Sedalia, Missouri, where classic ragtime became America’s music
By Jackie Tucker
It’s not often that you find yourself standing at the very spot where music history was made. But if you walk down the sidewalk in front of 114 E. Fifth Street in Sedalia, Missouri, you’re standing on a very famous site, indeed.
On August 10, 1899, the modern music industry was profoundly advanced when local businessman, John Stark, signed a royalty music contract with a brilliant young composer named Scott Joplin. The contract stipulated that Joplin would receive a 1% royalty on all sales of what would become his most popular tune, “Maple Leaf Rag,” with a minimum sales price of 25 cents.
Joplin’s music was a blend of African, Latin and American Indian rhythms played on the piano by the left hand, while the right hand bounced out soulful harmonies and melodies. He called it ragtime. And if you’re anywhere close to Sedalia the first weekend in June, you’ll hear its expressive strains floating across town from the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival.
Making music history
When Joplin signed the “Maple Leaf Rag” contract on a warm August day in Sedalia, he predicted that he would become known as the “King of Ragtime Composers” because he knew his music was ahead of its time. His legacy has long been memorialized.
Joplin not only conceived and composed his best work in Sedalia, the “Maple Leaf Rag,” but the contract he signed with John Stark set a precedent for composer royalties that bolstered the modern commercial music industry and helped usher in the first real era of American popular music.
A music festival is born
In 1971, several Sedalians traveled to Atlanta for a performance of Joplin’s opera Treemonisha. At the pre-performance seminar at Morehouse College, the major ragtime personalities of the era were on a panel, and afterward, the Sedalians had the courage to approach William Bolcom, Max Morath and Eubie Blake and ask if they would come to Sedalia, Missouri to perform in a Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival.
The reply of these ragtime greats was immediate and emphatic. “In Sedalia? Absolutely yes!” That’s how large Sedalia loomed in their esteem. In 1974, the evening after Eubie Blake performed, he told several festival organizers backstage that he had played concerts all over the world. In fact, he had just been in Europe. He had played for the Queen of England, at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, and he went on with a who’s who of performance venues. He stopped, pointed to the stage, looked up and said: “And now,” then he paused. “I’ve played Sedalia!”
The local organizers were so inspired by these performances and the response of such well-known musicians, they decided that Sedalia was going to have a regular ragtime festival. With the help of the community and the Chamber of Commerce, a committee was formed in 1973 and a startup was funded. A year and a half later, Sedalia was the hub of the ragtime world again for the first time since 1900 and has continued the annual festival since 1983.
And the tradition continues
The Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival is held annually the first weekend in June, providing music, dancing and entertainment to more than 6,000 visitors. In 2016, it will be held June 1–4. The festival organizers reminisce about the very first festival: “Nearly every major authority on ragtime or its history has participated and reveled in the four-day event.” Generally recognized as the “grandfather of ragtime festivals,” Sedalia continues to honor Scott Joplin and ragtime music each year with some of the top ragtime musicians in the world, informative and educational ragtime symposiums, free dance lessons and even a chance for festival goers to take a seat at the “open piano” and try channeling their inner Scott Joplin.
While in town for the festival, visitors will want to stop by the KATY Depot and explore the Ragtime Archive Project of the Sedalia Heritage Foundation. Volunteers have spent more than 1,000 hours professionally archiving 65 years of ragtime concerts and festival memorabilia, as well as original ragtime-era treasures to be displayed in the exhibit.
“One of the best parts of the experience,” one of the festival organizers says in reference to the Ragtime Archive Project, “has been the privilege of opening the archive boxes. It has been like unsealing a precious time capsule.”
The town’s enthusiasm of shared memories and stories, as well as a love of ragtime, is contagious. Join thousands of ragtime fans in June for an amazing celebration as Sedalia hosts the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival. And feel yourself, in the words of Scott Joplin
Marching onward, marching onward
Marching to that lovely tune
Marching onward, marching onward
Happy as a bird in June.
Get more information to plan your visit to Sedalia.