1983 was a busy year…
I note that as the Director of Symposia for the 2017 Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival, Bill Edwards will present a Legends Panel of ragtime performers and authorities from the 1983 revived event: Dr. Edward Berlin, David Thomas Roberts, and David Reffkin.
1983 was a very important year in the festival’s history as it was the year Sedalia aggressively restored the festival tradition of 1974 and 1975. Since then, the community has sponsored the Joplin Festival annually for the past 35 years.
However, I’m not blowing the dust from 1983 Festival ephemera this month. Instead, I decided to reminisce about the Scott Joplin U.S. postage stamp and the First Day of Issue Ceremony held at the beginning of the Festival on June 9, 1983 near the site of the original Maple Leaf Club.
10 years in the making…
I must say that the stamp honor was a long time coming for Joplin and was the result of considerable effort on the part of many ragtime authorities, performers and enthusiasts. The campaign began in earnest in 1969 when a stamp honoring W.C. Handy was issued in Memphis. With the blues recognized, it seemed important to recognize ragtime and people in Sedalia took up the challenge.
In 1973 as plans were being laid for the first Sedalia event, we submitted a proposal to the Citizen’s U.S. Stamp Advisory Council for a stamp honoring ragtime music and Scott Joplin. As the records in the Sedalia Archive testify, there was strong local support and encouragement from ragtime groups around the continent (like the Los Angeles Maple Leaf Club and Toronto’s Ragtime Society) but our request was curtly and shoddily rebuffed with a poorly centered form letter and the returned proposal.
Don’t give up…
The good people of Sedalia didn’t give up on the idea however and in 1981 a committee of the Chamber of Commerce was formed to lobby the U.S. Postal Service for a Joplin stamp to be issued in Sedalia. The group expended enormous effort and it seemed to literally overwhelm the U.S.P.S. Hundreds of letters from a cross section of ragtime enthusiasts and hundreds of petition signatures were submitted with Sedalia Chairman Larry Allen’s final articulate proposal.
The gargantuan effort paid off and the Postal Service announced plans to issue a 20¢ Joplin stamp in the Black Heritage Series. The vertically oriented design was unveiled in St. Louis July 16, 1982 on the Goldenrod Showboat after the 18th Annual National Ragtime and Traditional Jazz Festival hosted by Trebor Tichenor and the Ragtimers. The artwork for the stamp was by Ronald C. Sharpe, the first African-American designer at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
The First Day of Issue Ceremony for the stamp was to be in Sedalia on June 9, 1983 and with that announcement, the community began preparation for a revival of a 1974-75 style Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival.
I have been accumulating memorabilia from the First Day Ceremony all these years and recently donated my collection to the Sedalia Archive. In addition to all the records from the proposal campaigns, there are the beautiful programs, newspaper accounts and many cached First Day of Issue cached envelopes and documents from that day including several that are one of a kind. The first day covers number over 50 with many canceled souvenir sheets. I purchased several thousand of the stamps and have used them over the years on postage to ragtime interested friends and I always delight in finding one on an envelope addressed to me.
Richard Dowling even included a mint Joplin stamp in the souvenir book he published for his Joplin Centennial Concerts at Carnegie Hall on the 100th anniversary of Joplin’s death, April 1, 2017. I was also excited to see that the Postal Service created a special St. Louis cancellation on April 1, 2017 for the Stamp Exposition there. Someone else has been hoarding the stamps as they appear on a special cached envelope from the event.
Tanzania and other honors…
To the best of my knowledge, the only other nation to honor Scott Joplin with a postage stamp has been Tanzania in 1992. Joplin appears on a souvenir sheet with eight other American music legends.
The only other Sedalia Festival related personality to be honored with a postage stamp was Eubie Blake in 1995. Eubie headlined the 1974 event.
And while I’m on the subject of ragtime related postage stamps, I think it is time for the U.S. Postal Service to honor Joplin and ragtime again. Jazz as a musical form has been the subject of nine stamps so why not at least one honoring ragtime or syncopation? Porgy and Bess was on a 1993, 29¢ stamp so why not a Treemonisha commemorative? Or why not a Maple Leaf Rag stamp commemorating the Joplin Stark contract, or a souvenir sheet featuring great American music festivals (including the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival, of course!). I also truly believe a Legends of Ragtime souvenir sheet is in order and it would be great fun to poll ragtime fans to make up the list of the early ragtime personalities to be appropriately perforated. A person must be deceased at least three years to be considered. (I might point out that the previously questionable act of licking the backside of stamps is no longer necessary as they are now of the peel and stick variety.)
Since I was a kid my U.S. stamp collection has provided a unique way for me to learn about the history and culture of America through those miniature works of art. So, if you are looking for a hobby beyond syncopation, you ought to give philately a try.
Larry Melton can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org