A fond memory from the ragtime revival years of the early 1970s was a trip to Texarkana, a community which famously straddles the border between Texas and Arkansas. There we witnessed the Centennial Celebration Joplin Concert near where Scott Joplin was born and raised. My family and I attended as guests of Jerry Atkins, a local businessman and the heart and soul of ragtime and Scott Joplin there. In addition, Jerry was a well-known jazz musician in the area and wrote for many jazz publications. He is in the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame.
Jerry was determined that Texarkana and the world would know Joplin’s genius by the time the celebration was over. I also had the pleasure of meeting John Vanderlee who, with his wife Ann, were early ambassadors for Texarkana and Sedalia and the role those small towns played in the origin of America’s music.
It was also a joy to meet several elderly Joplin relatives and I corresponded with a nephew, Fred Joplin from Marshall, Texas for years.
Jerry brought his knowledge of Joplin’s birth and childhood in Texarkana to the 1974 Sedalia festival symposia and he added much to the informal discussions as well.
Texarkana first recognized their heritage going back to Joplin with a jazz concert benefit for St. Mary’s Church in 1956. Jerry remembered that event and when the city’s centennial year arrived he helped produce the Joplin concert in celebration.
Through the last forty-five years Texarkana has done several things to keeps its rich cultural heritage in the public eye. A city park was named for Joplin in 1975. In 1976 An official Texas Historical marker was dedicated to Joplin in the city. I have read with regularity of ragtime related events there from Jerry Atkins showing off a beautiful ragtime mural painted on the side of an office building in 1984, to the street designated Scott Joplin Way dedicated last year.
Carol Collins-Miles organized the Scott Joplin Support Group in 1997 and has been responsible for many Joplin programs and projects like the monthly summer concerts in Joplin Park, a Joplin portrait competition, a Facebook page and she never misses an opportunity to publicize Joplin or his music. Her energy and enthusiasm can be seen on her Facebook page for the Scott Joplin Support Group.
Most recently Texarkana has been bolstered by the organizational skills of Dave Mallette. Dave was from Texarkana but moved back three years ago after a 45-year absence. He now is Director of Operations for the Regional Music Heritage Center. Dave is a man after my own heart: he is not only producing the city’s second ragtime festival, but he has spearheaded the restoration of an old downtown building to become the Regional Music Heritage Center where he sponsors exhibits, music programs, lectures, and just about anything that showcases the culture of the region situated in an approximately 100 mile radius around Texarkana that includes areas of Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas.
Visiting with Dave on the telephone recently reminded me of all that is involved in producing a music festival in a relatively small community without a strong sense of its musical legacy. The similarities between Texarkana and Sedalia are amazing and both communities are to be highly congratulated for their efforts. I like the way Dave put it when it comes to Joplin’s contribution to ragtime: “Texarkana is Ragtime’s Birthplace and Sedalia is the Cradle of Ragtime.” (With apologies to the purists.)
Dave told me of Texarkana’s many musical milestones and he is anxious to celebrate them all. In fact, in addition to the Joplin festival he anticipates a jazz festival headlining local talent and honoring Pat Cupp (a rockabilly contemporary of Elvis who still makes Texarkana his home) and jazzman Jay Franks. The “Swampoodle”—the most recognized boogie woogie bass line ever written, which grew out of Texarkana’s Swampoodle district in Joplin’s time—will be featured. Finally, there are hopes for a “CowBilly” music festival.
This year’s event opens on March 30 with a preview and concert by Richard Dowling, who continues his grand tour performing “Great Scott” concerts of Joplin complete piano works. He is approaching 100 of these all-Joplin performances since his April 1, 2017 Carnegie Hall Concerts commemorated 100 years since Joplin’s death. Other concerts and activities will round out Friday and Saturday programs. Saturday night will again feature Dowling and a new group, the Texarkana Ragtime Orchestra directed by Dick Eckstein. Eckstein will also lead the beloved Texarkana Jazz Orchestra.
Mallette has ambitious plans to form a Treemonisha repertory group to produce an annual performance of Joplin’s opera there. He has been quoted as saying, “Right now we are certainly somewhat Texarkana-centric in our approach,” but he thinks big and things are happening in the region. “We hope to eventually open sister RMHCs in Shreveport, Marshall, and other music heritage hotspots. But, we have to be successful here first.”
For more information about the Joplin Festival contact the Heritage Center at (832) 498-3830 or visit online at www.texarkanarmhc.org.
And one last comment: at a time when many music festivals are ending or cutting back, it is refreshing to find one starting up and with such enthusiasm. Add to this the fact that this event takes place where Scott Joplin was born and grew up. Like Sedalia in 1974, the community has not yet fully embraced its musical heritage and they need strong support and encouragement from the ragtime and jazz community. Dave Mallette mentioned to me on the phone that raising the money for this project has been very challenging.
So, just as I encouraged everyone to support our performing musicians, I’d like you to consider making a contribution to a festival effort like the one in Texarkana. I well remember how vital private donations were to the first effort in Sedalia (and are even more so today).
It is not only about the money. Even small contributions remind the organizers that they have support, and that can be very inspirational to a group of people who are nearly running themselves ragged in the process of staging an event.
Please be generous—and, if at all possible, take in the Texarkana Festival.
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]