David Reffkin and the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival

There was a knock at the door and when I answered the fellow introduced himself as David Reffkin (not to be confused with Joshua Rifkin and not related). David was interested in the upcoming ragtime festival and had arrived four days early to help. So, after a get acquainted conversation when I learned he was an accomplished violinist, I put him to work.

David was one of the first of many to stop by our home that week fifty years ago. However, this particular visitor was to become the only musician/performer to be in every single Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival over the last 50 years.

Explore Upbeat Records

As an aside here, I can’t relate how many times I have regretted having asked gifted amateur and professional musicians who depend on their hands and fingers for their craft, to do potentially dangerous jobs like handling those cumbersome old folding tables that could pinch off a digit faster than a pair of tin snips. Fortunately, I think they all came away from their assignments unscathed.

There was so much to do to get ready and, in my eagerness to produce the festival I had neglected one of the most vital elements…people to set up venues, move chairs, tables, pianos, and be available for the hundreds of tasks that seemed to emerge by the hour. However, the help magically appeared, and I’ve been forever grateful.

In between all the hustle I had a chance to get better acquainted with David and I discovered he was a 1973 graduate of the New England Conservatory in Boston where he had worked closely with Gunther Schuller. When I inquired about Schuller’s NEC Ensemble, I found that David had been a recording technician on the famous Red Back Book album. When the first festival began, David missed few opportunities to regale the audiences with his ragtime violin virtuosity.

UpBeat Records

In another aside here, David relates on his web site (davidreffkin.com) how he came to be only the second person known to have a complete set of John Stark’s famous Standard High-Class Rags, (aka “The Red Back Book”) containing the orchestrations for 15 titles scored for 11 different instruments.

Through the years he has organized, played in or directed several groups, including his American Ragtime Orchestra formed the day after his graduation. He has been collecting and arranging orchestration for this group for over 50 years.

When I met David in Sedalia, he was teaching orchestra in the Virginia, Minnesota public schools and playing in the Duluth Superior Symphony.

After several years of innovative teaching, and accomplished performance David moved to San Francisco where is he has taught, performed on violin, and conducted several groups including a trio that performed daily at the famous Westin St. Francis Hotel. He has also played with several symphony orchestras and with such notables as Doc Severinsen and the Peter Mintun Orchestra.

Through all his many musical endeavors he always managed to be a part of the Joplin Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, usually as a headliner. He has also performed as a guest and presenter at many other events around the country. In the 1990s he was the lead violinist with the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble in its last four years.


When Leslie Johnson first began publishing The Mississippi Rag, David was an early contributor, writing feature stories on major ragtime personalities and reporting on ragtime events.

For over 30 years David interviewed and recorded nearly everyone in the ragtime community for his weekly radio program, The Ragtime Machine, on KUSF-FM San Francisco. When the station was sold in 2011, David donated his extensive library of program tapes to the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound at Stanford University.

David has been a popular lecturer on ragtime history and structure down to the present. He continues to give such talks for community groups in the San Francisco area. He has consulted on many projects including Larry Karp’s book, Brun Campbell: The Original Ragtime Kid. His American Ragtime Ensemble issued a CD of Campbell’s compositions.

David has consulted for the Joplin Festival Board od Directors for many years. In 2006 David received the annual Scott Joplin Award for his musical achievements in ragtime.

Thus, I conclude this month’s SJRF reminiscence with a joyful reminder of what a knock on the door can delightfully portend.

Larry Melton was a founder of the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in 1974 and the Sedalia Ragtime Archive in 1976. He was a Sedalia Chamber of Commerce manager before moving on to Union, Missouri where he is currently helping to conserve the Ragtime collection of the Sedalia Heritage Foundation. Write him at [email protected].

Or look at our Subscription Options.