1963 Ragtime and Early Jazz from the Perspective of a Swedish Adolescent’s First Visit to the Birthplace of Both Genres: a Memoir

The title for this talk is both intimidating and academically demanding. We recognize Lucille Salerno’s hand here. The paper was originally presented June 10, 2010, at the Blind Boone Festival in Columbia, Missouri. My own title for the mass market paperback version will be Tell Your Mother I Love Her. An explanation will follow later. The paper has been proofread for typing errors, but it remains essentially as written and retains my impressions then, not much hindsight, and my Swedish /English grammar.

But it is a good title, trying to remember bits and pieces from the garden of my adolescence, having crossed the mudcracked wastelands of adulthood, and now arriving at the borders of the uncharted territory of senescence.

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To paint a background, ragtime was never even close to popular in Sweden. Yes, cakewalks were published, a military band recorded “Georgia Campmeeting” on a cylinder in 1899 or possibly 1900. Around 1910 we have some scattered accordion and band recordings and there was a “ragtime society” in Stockholm in 1915.

But in Sweden, waltz was the craze, especially what was called the “Boston Waltz” which as far as I can understand, was similar to the “Hesitation Waltz.” When asked, my grandmother demonstrated it by a slow, hanging on to the first beat, approach. Behind this Boston waltzing was bandleader and composer Theodore Pinet, who on the other hand did compose a few rags and one steps, to show he was aware of current fashions.

I myself spent most of my first ten years living with my grandparents, both born in the nineties, which gave me a familiarity with thoughts and behavior out of the early years of the twentieth century. Not that they didn’t change with the times, but I could ask questions and get answers from eyewitnesses. Somehow that made it natural for me to think of the turn of the century as something close, natural, accessible.

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In the early fifties there was a resurgence of traditional jazz among college and high school kids. The inspiration originated not so much from the 1940s US revival but from British bands, like Ken Colyer’s, Chris Barber’s, and the like.

Rock ’n’ roll hadn’t really arrived and we were all forming bands, trying to sound like the very few recordings available, with very little knowledge of either the historical settings or of music as such. But we made a lot of noise and had a lot of fun. As a piano player I was invited to all sorts of parties where I also preserved my innocence, being attached to a keyboard while all around me people were busy with whatever teenagers are busy with at parties. I was later able to recapture my lack of early experiences.

One favorite hangout for me was the USIS library, the United States Information Service, with all those books about America, and about my favorite topics, flight and space rockets and music. I had started buying SciFi paper backs, so my reading skills were pretty good. I read books like Jazzmen, Shining Trumpets, and the other few histories of jazz.

I guess I should remind you how extremely simplified was the idea of the evolution of jazz in those days, even though at the time of writing it seems you had access to everybody involved, except Scott Joplin and Buddy Bolden. Jazz came out of slavery, went through spirituals and work songs and the country blues, through brass bands and jazz bands and big band, everything dovetailing into the next phase, seamlessly. The old jazz was pure and honest and good, new jazz was bad.

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This history was basically written by a handful of white male pipe smoking academics in tweed jackets and they were all foremost romantics, with ideas about jazz as the only true American form of art, and the musician as the popular hero, or, as circumstances were, the misunderstood genius. Somehow nobody seemed to have asked the musicians themselves about this. Those who did know that the one yearning that binds together musicians of all kinds, and artists in general of all varieties, is to be able to pay the bills. But you don’t write a good story about paying the rent, although there have been written quite a few good songs about it.

I myself ate it all up, those jazz histories spurred my imagination. America became a promised land of larger than life personalities playing louder than life music.

One book hit me between the eyes: Rudi Blesh’s and Harriet Janis’ They All Played Ragtime. A whole volume about that elusive word, ragtime. The first account of a style, tolerated by the trad jazz bands, neglected by the public, ridiculed by contemporary musicians, parodied, the book written in a combination of enthusiasm and sentimentality that was irresistible. I almost learned it by heart, complete with the lists of rags and recordings. And it had the full score of the “Maple Leaf Rag.”

Now the question was, how to go further.

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theyallplayedrag00blesh - 1963 Ragtime and Early Jazz from the Perspective of a Swedish  Adolescent’s First Visit to the Birthplace of Both Genres: a MemoirThe Bible, as They All Played Ragtime, was referred to at one time, had a picture of the remaining St. Louis ragtimer, Charles Thompson. He is standing outside his bar, in the forties, and you can see the street numbers. Naturally, I wrote him, naturally the bar was gone, my letter ended up at another Charles Thompson, but they knew each other. An answer came after a while, in his elegant longhand. We wrote back and forth a few times and he was patient in answering my trivial fan questions.

I am not sure, but maybe through Thompson, I got in touch with a contemporary of mine, Trebor Tichenor. He and an older friend, Russ Cassidy, had a mimeographed newsletter, the The Ragtime Review, with excellent information. There was also another newsletter out of Venice, California, Paul Affeld’s Jazz Report. Paul was a fan of ragtime, a friend of Brun Campbell who was a friend of Scott Joplin and brought Campbell and other early artists out on his own long playing Euphonic label.

Paul was another total believer, very short tempered when it came to people who didn’t understand the value of ragtime and older forms of jazz.

And then Joseph Lamb’s record was released.

I read the review in Down Beat, sent for a copy—took a week by boat in those days—listened through, came to my senses and wrote him and got a pleasant but subdued letter back, from Mrs. Lamb, with his obituary. I wasn’t the only one to write him, of course, but he was sufficiently impressed by a seventeen-year old swede’s fan mail to mention this in letters to other people. Unfortunately, he missed writing me. As you might have heard, he passed away re-reading some of this fan mail, including mine.

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This was sad, but Mrs. Lamb was kind enough to furnish me with a selection of her husband’s pieces. Imagine the feeling of having sheet music from the composer’s files, on my piano…

Mrs. Lamb also informed me that a friend and musician, a Robert Darch, would contact me. He did, in a letter of four pages of yellow legal paper, in an energetic block lettering I was to get familiar with.

“Ragtime Bob” Darch, as his rubber stamp said, had an impressive CV and I was even more impressed when, sometime later, there was a tapping, as if someone gently rapping, seeking entrance at my apartment door.

’Twas the mailman, staggering under the load of a heavy roll of what looked like, and turned out to be, rolled up paper. It had my address on it and was filled all over with one and two cent stamps. I thought the stamps were such a nice touch. When I opened it, out flowed what is still the major part of my ragtime sheet music collection. Photostats, originals, copies of manuscripts of rags, songs, blues, marches, all with the Ragtime Bob Darch rubber stamp.

I was in possession of the best ragtime library north of the Alps. All I needed to know was what this music meant, and how to play it.

I am convinced that to be able to both enjoy fully and to perform music from a bygone era you have to somehow plug into that era and how do you do that? By reading, getting the facts but also reading whatever people wrote in those days: letters, prose, songs. Looking at images. Going to places. The fascination in reaching back to an earlier time is that you find that people were people even then; you can relate to them. And yet they express themselves differently. Everything changes, nothing changes. If you have seen the wonderful three-minute film, At the Foot of the Flatiron Building, you see New Yorkers of 1903 on the windiest street in town, losing both hats and dignity, and most of them having recognizable fun. For myself, no other music works with this scene but ragtime.

But music is also geared to the places, to the ambience and to the settings, big and small. Counterpoint has something to do with a well-ordered society in horizontally ordered layers, the Mannheim crescendo and the C.P.E. Bach Sturm und Drang matches in revolutionary times. A Tchaikovsky quartet fits the heavily textiled 19th century furnishings.

And ragtime? Bob Darch told you never to forget that ragtime came from places with sawdust on the floor, a bar with a brass rail and a spittoon. The ragtime of the saloons was not concert ragtime. It was music that helped get the evening going and that evolved along with the merriment. There was also the salon ragtime, the rags of the Big Three. Music for your drawing room enjoyment, with beautiful melodies and an appealing cover. My guess is that most of the classic rags were sold to women. They were usually the piano players of the family anyway.

Today, there is complete access to sheet music, facts, and recordings through the net. But I think that whatever music you want to make your own, you will benefit from going there with your own body, to check out places, sniff the air, taking in the ambiance. This is what I wanted to do, before it was too late.

My mother has always stood by me in my wasteful projects, and she has taken a lot of shrapnel for that. So, we looked at the possibilities and found out that you could travel around the States as much as you wished on a three-month Greyhound ticket, 99 days for 99 dollars. (The American obsession for the number 99 was in full swing already then.) We let Bob Darch in on our plans and he immediately sent a detailed itinerary on yellow legal sheet paper.

Peter Lundberg’s black book, with Greyhound brochure and US map. (courtesy Peter Lundberg)
Peter Lundberg’s black book, with Greyhound brochure and US map. (courtesy Peter Lundberg)

I started writing names in a little black book, arranging by cities. Any jazz or ragtime name that was not absolutely listed had gone to the Big Beyond. In some cases, address and phone, in most cases not. I did some prior checking, with Trebor and Russ in St. Louis, Affeldt in California, the newly founded Ragtime Society in Toronto, Canada, with Rudi Blesh in New York. Bob Darch offered us two weeks stay in Florida at the Escape Hotel, where he was currently enthralling the masses.

We decided to go in early 1963. By that time we had saved money for a year and managed to borrow an equal sum from the bank. Mother quit her job, I quit my studies.

Why bring your mother? Beacuse she had always appreciated my jazz interest. She had an uncle who used to pay for his studies by playing silent movies and mother was allowed to sneak in while he rehearsed. He used to come to our house. Then he played Grieg and Chopin and professed disgust at my playing. But when he thought himself to be alone, he could slide into ragged versions of “Auld Lang Syne” and similar silent movie tunes. And when he died and I inherited his music, I found tunes like “Red Hot Henry Brown” among his nocturnes and lyric pieces.

So, my mother was attuned to the music before I was born.

And we made that journey, mother and me, as a final trip together. This was early 1963 which was a good thing since shortly after arriving I turned 21 and could legally enter a bar.

It was the era of the DC-6. Something happened to a propeller and we spent a night in Iceland, which was interesting. We also did touchdowns in Goose Bay and possibly, Gander. And we passed the glare of a fat immigrations officer who came on board to scrutinize us. I know how wetbacks must feel after crossing the Rio Grande, which I saw years later.

For three months we went from New York and the East Coast, to Florida, across through New Orleans, to Los Angeles, San Francisco,Virginia City, Tombstone, Denver, Chicago, Toronto and back. I will give you a few lines about each. If it sounds like a catalog aria, it’s because it is.

Riding into New York, I noticed old industrial buildings, brick walls with faded lettering: the “Acme” company, “Standard Starch,” “Excelsior Mfg.” Brick walls with faded shaded block lettering are a basic part of the American cityscape.

There was a culture shock or two. I realized I was in a vast country where no one spoke or understood English. That is, not the British English I had struggled with. It took a while to make the change.

I was served coffee which, if you looked through it, enabled you to see forever.

But the natives were vigorous, direct, unbashful. Europeans of the snob variety used to talk of American naïveté. I think it is a liberating, away with trimmings, get to the core, attitude.

We met Rudi Blesh who looked like the bearded professor and painter he was—and a jazz historian who had actually heard the Original Dixieland Jazz Band at Reiseweber’s in New York in 1917.

I asked Blesh about some of the people he had interviewed for They All Played Ragtime. “Did you really meet and talk to Sam Patterson?” “Yes, I did.” “Did you hear him play?” “Oh yes, I did.” “What did he sound like?” “Well, he had a style all his own.” And that was it. No recordings, of course. This was before the advent of the portable deck. But Blesh was very helpful, recommended places and people, writing letters of recommendation.

Peter Lundberg’s mother (left) with Amelia Lamb. (courtesy Peter Lundberg)
Peter Lundberg’s mother (left) with Amelia Lamb. (courtesy Peter Lundberg)

We went to the Lamb’s lair. We met Amelia Lamb, and the children, which is a euphemism since I remember the place being filled with big, warm people, smiling, and no one more than Patricia. We listened to tapes, were treated to the famous Mrs. Lamb mashed potatoes, I played some. Donald Lamb had been taught his father’s little piece “Hot Cinders” by rote learning. The number sounded fine, but as far as I remember, that was all he knew on the piano.

I called Eubie Blake. Marion Blake answered, said “I can sense the enthusiasm,” and invited us over. They lived comfortably at Stuyvesant Avenue in Brooklyn. Blake was an attentive host and treated us to excellent whisky. He told us he had given up drinking himself. Without being prodded, he sat down and played “Memories of You” and “Charleston Rag,” then gave me a few autographed pieces. A few songs, an arrangement of “Careless Love,” “Blue Thoughts.”

We were joined by his lawyer and the most beautiful female opera singer I had ever seen, about my age. On the subway back I just slobbered around her and totally forgot Blake. I know he understood.

Blake was much more than strictly ragtime. Two examples of mine:

Once on a visit, he told me the dreaded words: “You know, I haven’t heard you play!” I managed to get up on the bench and started on something. A couple of bars and Eubie yelled: “Get away from that piano!” And he told me I was absolutely lousy when it came to accents and phrasing. “Listen,” he said. And he played the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Tannhäuser, straight, no ragtime, with the tenor line and upper layer of embellishments. “You must learn to accentuate the melody!”

Yes, Mr. Blake, I have tried to.

Another occasion: “Who was the best piano player you ever heard?” Turned out that Blake was working in a “house of ill repute”—as you know, he never said “bordello”—when a man got off a freight car and entered the establishment. “I called him Cat Eyes,” said Blake, “His eyes had slits instead of pupils.”

And Cat Eyes sat down and played the best piano Blake had ever heard. “Was he White or Colored?” “He was a White man!” “What did he play?” “He played classics!”

We knocked on 1619 Broadway. Or rather, one of the doors. The magic building that contained practically the complete history of music publishing in New York.

The door belonged to Handy Music Co and on the inside, we found W.C. Handy, Jr., and his sister, Katherine Handy Lewis. W. C. Jr. was dapper in white mustache, very much like his father. Katherine had lots of black hair and was striking.

When we talked about their father’s music, they surprised me by putting on a record of Joseph C. Smith’s Orchestra featuring Harry Raderman on the laughing trombone doing the “Yellow Dog Blues.” Not what we purists would call “jazz.”

Seems as if the originators took a wider view of things.

We touched on Scott Joplin and W. C. Jr. said, “Let’s see if Perry Bradford is in.” Perry Bradford, the man behind the first commercial blues recording by a female star, ever, had the nearby office. I also knew that in that office was rumored to exist the trunk with Joplin’s manuscripts and papers, including the legendary “Pretty Pansy Rag.” So, we knocked. Perry Bradford wasn’t in.

Many eons later, at a Sedalia festival, I ran into Dan Grinsted, who is a wolf in an ethnomusicologist’s clothing. When I told him my adventures he asked: “What made you think they would talk to you?” I had to admit the thought never entered my mind. I guess at times I was like the little golden-haired princess walking the woods at night, unaware of the trolls. Anyway, some did not want to talk, some did not want to see me. Some would talk but not see me. Some would both see me and talk to me. Remember, never lose your naiveté. Mine made me walk into a New York music store and ask for a copy of the score to James P Johnson’s Yamekraw, out of print since 1927. They had it.

Peter Lundberg QRS Piano
Peter Lundberg plays a QRS Piano. (courtesy Peter Lundberg)

The QRS piano roll company was far out in an old industrial area. The taxi driver offered to stay and wait for us with the engine running. We declined, and it turned out that owner Mr. Herman Kortlander was a nice fellow who gave us the grand tour. I got a tryout at the recording console but went away clutching a roll blank to punch at my leisure. This was really a step back in time. Most of the machinery seemed to be at least 1920s originals.

Jimmy Ryan’s, legendary jazz spot, was open, and Wilbur deParis band was inside. He called it his NEW Orleans Jazz Band. The new style was not so much the sneaking in of augumented chords and bop drumming as pleasant arrangements and a high level of polish. Brother Sidney on trumpet, Garvin Bushell on clarinet. We listened, talked to the musicians in the intermission. Several band members were semi-professional photographers and Wilbur deP. exposed a liking for glögg, a Swedish spiced wine we grab when winter mood hits us. So, on several occasions, we had the honor of providing Swedish Christmas time alcohol for Mr. deParis.

Garvin Bushell interested me, being a Memphis musician from out of the early twenties. I talked to him in his studio where he was giving lessons on his other instrument, bassoon. I asked him about his recollections of recording with Bunk Johnson on his final studio date. These recordings had split the jazz crowd since Johnson, having finally a say in choice of band members and selections, choose reading swing musicians and tunes from ragtime to 1930s standards. Bushell said that it was obvious that Bunk had followed his times. He had paid his dues to history, cemented himself as one of the originators, and now he wanted to do something for himself.

I was happy to hear that. Those recordings are gems, and the “Kinklets” is the most ragtime sounding band ragtime I know of.

Peter Lundberg at the Library of Congress reading the score of Treemonisha. (courtesy Peter Lundberg)
Peter Lundberg at the Library of Congress reading the score of Treemonisha. (courtesy Peter Lundberg)

We did the city of Washington for the sole purpose of going to the Library of Congress. I had sent for some copies of music and marveled over their service. When I went to the desk, unannounced, and asked permission to view what they might have of Scott Joplin material, I was immediately presented with a room of my own, with a grand piano, and two librarians who wheeled loads of the complete Joplin output, including Treemonisha and some other extras. I had a couple of hours. None of the music was free to copy. I could just turn pages, try out on the piano, while the panic rose. Embarrasse de Richesse, ask me about it.

Meanwhile, good times were rolling in Florida.

In Ft. Lauderdale, at the Escape Hotel, the Bonanza Saloon was basically a striped tent addition that could be enlarged by turns to accommodate the growing audience for “Ragtime Bob” Darch and his show. The show consisted of Bob on stage with his Five Pedal Cornish Upright Saloon Grand, and a herd of Irish air stewardesses on leave, in bathing suits, doling out free snuff for the ladies and less free drinks for all. Bob was in great shape, good timing and a surprising amount of solid saloon ragtime among his antics.

The day after arrival, I played some for Bob and he immediately took two days off, put up a sign saying “Peter Lundberg—the Swedish Nightingale” and for two nights I was up there, in front of the intimidating Cornish, playing as if my life depended on it, which in a sense was true. There was nothing else to do and people seemed entertained by the sight and for them, music was enough. I wasn’t the easy going, radiant person I am today but this gave me something to think about.

Peter Lundberg, 1963, at the Escape Hotel in Florida visiting Bob Darch. (courtesy Peter Lundberg)
Peter Lundberg, 1963, at the Escape Hotel in Florida visiting Bob Darch. (courtesy Peter Lundberg)

Bob had a great life in Ft Lauderdale, with a smart wife and a cute daughter. He took us to see the wonders of American civilization: trailer parks and oversized steaks. Bob wore Bermuda shorts, alligator shoes and drove a Lincoln convertible. His manager wore Bermuda shorts, alligator shoes and drove another Lincoln convertible. This was my first glimpse of the life of an itinerant ragtime piano player.

But everything has to come to an end, and we took the bus to New Orleans. The famous Preservation Hall already existed, and we saw and heard a lot of the still active musicians: Sweet Emma Barrett, Billie Pierce, Kid Thomas, George Lewis, Cié Frazier, Percy Humphrey. Musicians sat on chairs; listeners stood around.

Somebody threw coins at the feet of George Lewis. Al Jaffe, the owner, picked them up and threw them back.

Of all the musicians I was most impressed by Josiah Frazier, the drummer. I have never before or since heard such tasteful, ever-varied drumming. He played differently for shows, for dancing, for listening. I realized that one reason why so much traditional jazz sounds boring is the lack of flexibility within the rhythm section. Frazier, like several of the musicians, had long, tapered shoes with cut off toes, light brown, polished to a shine.

I had corresponded quite frequently with the great trumpeter Punch Miller and we visited him. We talked and he played a couple of new compositions. I asked him about the lineups of the earliest bands: big bass drum, guitar, violin. Could you really hear the violin in ensembles? Miller said yes, you were careful to vary your volume, and everyone kept out of each other’s way.

I had Lizzie Miles’ number from a common friend in Switzerland. She yelled “Come over!” When we did, she opened the door and started talking about life, politics, about what’s right and what’s wrong. Half an hour later we were still standing in the hallway. Sometimes she shifted to French—she mentioned that her grandmother ONLY spoke French. Lizzie Miles was one of the earliest entertainers to sing blues and jazzy vaudeville, she had a career in Europe and by the time we met her she had given up singing except for an occasional gospel performance. Her last records included duets with the exceptional Texas pianist Red Camp. She called it one of the best musical relationships she ever had. Years later when I actually met Red Camp, he remembered it as moments of magic.

We managed to get inside the San Jacinto Hall. The famous dance hall where some classic revival recordings took place. Plain wooden floor, plain wooden walls. bandstand on wooden balcony, wooden ceiling. A clear, ringing reverb, a music box in the real sense.

We went west, got an aunt of mine married in San Antonio, I lost 35 cents to a Las Vegas slot machine, the itinerary starts going zigzag here.

In Carson City, Nevada, one of Bob Darch’s fathers-in-law wanted to show us the old railroad stretch between Carson City and Virginia City. During the scenic tour of the Nevada desert the VW bus bumped into a hole and had to be abandoned.

We had a great walk among dried vegetation, with the mauve mountains always receding, crossing mountain lion tracks, until finally a jeep happened by. The driver, a homesteading lady, took us to her shack under construction: a heap of bricks and some timber blending well with the barrenness, and with a dozen junked cars all over the place. Plus, on stilts, a home-made one-man submarine. The lady explained that someone had built the sub and gone away.

Somehow, we reached Virginia City, pop 250, number of bars, 25. I knew it from the Bonanza TV show which was hugely popular in Sweden. This once richest town in the US east of San Francisco, is of course pre-ragtime era but the Opera House, the Bucket of Blood Saloon with its painted dead wagon, the boardwalks, all had a great atmosphere.

Peter Lundberg playing at the Bucket of Blood Saloon, Virginia City NV. (courtesy Peter Lundberg)
Peter Lundberg playing at the Bucket of Blood Saloon, Virginia City NV. (courtesy Peter Lundberg)

Somewhere outside Genoa, Nevada, there was a touching abandoned graveyard, in town we entered a place with the usual fixtures found in most American saloons: a bar, a bartender and, on the wall, a black and white photo of a man in shades and a straw boater at an upright Cornish five pedal saloon grand and the legend: “Bob Darch Played Here.”

It is rude to rush through some of the meetings with great human beings on the West Coast, but space and time forces me. I finally got to meet Paul Affeldt and his wife Pat and there was the usual playing and listening. Bill Mitchell who also wrote for the Jazz Report, was a fine player and Fred Hoeptner had the first version of his fine “Sedalia,” as Lamb-esque rag as any. He had added to it, but I prefer the original. These were scattered enthusiasts, there was no (Los Angeles) Maple Leaf Club yet.

There is a reason to go to authentic places even if they have been turned into tourist traps. Virginia City still had a bit of the Sleeping Beauty, so did Tombstone which we entered later, despite advice from fellow bus passengers. “Go to Knott’s Berry Farm, it’s CLEAN!” Tombstone was thrillingly unclean. As we were signing the hotel ledger, a guest checked out, having been robbed in his room. We went to the Original Crystal Palace saloon where every male tried to look like William F. Cody, a waitress was passing out Oktoberfest size beer mugs, and a fight broke out in a corner.

Self-styled local guide Tombstone John took us around, to Boot Hill and OK Corral and to the world’s largest rosebush. Underneath the branches we met the owner, a lady from way back in the 1800s who told us about her childhood on the outskirts of Tombstone, with the Apaches raiding every Friday.

I learned lesson two about the life of the solitary ragtime piano player, in San Francisco. We had visited Wally Rose who had a beautiful home and made excellent, strong coffee. He worked at some Gay Nineties place, with a lot of trimmings and mirrors and girls, bathing suits, swinging high above the heads of the patrons. Suddenly the room seemed darker and more crowded.

A group of men had entered, the kind that make doors automatically open and tables magically appear in restaurants. Someone told me these were board members from companies like U S Steel and Bethlehem, out for a friendly night. I saw one of them approach Wally at the keyboard to ask for a song and I realized that at that moment, Wally was the king and Mr. Steel was basking in his spotlight. To talk to the piano player can be part of your fifteen minutes. Imagine BEING the piano player.

I took a stroll over to where Jack’s Record Cellar was supposed to be. I had been buying records from them, but they had moved to a new location. When I stepped out on the sidewalk, I noticed a clipping in the gutter. It had a picture and a headline saying “Lizzie Miles, Queen of the Blues, is Dead”. I still retain the clipping.

In Denver we had Parma ham and melon for dinner at the house of Max Morath with his family. Max is the second giant on whose shoulders I balance—Bob Darch is the first.

Bob is the Dionysian, working by force and surprise. Max is the Apollonian, balanced, in perfect order. You need both. I think I am more of an Apollonian and sometimes I feel I let Bob down, in terms of being a pupil and musical heir.

What I am still trying to learn from Bob is unique rhythms, the dancelike tempo weaving in and out of true measure, like a heartbeat. Max taught me not to overdo, to be in control even when things get frenzied.

Trebor Tichenor Piano Rolls
Ed. Note: The picture above shows a portion of approximately 9,000 piano rolls in Trebor Tichenor’ s collection, reputed to be the most extensive in the world. I found the picture in Bittersweet Volume V, No. 2, Winter 1977 a high school publication from Missouri archived online by a local library! The picture comes from a great article about Ragtime and piano rolls that would probably have never seen the light of day without digital archiving.

St. Louis has the levee and the riverboats. W.C. Handy writes in his autobiography about trying to sleep on the cobblestones by the river. I tried it; it was not very comfortable. I finally got to meet Trebor Tichenor and his associate editor, Russ Cassidy. They both had an understatement type humor that I found rare, and they threw a party for us in Trebor’s cellar, already filled with piano rolls and now suffocating with the complete St. Louis ragtime crowd.

The Doerrs were there, the rest of the St. Louis Ragtimers, names I don’t remember, Hal Boulware who cut his own piano rolls. Rolls were going and at one time there was a tune I couldn’t quite place. I also noticed people looking at me and snickering. Suddenly it dawned on me that this was my rag: I had sent it to Treb who had given it to Hal who had cut his limited edition of 25 copies. Sadly, I don’t own a copy myself, but I hope the owners play them from time to time.

We had a pleasant and nosy evening with background music provided by a local talent.

It was a treat to meet Charles Thompson and hear him play live. He had the air of a mild and patient bloodhound and spoke in a kind voice. but his playing had a bite. The lasting impression I have is of him almost resting his hands on the keyboard, no fancy handwork here. His left-hand used notes sparingly but giving the effect of stretched tenths, his tone was distinct. There was something about his playing where the notes never ran into each other in a continuous flow, there was space in the togetherness, as it were. He knew how to use a pedal as well. Some of his music that night got on tape and some of that I think is on Thompson’s CD.

There was some conversation. This was the first time I heard of Tom Turpin’s raised up piano. Thompson also said there was a Turpin cousin living in St. Louis. We got out a phone book and there was a Gene Turpin, but I don’t know if anyone used that lead. He also told stories of entertainers from way back like Billy Kersands who could put a teacup on a saucer in his mouth. There is a picture of me playing and Thompson watching and listening. He looks like an unhappy bloodhound on that one.

AT TICHENORS WITH C. THOMPSON
Peter Lundberg plays in Trebor Tichenor’s basement with veteran St. Louis ragtime pianist Charles Thompson listening. (courtesy Peter Lundberg)

We had lemonade and cookies at the home of a friendly lady in her eighties. She was Carrie Stark, daughter-in-law of John Stark. Carrie Stark played for customers in the Stark store around 1900, and she had a career of her own under the pen name of Cy Perkins when she claimed the authorship of the song “They Gotta Quit Kicking My Dog Around.” And there she was, pounding out “Grace and Beauty” and her “Baby Blues,” thumb glissandos and all.

The jazz experience of St. Louis consisted of tuba player Singleton Palmer’s band. He had Pete Patterson on banjo and Norman Mason, reedman. Both were veterans of the riverboat bands and Mason can be seen in the famous photo of the Fate Marable 1924 band. So, I inquired about this to Mason and he said that, yes, he had been active bringing jazz to New Orleans. I said that I understood that jazz actually came from New Orleans, but he replied that, well, you know, every place had their style.

Fate Marable's Orchestra Streckfus Steamer SS Capital
Fate Marable’s Orchestra aboard Streckfus Steamers’ steamboat the “”S.S. Capitol””, New Orleans, Louisiana: Louis Armstrong, cornet; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo; David Jones, sax; Norman Mason, sax; Norman Brashear, trombone; Baby Dodds, drums; Boyd Atkins, violin. Circa-1920. (Louisiana State Museum)

Not far from St Louis we found the former City of Kansas. Arthur Marshall wouldn’t see me. He said people had been stealing stuff and he didn’t know me. When I gave him regards and greetings from Bob Darch he softened audibly, asked things about Bob and said we could talk for a while. Anyway, he didn’t play anymore. I asked him about the “Swipesy” and how fast it should be played—I was much into finding the correct tempos. He said to play it as fast as I wanted to, provided I could manage the left-hand octaves in the second theme. A sound, practical advice from the source.

Now, this is again, 1963 and we are in a car on Easter Eve, together with jazz historian John Steiner and wife, the radio is on, great gospel music streaming out, we are heading for a church in the Watts district. Two years later, this area would be burning for a week in the first of several racial clashes, but this was 1963. We went into the church, same music attacked us live, choirs, piano, organ, full blast, fantastic.

John Steiner was another excellent host and guide. He took us to see Glover and Nettie Compton. Glover Compton was of course another one of the original players but sadly grounded on account of rheumatism. His wife had been a singer and they both kept artist’s hours, meaning they would rise at about ten o’clock. At night. So, we waited for nightfall, knocked on their door, and there they were, in bathrobes and nightclothes, Glover tall and thin, Nettie petite and thin. Exchange of pleasantries ensued, and we parted.

The place to go for good jazz was the Red Arrow Inn. Franz Jackson, saxophone player, led a band which included Bob Shoffner on trumpet, John Thomas on trombone, et al. Jackson had fond remembrances of touring Sweden and had a great time trying to pronounce some tricky Swedish sounds while driving us around town. At the club I tried to make conversation with Bob Shoffner but either he had a trumpet at his lips, or a cigar clamped between his teeth and I couldn’t make out much of what he said. It was easier to talk to a friendly lady customer sitting at a table. She was a piano player by the name of Lillian Hardin.

Toronto, Canada, marked the end of our quest. It was also the beginning of the new ragtime movement. Toronto’s ragtime society had been going on for a while, people were trying to reprint music and they had a newsletter and regular sessions. Jim Kinnear was president and among the founders were the great couple of Idamay and Allen MacInnes. Their memory lingers on.

The 76 Club had had appearances by Bob Darch and through him, Eubie Blake and Joseph Lamb. I guess it was at this spot we met and heard Johnny Maddox, another one of the grand resuscitators, in a room with desert sand and buffalo skulls on the floor. If you don’t have sawdust for your ragtime floor, make it sand.

Maddox has always been almost overwhelming in real life. At this time, he was thin, high strung, black haired and black eyed, and playing thundering ragtime. He was joined by Glenn Rowell, the composer and broadcasting pioneer. He played his own “I Get the Blues when it Rains.”

So, that’s the story of three months in the life of a Swedish adolescent.

Just two addendums:

Peter Lundberg SuitcaseTo sum up the next forty-six years: I had an increasing correspondence with an increasing number of ragtime addicts, snail mail, voice and music tapes. My wife thought that Mike Schwimmer had the sexiest voice on Earth. Bob Darch took me on a Midwestern college tour with Steve Spracklen and Susan Cordell. We even played Sedalia. Then the festivals started to appear. I played the first Sedalia, and a number of subsequent Sedalias, also Carthage, a number of Alex Bay, I was in Toronto once or twice. I had a few saloon jobs. I took a week off each year to do ragtime.

For the rest of the time, I had a life.

For myself, ragtime is two basic kinds. One is the ragtime that provided the background din and aural envelope to the expansive, creative years from the turn of the century to the Great War. Ragged music on ragged pianos in ragged places.

Then there is the ragtime of the printed pages, the pieces of music with those attractive covers you brought home for your own parlor enjoyment. Salon pieces with that irresistible syncopation and the melodies and harmonics of a new style. This is of course what has become synonymous with “ragtime.” Ever since Joshua Rifkin donned tails there has been an idea that the ragtime of Joplin et al is “classical” music, music that belongs with the best from the classical Western tradition.

I think that, by and large, this is doing ragtime a disservice. So-called Western music tradition is not the only standard to judge music by. Today, some of the most gifted and best educated musicians work in Heavy Metal.

Peter Lundberg in 2019 (photo courtesy Peter Lundberg)
Peter Lundberg in 2019 (photo courtesy Peter Lundberg)

I think ragtime should be judged by its own standards, by comparison within its own field. I am a bit uneasy with these pieces presented from way up on a stage, concert hall style. It is a kind of overdoing that has affected a lot of music from our serious composers as well, music that wasn’t intended to be taken in with all that seriousness.

There is also something you must consider when you want to recreate an earlier art. You will attempt to fix something evolving. Cultural motion capture. Butterfly on a pin. As you move backwards in time you meet the Mortons and Joplins moving onwards in time. You want to be authentic; they want to move on. It’s hard to reconcile. All you can do is play the music as if it means something to you and think sawdust on the floor.

As regards my own suggestion for a title to this lecture: we were at some club in New York watching and listening to Cliff Jackson playing. I finally got a notion about how to do that “Carolina Shout” stuff. Jackson was extremely elegant, nattily dressed, with a gray mustache.

I tried to ask him shop questions but all he said was: “Tell your mother I love her!”

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