Fremont County, Iowa

Ragtime Piano
by Lynn Benson

View from the Attic ~ A Weekly Series
Fremont County Historical Society
July 28, 2010

Ragtime piano returns to “The Gathering Place” in Sidney, August 8th through the 10th, so it seems an historical review of the topic would be appropriate for this week’s column. Our source for this article is the Performing Arts Encyclopedia at the Library of Congress.

Ragtime reached its greatest popularity between 1897 and World War I. Created by itinerant professional performers in saloons and honky-tonks, ragtime was ultimately disseminated by piano rolls and printed music. It is a sophisticated genre requiring considerable technical skill. Among many outstanding ragtime composers Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” (1899) inaugurated ragtime as a national craze.

Missouri, located in the center of America, was the heartland of ragtime. As noted by popular music historians David Jasen and Gene Jones, “There were more rags, and more good rags, from Missouri than anywhere else.”

The most influential and memorable publisher was John Stark, a Civil War veteran, and ice cream salesman who loved music. He settled in Sedalia in 1886, opened a music store, and eventually turned to publishing. Stark met Scott Joplin, in 1899, when the latter came into Stark’s store to demonstrate his still unpublished “Maple Leaf Rag”. Although Stark was impressed by the musicality of the piece, the technical difficulty of the piece led him to question its salability.

After some encouragement from his son, John Stark agreed to publish “Maple Leaf Rag” thus beginning a profitable business relationship for himself and Joplin and insuring immortality for ragtime. By 1914, “Maple Leaf Rag” had sold a million copies and Stark had amassed over 50 rags in his catalog. Ragtime was everywhere by the early 1900’s – in sheet music, piano rolls, phonograph records, and ragtime piano playing contests, as well as in music boxes and vaudeville theaters. As “Professor” Bill Edwards will emphasize in his workshop at "The Gathering Place" in Sidney, on August 9th, “ragtime piano gave voice to the silent movie era”.

“Ragtime” as a catchall name for syncopated popular music remained popular through the 1910’s. Ragtime’s popularity faded around 1917, with the rise of another catchall term – “jazz” – was used to describe peppy, noisy, popular music. Although ragtime was not a big attraction during the 1930’s and 1940’s, it was still played, and not just by pianists. Often times a dance band recorded an up-to-date swing version of “Maple Leaf Rag”.

The 1974 motion picture, “The Sting”, introduced the widest audience yet to the music of Scott Joplin. Although the choice of Joplin’s music for a story set in the 1930’s was historically inaccurate, the music underscored and supported the action on the screen perfectly. As a result, Joplin’s “The Entertainer” went to the top of the pop record charts.

Ragtime, like any other music, must be heard and really cannot be defined by words, just as words cannot be defined by music. But, through more than 100 years, ragtime has had no trouble making its presence known and its composers, performers, and admirers all look forward to its future.

If you are a ragtime junkie or just want to know more about ragtime and want to enjoy talented entertainers perform, consider attending the workshop August 9th, or one of the four performances August 8th-10th at "The Gathering Place" in Sidney.

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Page updated on June 20, 2017 by Karyn Techau