It is significant that T.S. Eliot and Scott Joplin lived in St. Louis at the same time. In fact knowing of Eliot’s fascination with English Music Hall entertainment in the Ragtime Era causes me to think he must have been introduced to syncopation back in St. Louis as he was growing up—perhaps even by Scott Joplin himself.
I have a personal story that connects ragtime with Eliot. I have had very eclectic interests through life and one is a fascination with some postmodern poetry, specifically the work of T. S. Eliot. I was fortunate back in the 1980s and 1990s that the International T. S. Eliot Society met on the poet’s birthday weekend annually in St. Louis (his birthplace) to discuss Eliot’s corpus albeit on a very high academic level. Though the discussions were usually over my head, the collegiality of the group, their amazing careers and their warm personalities enticed me to the meetings for over a decade. Now I’ll get to my point.
One pleasant September afternoon in our be-paneled University meeting room, the venerable Eliot scholar, Dr. Grover Smith, was reciting from The Waste Land with his inimitable precision when he came to these lines in Part II “The Chess Game”…
O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—
It’s so elegant
Suddenly Dr. Vinnie D’Ambrosio interrupted, turned to me and asked if there was indeed a “Shakespeherian Rag” knowing of my ragtime flirtation in a former life. I had sought out this obscure piece on my own before and knew it was composed by Dave Stamper with words by Gene Buck and Herman Ruby, and even remembered it had been published by Joseph W. Stern and Company in 1912.
Dr. Smith’s reading was usurped by a delightful discussion about Eliot’s fascination with New York and British music halls and ragtime. Questions came flying about St. Louis ragtime and I casually mentioned that one of the leading authorities on the genre lived right there in St. Louis and perhaps they might like to invite Professor Trebor Tichenor (a lecturer at Washington University by the way) to the following year’s gathering for enlightenment on the finer elements of syncopation and perhaps to play “That Shakespearian Rag” for them.
Dr. D’Ambrosio and I further suggested that the Society commission a rag and the group was elated. It was agreed and I quickly got in touch with Trebor who was excited to take on the task.
The following September (1992), Trebor arrived be-gartered for the composition’s premier with be-derbied Al Stricker and top-hatted Don Franz, collectively, The St. Louis Ragtimers. The assemblage of scholars had a rollicking morning of ragtime featuring “That Shakespearian Rag” and the “T. S. Eliot Society Rag,” Trebor’s commissioned composition.
Trebor’s composition was a truly classic Missouri folk-rag as only the “old” professor could have conceived. (I read recently that Trebor introduced the Society composition to the Scott Joplin Festival audience the next year in Sedalia and brought the house down.) Trebor included it on his CD Tempus Ragorum and I’ve played it over and over. However I didn’t realize the Eliot piece had been published in a folio until I saw an eBay listing, entered an outrageously high bid and figuratively held my breath for seven days until I won the treasure. When it arrived I found that it was not only inscribed but read, “To Mike Montgomery…Hope you like these…My best to you always, Trebor Jay Tichenor 10/96”
Now I have a copy inscribed by one ragtime legend to another with my own personal connection to both of them and to the society’s rag (and, I must add, a published musical connection between Postmodern Poetry and ragtime).
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]