Rudiments of Ragtime Installment 10: The Red Back Book

Since early Classic ragtime seemed to evolve from the cakewalk, dance, and march music around 1900 it was natural for it to become an instrumental genre beyond basic piano scores. Small ensemble groups took up syncopation soon after the music became popular.

John Stark moved to St. Louis in about 1900 and there he began aggressively marketing his catalog of Classic ragtime composers. He began with sheet music as his staple but then began adding vocal versions and then instrumental folios about 1911 or 1912. Joplin and others may have already been writing for small groups and certainly, many bands and orchestras were improvising the popular syncopated titles. Tom Ireland reported that the Queen City Concert Band was playing Joplin compositions before they were published around 1900.

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In 1911 or 1912 John Stark began publishing a series of 15 instrumental rags under the title of Standard High Class Rags. They came collectively to be known as The Red Back Book because of the folio covers. There was a separate folio for each of the 15 instruments. “Frog Legs” by James Scott seems to have been scored by Joplin. The rest were nearly all the work of the publisher’s son, Etilmon Stark.

The first surviving recording of “Maple Leaf Rag” was by the U.S. Marine Corps Band in 1906 and by the end of the ragtime era leaders like James Reese Europe with his African American 369th Infantry “Hellfighters” Band were performing versions of Classic ragtime.

Reference: Reffkin, David at, scroll to Red Back Book.

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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].

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