As I was writing last month about the excellent newspapers and newsletters in the fields of jazz and ragtime, I was also reminded of the amazing books, articles, and websites that collectively provide a near-definitive account of this uniquely American genre of music.
I am not very knowledgeable about the literature of jazz but I have kept up with ragtime related writing and am amazed by both the breadth and depth of what has been done. As I process our small Sedalia Ragtime Archive collection, I am constantly needing a reference or detail on something and almost without exception, I can find answers in the Archive’s ragtime library, in old periodicals or on the internet.
Ragtime has not only some of the finest historical and musicological researchers but many are professional or semi-professional performers as well. Additionally, the number with earned Masters and PhDs is growing annually.
When they play, it is not only a function of their talent; their performance comes from an interpretative sense grounded in their study of ragtime’s origins and constructions.
My introduction to the field came from Harriett Janis and Rudi Blesh’s They All Played Ragtime, 1951. Their work was based on interviewing first and second generation composers and performers and they had access to primary sources that were soon unavailable. Meeting Rudi at the 1974 Sedalia Festival was a real treat and his assistance in making contacts in the field as we prepared was invaluable.
The Janis and Blesh work was germinal and soon resulted in a shelf of well researched volumes. They ranged from various interpretations of the music to biographies of the ragtime principles so thoroughly and delightfully written as to cause me to think I had lived one hundred and twenty-five years ago and knew the composers personally. I thought for instance there couldn’t possibly be any more on Scott Joplin than Ed Berlin had in his 1994 biography, The King of Ragtime. Then this spring out comes his second edition, nearly a third larger. Ed leaves no document or line of newsprint unread.
Even questionably obscure characters like Brunson Campbell are now fleshed out and their facts accurately checked as with Larry Karp’s Brun Campbell: The Original Ragtime Kid published this year.
Hardly a week goes by that I don’t take advantage of Bill Edward’s research at www.perfessorbill.com. It is a virtual encyclopedia of ragtime for reading and listening. I keep waiting for Bill to sell subscriptions, his site is so valuable; but until then I try to make purchases from his considerable catalog of CDs and publications like his latest gem on E.T. Paull. We are also blessed with a growing number of ragtime CDs and many like the quality productions from Bryan Wright’s Rivermont include liner notes that provide a depth of information that enhances our listening experience.
As I was about to end my thoughts on ragtime scholarship an amazing exchange was taking place on the Ragtimers Club Facebook page. A PhD student was seeking information as to Joplin’s political positions and almost instantly, the major authorities around the world began to reply, offering information, suggestions and informed conjecture. The student had to have been pleased and I was provided with a perfect example to illustrate the point of this essay. Ragtime not only has a breadth and depth of authorities on the field, but there is a warm collegiality among the group, a generous willingness to share information, and I find, usually the desire to press an issue further and stimulate new research. I’m very proud to be a sideline observer and the recipient of so much stimulating knowledge.
Larry Melton was a founder of the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in 1974 and the Sedalia Ragtime Archive in 1976 before moving on to Union, Missouri where he is currently helping to conserve the Archive collection for the Sedalia Heritage Foundation. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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