Blowing Off The Dust
By Larry Melton
I spend a lot of time blowing the dust off of old newspaper clippings, especially articles about the ragtime festivals in Sedalia over the years. Most, of course, are from the Sedalia papers and I have written about many of those jottings. However, perhaps the most complete accounts of Sedalia’s more recent annual ragtime festivals are to be found in the Monett Times each year.
Monett, Missouri, population about 9,000, is located almost one hour southwest of Springfield, Missouri, on Highway 60 or about an hour and a half northwest of Branson. Monett itself has little in the way of ragtime history or notoriety. However, thanks to the avid interest of news editor, Murray Bishoff in classic ragtime music, Monett Times readers get a detailed report about the Sedalia festival each year in a Midweek Edition, in less that two weeks after the event.
At this point I would like to ramble off on a lengthy dissertation about the value of rural newspapers and the distinguished careers of rural editors I have known or read like William Allen White of the Emporia (Kansas) Gazette. However, I will employ a great deal of restraint and now focus my praise on Murray Bishoff’s writing.
Murray is the news editor of The Times and that title gives him reign over not just the news of southwestern Missouri but an opportunity to report on a wide range of cultural events he and his wife, Julie Waetke-Bishoff, enjoy attending in the course of a year. On January 25, 2018, Murray celebrated 30 years with The Times.
Murray’s thorough accounts of the festival programs and his descriptive notes on the performers have now provided a valuable archive record of the annual events for the past twenty years. Murray and Julie came to Sedalia to get tips on producing a festival in 1997 and his first published account was in 1998. He has produced a special report in a tabloid edition since 2014. His first interest in ragtime came from listening to Richard Zimmerman’s complete recorded works of Scott Joplin in the early 1970s and from his friend Sue Cordell Spracklen in Springfield.
Murray not only offers a summary and critique of the festivals, he meticulously chooses his camera angles and lighting to photographically illustrate his tabloid accounts. No major city could expect better coverage.
The Bishoffs travel throughout the Midwest to attend cultural events from rock concerts to the major symphony and opera programs in the four-state region centered around Monett. Murray has been a frequent recipient of Missouri Press Association awards and since 2015, that includes two first place awards plus numerous others for the general excellence of his work.
Southwest Missouri has rich ragtime traditions of its own. Murray writes about James Scott’s heritage in Carthage and about the popular songs of Joplin’s Percy Wenrich. Theron Bennett was born just up the road from Monett in Pierce City, and Murray helped resurrect the festival there in the 1990’s after visiting Sedalia. As an aside, Pierce City hosted probably the first large scale ragtime festival in the country when it honored Bennett with a festival from 1960 to 1970.
Perhaps the importance of Murray’s festival writing can be best be gleaned from the many comments his accounts receive when it is posted on ragtime social media sites each year. His insightful critiques also elicit suggestions and comments from readers. This year for example a person sent an email to the Festival Board noticing that a festival named for Scott Joplin in Sedalia, Missouri, did not include any African-American performers among the array of headliners. This is a matter the Board is already working to correct.
Murray’s journalistic work includes a wide range of subjects beyond his regular news beat, reflecting his eclectic interests. He built and maintains the Theron Bennett exhibit in the Pierce City Museum and is on the board there. He writes historical articles for the Connection Magazine and he is instrumental in codifying and maintaining the map of veterans’ graves in Pierce City cemeteries and works with the Legion to see that all the graves are marked on Memorial Day.
His extensive research into civil rights issues that have plagued Southwestern Missouri through its history comprise one of his most ambitious research projects. Specifically, he has written extensively on a 1901 lynching spree in the area and he has assisted with a film documentary on that event. Murray is also actively involved in comic book collecting and received an Inkpot Award from Comic-Con International in 1980 given to professionals in the field. As a columnist for the (Comic Books) Buyers Guide he played a role in helping in the creators of Superman get a settlement for their creation from Time-Warner back in the 1970s.
I have recently written about Charles Hanna of the Sedalia Capital who was the youngest editor of a daily newspaper in the country back in 1949-1950. I was blessed to work with Doug Kneibert, award winning editor at the Sedalia Democrat who was an officer of the First Sedalia Ragtime Festival Board and Missouri Press Hall of Fame writer Ron Jennings. All were great ragtime enthusiasts and publicists. And so, I add Murray Bishoff’s name to my Journalist’s Hall of Honor for their Coverage of Ragtime Music. He exemplifies the best of what rural journalism should be and he is a true devotee of great ragtime composition and performance.
Larry Melton can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org