Bob Darch: Saving Sedalia’s Ragtime Heritage

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1974

For some time now, I have been gathering material on “Ragtime” Bob Darch in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of his birth in 2020. I have discovered many others have recently written or are writing about Bob’s life and career, so for now, I’ll focus on the affectionate bond Bob had with Sedalia, Missouri.

In a way the symbiotic relationship can be summed up in the words of an April 10, 1961, Sedalia Democrat editorial. After describing the wide range of Bob’s appearances and the publicity he had garnered for himself, the editor concludes,

None should begrudge the publicity Bob has gotten for himself. It’s his business to get a much as he can, and he certainly has the knack for getting it in abundance wherever he goes. What we mean in saying we shouldn’t begrudge Bob all the publicity he gets is the fact that Darch always sees to it that Sedalia shares in the beneficial publicity.

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And, of course Sedalia reciprocated by hiring him to return and perform often over the years.

According to a Sedalia Democrat article, July 21, 1959, Bob’s first unpublicized visit to Sedalia was in 1947. However, I suspect that should have been 1957 as Bob was still in Japan in 1947. Whichever date is correct, Bob was fascinated by the city where Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag was first published, and Sedalia was enamored by “Ragtime” Bob.

Bob Darch in Europe during his service in World War Two.

Most of us knew Bob Darch as a consummate entertainer working saloons and clubs all over the country and often abroad. We forget his adventurous life as a young man. He earned a college engineering degree and then traveled with John Steinbeck to Mexico and Central California before the author was famous. Next, he was a military hero as an Army paratrooper during the D-Day invasion of Europe. After the war he served as an Army engineer building airbases in Japan. In the early 1950s he was stationed in Alaska working as an engineer and in his spare time he played ragtime piano wherever he could get a gig. Bob mustered out of the service as a Major and lived for a time with his family in Michigan but soon went back to Alaska to pursue his musical career. Then in 1956, according to C.W. Bayer in his essay “Honky Tonk in the Ruins of a Mining Town” in Rhymes From the Silver State (2018), Bob and family took up residence in Virginia City, Nevada. along with his famous five-pedal Cornish Upright Saloon Piano and was based there until they moved to the old Ritchey Mansion in Newtonia, Missouri, in 1960.

I’ll jump over the specific details of Bob’s early life and focus on his Sedalia connection. Others, including his Joplin, Missouri protegee, Steven Spracklen, will be writing more about Bob as his 100th birth anniversary approaches I understand.

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As Bob traveled around the country from his bases in Michigan and Alaska he was constantly in pursuit of any documents, especially music, related to the original ragtime composers. He was also actively composing his own syncopated compositions.

In 1959, Bob’s long connection to Sedalia began in earnest when he contacted the Chamber of Commerce about a performing engagement and he was hired to provide a program on ragtime for a Chamber breakfast in mid-July. Bob had aroused Missouri interest when he played for a state Jaycees Convention in late May in Joplin, Missouri. Bob was traveling with his second wife, Peggy, when he arrived in July to perform.

As always, George Scruton, editor of the Sedalia Democrat, saw to it that considerable coverage of the breakfast event was provided for both Bob’s performance and Sedalia’s ragtime history. One pre-event article went into length about Bob’s early years in Detroit and then about the time Darch met Percy Wenrich, the composer Bob credited with inspiring his own ragtime career. Many of these articles also refer to Bob’s old Cornish piano, but the old upright’s story will be told later, and it is nearly as interesting as Bob himself.

It is important here to mention that Bill Hopkins was the Chamber president at this time and he and his wife Dorothy became avid ragtime fans and close friends of Bob. Bill was always a strong advocate for Darch and for any recognition of Sedalia’s ragtime heritage. While in town, Darch and the Hopkins made a tape recording of an interview with Tom Ireland about Tom’s experiences with Scott Joplin and the Queen City Concert Band. They also visited the Perry Music Company to look through the old printing plates and Bob had a chance to play the old Perry Company piano.

Ragtime” Bob’s reputation in Sedalia grew exponentially after that Chamber breakfast. A tape of his performance was played over local radio station KDRO on several occasions and Ralph Jones at the Sedalia Democrat wrote articles about Bob and Sedalia Ragtime that circulated in newspapers around the state.

Most significantly, as a result of Darch’s performance, the Chamber appointed a Scott Joplin Memorial Committee in September to be headed by radio newsman Harlan Snow and local businessman and musician Jack Siragusa. The group aimed to further pursue Brun Campbell’s goals for Sedalia, specifically to establish a center for Joplin and ragtime lore, raise funds to bring Joplin’s body to Sedalia for reburial from New York, and finally to produce a special memorial program featuring Bob Darch and honoring Joplin to be held November 23-24. The first concert was to be held in the Smith-Cotton High School auditorium and the second at the African-American Hubbard High School.

Meanwhile, Bob continued his travels and was also writing articles himself. Anticipating his return engagement to Sedalia, Bob had an article in the Sedalia paper announcing his search for ragtime items not already in his collection. Specifically, he was looking for an original Sedalia copy of Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag. Bob planned to spend a week in Sedalia around the memorial concerts.

The concerts were a resounding success and included appearances by Joplin colleagues Arthur Marshall, then living in Kansas City, and Tom Ireland, retired Sedalia newspaperman and musician in the Queen City Concert Band.

[For an account of these concerts and the work of the Memorial Foundation, see: Before The Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival. For more information on Tom Ireland, see: Tom Ireland’s Clarinet]

A very important guest at the concerts was Trebor Tichenor from St. Louis who along with Darch interviewed Arthur Marshall after the programs and Darch acquired several pieces of original ragtime sheet music from Marshall. Tichenor was to begin a series of ragtime festivals on the Goldenrod Showboat in 1964. Trebor wrote of Bob Darch in a 1961 Missouri Historical Society Bulletin article,

In 1960, half a century after its peak, Ragtime is being kept alive by a handful of collectors, researchers, and musicians. The energetic and dedicated “Ragtime” Bob Darch is making intensive efforts to reaffirm ragtime’s popularity and has done more than any one person to establish Missouri in the early development of true ragtime.

A Sedalia centennial concert in October 1960 brought Bob back to reprise his previous performances. However, Bob was far more involved than that. In April, the State Fair Secretary announced that Darch would be the summer headliner and perform throughout the fair for the duration of the event. In July Bob flew all around the state including a stop in Sedalia promoting the Fair and, as always, Sedalia ragtime.

To no one’s surprise Bob was an enormous hit at the1960 Fair with his brightly painted truck and banner plastered old Cornish upright piano. He came to town for a program crowning Sedalia’s Centennial queen in September and he wrote a series of short ragtime biographies for the Sedalia Democrat newspaper to run during the celebration week in October.

A postcard featuring Ragtime Bob Darch

Parades and appearances preceded the October 17 concert where Bob again featured Arthur Marshall and Tom Ireland. Marshall introduced his “Missouri Romp” and the program ended with newspaper reporter D. Kelly Scruton doing a slow shuffle to Bob’s accompaniment.

Before leaving town, he and Sedalia native Jack Oakie and Arthur Marshall turned a spade where the Scott Joplin/Maple Leaf Rag monument would be erected in 1961. It was a long way from the grand memorials Brun Campbell and Bob Darch had originally proposed, but with virtually every original site associated with Sedalia Ragtime demolished, it was at least one lasting reminder of the city’s musical heritage.

It is also important to add that every time Darch visited Sedalia for a featured concert, he took the opportunity to play short programs in at least one school and at whatever Civic Clubs were meeting while he was in town.

It seemed that Sedalia reconnected with its ragtime past about every decade between 1950 and 1980 and most of the resurrections of interests were due to Darch’s interventions. My family moved to Sedalia in 1965 and I first became aware of the city’s ragtime background when Darch returned to Sedalia for a 1971 performance with the venerable Sedalia Symphony Orchestra in its 35th season. I heard him for the first time that April and had only recently become interested in Joplin and ragtime as I was completing a master’s degree at the college in Warrensburg. Bob’s presentation was inspiring. Conductor and Symphony founder Abe Rosenthal managed an evening program of Beethoven’s Fifth, selections from Fiddler on the Roof, and concluded with Bob’s eclectic ragtime selections. It worked.

Two years later after beginning my teaching career at the segregated African-American Hubbard Elementary School and having attended the first two premieres of Joplin’s opera Treemonisha, where the festival idea emerged, the Chamber of Commerce adopted a proposal to hold a Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in the summer of 1974.

Incidentally, Bill Hopkins was on the Board and Jake Siragusa was president. Both were direct pipelines to Bob Darch.

Along with Rudi Blesh, Max Morath, and Trebor Tichenor, Bob was of tremendous help in organizing and producing that first event. In fact, working with Bob Vernon, arrangements were made for Bob to do a preliminary concert to excite interest in the festival and raise some urgently needed funds. The resulting “Three Generations of Ragtime,” program featured Darch, Peter Lundburg from Sweden, and Steven Sprachlen from Joplin, Missouri.

Ragtime musicians from around the country descended on Sedalia, Missouri, for five days in July 1974. Headliners included Director Richard Zimmerman, Max Morath, Rudi Blesh, Trebor Tichenor, Wally Rose, William Bolcom and Joan Morris, Al Rose, Addison Reed, J. Hamilton Douglas, the amazing Eubie Blake, and “Ragtime” Bob Darch. I must observe, Bob’s performances were of course enthusiastically received by the entire audience but Sedalians literally followed him from venue to venue and couldn’t get enough of his performances.

Promo Photo

The Festivals were produced in 1974 and 1975 but ended due to lack of local interest and funding. However, to the city’s great credit Sedalia not only resurrected the festival in 1983 but conducted a successful campaign to have the U.S. Postal Service issue a Scott Joplin stamp with the first day ceremony in Sedalia (see The Syncopated Times, June 2017 p. 16). Darch as always, was there to promote Joplin and Sedalia and he wrote in an application letter,

I have always firmly believed that Sedalia, Missouri is the birthplace of ragtime, simply because of the fact that Scott Joplin and his famous Maple Leaf Rag originated right there at the Maple Leaf Club.

Besides Scott Joplin and the Maple Leaf Rag, you’ve got Otis Saunders, Queen City Concert Band, John Stark, publisher, and the famous Arthur Marshall composer of “Missouri Romp” and of course “Swipsey Cake Walk.”

In my opinion, it’s only logical that Sedalia, the birthplace of Ragtime, be the one to introduce the Scott Joplin Memorial Stamp.

Bob was a frequent headliner at the Joplin festival in the next two decades and in fact he was featured in 2001 and was scheduled for 2003 but he died in October 2002.

As the ultimate testimony to Bob’s admiration for Sedalia’s ragtime heritage and the community’s appreciation for him, “Ragtime” Bob Darch asked to be buried in Sedalia and he was interred with full military honors in the city’s Crown Hill Cemetery. During the 2003 Joplin Ragtime Festival (and at every subsequent annual event to date) a New Orleans style procession made its way to Joplin’s grave and a bottle of Old Crow was passed around in his honor.

Thomas Cahill declared that the Irish saved Western Civilization and that may be so but, in many ways, ragtime was saved by a handful of performers in the mid-twentieth century and Bob Darch was not only one of those farsighted entertainers he was instrumental in helping Sedalia, Missouri appreciate its Ragtime heritage.

I have an indelible memory of “Ragtime” Bob in Sedalia at his old piano, pounding out a ragtime piece from the thousands in his memorized repertoire. He would turn to his audience without skipping a note to offer some historical banter or to sing along with what he was playing. And then, I will forever hear him say, “Ragtime dead? Hell, it ain’t even sick.”


Write to Larry Melton at lcmelton67@gmail.com.

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