co. and Will L. Livernash.
CENTRAL MISSOURI – LITTLE DIXIE
Blind Boone Wilbur Sweatman
Perhaps more than any other musical figure in the 19th century, John William “Blind” Boone bridged the gap between black and white music. Like Gottschalk and Big Tom before him, he wrote and performed music that drew from both musical traditions and synthesized a uniquely American sound. Born in Saline County, Blind Boone had been sent to a school for the blind in St. Louis where his mother hoped he’d gain a musical education. At first he did, but when the school changed hands and he was instead taught the more practical skill of broom-making, he frequently ditched, prefering to hang out in Chesnut Valley.
Boone’s truancy led to his expulsion and the blind musician ended up held captive by an unscrupulous gambler. After a group from his hometown secured his freedom, he moved to Columbia‘s Sharp End neighborhood. In 1880, Sharp End hosted a cutting contest between Blind Boone and the famed early black musical sensation Blind Tom. There, local publisher Allen Music Co. published several of his works.
Wilbur C. Sweatman hailed from nearby Brunswick and moved to Minneapolis in 1902. However, he retained his ties to ragtime, recording and composing many hits. His wax cylinder recording of Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” was supposedly the first of the song. He also had strong ties to a then new style, jazz, and was the first black musician to record songs with “Jass” and “Jazz” in the titles.
THE OZARKS – THE CARTHAGE SCENE
James Scott Clarence Woods Percy Wenrich Theron Catlen Bennett
Though today the Ozarks are more recognized for their hillbillies, back in the day, the small town of Carthage boasted a ragtime scene hot enough in its time to attract composers from outside the state.
Though Carthage is now best known as the home of the Precious Moments Inspiration Park, at the turn of the century, Dumar Music Co. and the local ragtime scene lured the likes of Clarence “Ragtime Wonder of the South” Woods from neighboring states to the town of around only 10,000 inhabitants. Percy “The Joplin Kid” Wenrich, as his name suggests, was from nearby Joplin. Theron Catlen Bennett hailed from nearby Pierce City. The most famous ragtime composer, the celebrated James Scott, originally of nearby Neosho, traveled to St. Louis to meet Scott Joplin but stayed in Carthage until 1914, when he moved to Kansas City to teach piano.
THE SPREAD OF RAGTIME’S POPULARITY
Ragtime quickly spread around the lower middle west and upper south, first by itinerant musicians and then sheet music and piano rolls. At the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, pianists from nearby states gathered outside to seek money entertaining the crowds and in the process exposed and exchanged the syncopated style. Soon ragtime struck a chord in the major cities of the area such as Indianapolis, Chicago, Louisville and Cincinnati.
In the 1890s, ragtime spread down river to New Orleans where it took root in the storied Storyville neighborhood. Had that not happened, jazz would’ve probably never happened. After the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition (aka St. Louis World’s Fair), visitors from around the country and the world were exposed to rags and the music quickly spread. In Europe, not yet recovered from the throes of an obsession with cakewalk, ragtime became the new thing.
RAGTIME BEYOND THE SHOW ME
Other composers from outside Missouri were soon publishing rags over the following years, including A. Shaw, Abe Holzmann, Adeline Shepherd, Ben Harney, Cecil Duane Crabb, Charley Straight, Charlotte Blake, Clarence C. Wiley, Ernest Reuben Crowders, Felix Arndt, Gene Greene, George Botsford, George Botsford, George L. Cobb, Harry Jentes, Harry P. Guy, Harry Tierney, J. Russell Robinson, Jacob Henry Ellis, Jelly Roll Morton, Johann C. Schmid (under the pseudonym “Marie Louka”), Joseph Lamb, Joseph Russel Robinson, Julia Lee Niebergall, Kerry Mills, Les C. Copeland, Luckey Roberts, May Frances Aufderheide, Muriel Pollock, Paul Pratt, Paul Sarebresole, R.J. Hamilton, Robert Hampton, Roy Fredrick Bargy, Russell Smith, Sadie Koninsky, Theodore H. Northrup, Thomas E. Broady, Thomas Henry Lodge, Tony Jackson, and William Beebe.
HYSTERICAL HISTORICAL QUOTES ON RAGTIME
As with all musical developments, conservatives reacted with reactionary panic to what, over time, seems completely harmless. With ragtime’s seduction of America’s youth, there was predictable concern among wide numbers of both black and white Americans, albeit for different reasons. Blacks often expressed that it was the worst sort of primitive expression that impeded their collective progress as a people. Whites, on the other hand, usually worried that it was corrupting music and white morality. In some ways, the reaction against ragtime helped unite blacks and whites, just as the appreciation of it did.
Louis Blumberg noted, “It can not be denied that the lower types of ‘rag-time’ and the bulk of it – has done much to lower the musical taste and standard of the whole musical public, irrespective of color.”
The New York Herald warned “Can it be said that America is falling prey to the collective soul of the negro through the influence of what is popularly known as ragtime music? If there is any tendency towards such a national disaster, it should be definitely pointed out and extreme measures taken to inhibit the influence and avert the increasing danger if it has not gone too far. American ragtime music is symbolic of the primative immorality and perceptible moral limitations of the negro type.”
Composer Edward Baxter Perry warned, “Ragtime is syncopation gone mad and its victims can be treated successfully, in my opinion, like the dog with rabies, with a dose of lead. Whether it is simply a passing phase of our decadent art culture or an infectous disease that has come to stay, like leprosy, time alone can tell.”
Other composers were more pragmatic. Arthur Farwell said, “I often catch my foot in the act of appreciating it [ragtime] when my higher nature is caught off guard.”
RAGTIME’S CO-OPTION AND DECLINE
As with every black American musical development, ragtime was quickly co-opted and in many cases perverted by whites. And, as with all musical crazes (from cakewalk and ragtime then, to alternative and indie today) the term “ragtime” was eventually applied to almost any new composition, in an effort to cash in on the craze.
Coon songs arose when composers applied ragtime’s syncopated rhythms to the tired old minstrel stereotypes of the pre-Civil War era. Coon songs became so popular in the late nineteenth century that both white and black composers wrote them. Though offensive, the songs nonetheless helped open doors for black composers and black-derived music such as cakewalk and ragtime. Nonetheless, with many coon songs being misleadingly labeled as ragtime, many of the criticisms of ragtime began to come from progressives who were incapable of distinguishing coon songs from the genuine article.
Scott Joplin himself jumped to ragtime’s defense, arguing “What is scurrilously called ragtime is an invention that is here to stay. That is now conceded by all classes of musicians… All publications masquerading under the name of ragtime are not the genuine article… That real ragtime of the higher class is rather difficult to play is a painful truth which most pianists have discovered.”
As it declined in popularity, ragtime at the same time began incorporating and mixing with other genres to interesting effect. In 1912, W.C. Handy‘s “Memphis Blues” was advertised as “A Southern Rag.” However, even this shot in the arm couldn’t keep ragtime vital forever. Whereas in 1899, 124 rags had been released, in 1919 there were only seven and ragtime was deposed by its offspring, jazz.
Many years later, in 1951, interest in ragtime was renewed. Again, in 1973, the film The Sting brought it back to life yet again. That year, Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” featured in the film’s ragtime soundtrack, almost unthinkably reached number three on the pop charts. Seems like we’re long overdue for another’n.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Click here to offer financial support and thank you!