By the tail-end of the 1800s, Ragtime was a national craze. The syncopated, ragged rhythm style stemmed from African American communities, was the precursor to Jazz, and became the predominant American popular music at the turn of the century. And Joplin was King.
I discovered Scott Joplin’s music when I was 12 years old, and now I’m performing his classics at the festival. The best explanation for why a doughy white kid in Pittsburgh, PA, became obsessed with the music of a long-dead black American composer is: Scott Joplin’s music found me when I needed it. I didn’t have the words for this until the pianist Jon Batiste articulated it at the 2022 Grammy Awards. “It’s like a song or an album is made,” he said, “and it almost has a radar to find the person when they need it the most.”
For me, that song was Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” written in Sedalia in 1899. Scott Joplin put down roots in Sedalia because it’s where the work was, particularly in the infamous red-light district, one of the most famous in the midlands.
The red-light district is long gone from Sedalia. All that remains of the Maple Leaf Club, to which Joplin dedicated his famous composition, is a plaque and a park. But the music that brought it all to life is still breathing, and from Thursday to Saturday, the historic district in Sedalia transforms into the rhythmic, ragged-time heart of the vintage music world. Handsome brick buildings with vintage lettering line the wide street. Spacious sidewalks and streetlamps work like the lines in a Renaissance painting, directing your eyes to downtown. It’s cinematic, like a Hollywood soundstage, and trappings of the ragtime festival are everywhere. The marquee above the Fox Theater reads, “Welcome, Scott Joplin Fans.” The large Stark Tent, named after Sedalia businessman John Stark who published “Maple Leaf Rag,” is raised and pulled taut, its patriotic color scheme stark against the green of the Courthouse lawn.