In the month supposedly reserved for New Year resolutions, I prefer to look back forty years to an as yet unrealized resolution from the 1970s. As I conserve and index old sheet music in the Sedalia Ragtime Archive, I am amazed by both how prolific many early 1900s era composers were and also by how many were from Missouri. Bill Caldwell’s article in the Joplin Globe on New Year’s day this year reminded me of Percy Wenrich’s body of work down in the Southwest part of the state and that opened up the plethora of musical memories that included an old resolution.
Back when we were organizing the first ragtime festival in Sedalia in the early1970s, I began investigating that small community’s role in the development of American popular music. In the process, I became aware of all the other forms of music that either began or were greatly enhanced by Missouri composers and performers.
Being young and even more pretentious that I am today, back in 1975, I wrote to a distant relative, State Senator Emory Melton, when I read that he had been named chairman of the Missouri Tourism Commission. I was convinced I had the perfect tourism promotion for the state: a focus on the forms of American music that either originated in Missouri or were profoundly influenced by musicians in or from the state. I resolved to make it happen.
I carefully outlined all the musical styles associated with Missouri up to the 1975. The research for that proposal really broadened my awareness of just how musical Missouri had been. Of course I began with Scott Joplin and the “Maple Leaf Rag” inaugurating classic ragtime and popularizing the genre that would label an American era. From ragtime in Sedalia and St. Louis I traced the larger city’s ragtime contributions but also the Blues and Dixieland associated with old St. Lou and the Mississippi-Missouri Rivers there. All the greats started or passed through St. Louis from Tom Turpin on and W.C. Handy wrote “The St. Louis Blues” from music he heard strolling the city’s streets.
As a side note, Trebor Tichenor already had his American Ragtime Festival well established so Sedalia and St. Louis already had annual ragtime and traditional jazz events to contribute to the promotion. In addition there were Trebor’s St. Louis Ragtimers, Singleton Palmer’s Dixieland Band, Sammy Gardner’s Mound City Six and Jean Kittrell’s Stride and Swing piano stylings carrying on the St. Louis traditions. And, of course I didn’t neglect Chuck Berry and the origins of rock and roll in Missouri.
I waxed on about the great Folk and Bluegrass traditions of Southern Missouri. I’d met Johnny and Caroline Vincent and daughter performing as the Sally Mountain Trio at the Missouri State Fair and learned from them of the vitality of Bluegrass music in the state. I even did the lettering for their first album. Their daughter Rhonda became the “Queen of Bluegrass Music” according to the Wall Street Journal!
Springfield, Missouri had some of the earliest Hillbilly and Bluegrass music radio stations and they had the first TV station to promote Country music on The Ozark Jubilee program. Porter Wagoner was the star of many of those shows, especially after he introduced Dolly Parton.
And since I began with Percy Wenrich I noted Joplin, Missouri proudly plugged Wenrich as “The Joplin Kid” and celebrated itself as the old ragtime and tin pan alley composer’s birthplace. Back in Sedalia, Leroy Van Dyke’s Auctioneer had brought Country music to “The Cradle of Ragtime.”
Lincoln University in Jefferson City had the Legend Singers and St. Louis had the Lesters performing Black and White Gospel music. (Today Melvin Kerr, a native Sedalian, and his St. Monica’s Inspirational Gospel Choir perform for Kansas City enthusiasts).
By the time I got to Kansas City, I was already on overload and my exposition on Kansas City Jazz really rounded out the musical circuit. From Charles L. Johnson and the contributions of the Jenkin’s Music Company to Count Basie and Bennie Moten pioneering the Big Band sound and of course Charlie “Bird” Parker’s Bebop there was plenty on the east side of Missouri to promote.
And, I rounded out my proposal with a short paragraph on Virgil Thomson’s role as the originator of “The American Sound” in modern tonal Classical music (from his Kansas City origins). Finally, with Virgil appropriately esconsed in the panoply of great American musical composers and performers from Missouri, I sent my effort off to the venerable Senator Melton.
Much to my delight, I received an enthusiastic letter in response. “…there is a great deal of merit to your suggestions,” he wrote, and, “you may have picked up a supporter,” he concluded (I discounted the “may” prematurely). He forwarded the letter on to the Director of State Tourism where it must have died under a pile of proposals for making Galena the state ore of Missouri to a “Square Dancing Across Missouri” theme! Such an ignominious death for what I still believe to be a great idea.
And so as I continue to delve into the seemingly endless stacks and cartons of old documents, I’m am left with the realization that while New York, Los Angeles, and New Orleans are the prominent centers of America’s musical culture today, I realize Missouri cultivated the best variety and cross section of musical styling origins to be found anywhere in the country in the early glory days of 20th century America. Today we can tout the National Blues Museum in St. Louis and the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City. It is also nice to report that the most recent chairman of the state Republican Party is an avid ragtime piano player so our own John Hancock might be interested in reviving the old Missouri Musical Heritage Trail idea! I’ll write about Missouri’s museum facilities and the many musical archive collections in this area in a future dusting. For now have a Happy and Musical New Year.
Larry Melton can be contacted at [email protected]
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