It never ceases to amaze me the details I can remember from the first Sedalia ragtime festival 50 years ago. Yet, I can’t for the life of me remember what I had for supper last night. I guess that’s the collateral damage from adding 30 earlier years to those 50.
As I was reviewing fuzzy old color slides, I came across some images from the idyllic local piano playing contest preliminaries on the manicured lawn of the Carnegie Library just three blocks west of Ohio Street. The photos were of young people playing my old, blue-keyed baby grand we moved at great cost to our backs from our home across town. Stately old trees shaded the performers and some of the audience. But for the cars on the street and the contemporary ’74 summer fashions, they could be tinted lantern slides from the 1890s with the lovely old homes across from the library in the background.
Now here is a good example of my mind (and the photo) playing tricks. The fact is numerous people have reminded me that we chose the hottest, muggiest days of summer to hold the festival. The only days we could get the city’s Convention Hall were in late July, but the weather was miserable, and turned the scene into a sauna. My mind left the latter part out and I have only pleasurable memories of the festival, especially the outdoor events.
Melvin Kerr, who still appears with his famous church choir at festival events was the emcee and director of the Festival contests. Local winners in the divisions, youngest to oldest were Scott Ray West, Julie Green, and THE remarkable Mary Frances Herndon, (also an International Female Whistling champion who can confuse a songbird with her imitations or break glass with a high note.) She was so helpful during the first festivals and beyond.
We had placed borrowed pianos all over town so there was ragtime wafting through the streets for sure. However, two other major outdoor events garnered much of the daytime attention despite the heat. The first was on Main Street near where Joplin had played. The amazing local Jaycees had designed and constructed a stage and set where my blue-keyed piano resided for attendees to sign up and perform where Joplin had furthered his career. It was a parking lot then. Every time Eubie Blake sat down at that piano he would exclaim. “Blue keys…you don’t play ragtime on blue keys. (He would turn, grin and declare YOU PLAY THE BLUES,” as he began the “St. Louis Blues.”) Visitors gathered and performed on the parking lot in the blazing sun as they would stop by all day long to endure the heat and enjoy the talent.
As I helped plan the first festival, I wanted somehow to create a sense of what it was like in Sedalia in the 1890s. As I ruminated on that idea, it occurred that the city park with its islanded lagoon, remnant-columned pergola, and arching bridge was just the place to have a festival (the heat and humidity would only add to the authentic ambiance). So, the last event on Sunday afternoon was the Concert in the Park. The audience came early and spread blankets on the lawn for basket lunches or to nap since many were exhausted after the late night after glow gatherings.
The old, blue-keyed piano was once again hauled across town with great effort (thank goodness for piano dollies) and across the bridge to sit alongside a remarkably quiet generator and large speakers. It seemed everyone wanted to play, and Dick Zimmerman did his usual masterful job as Artistic Director, as he coordinated a final exciting concert. I was finally able to enjoy an entire event and I will never forget relaxing with my uncut hair blowing over my face, surrounded by the major figures of the great ragtime revival era, and dreaming it was Joplin at the piano there in 1904. I hope I never lose that memory.