Features and Reviews
Joseph F. Lamb: A Biography
By Russell Cassidy
Editor's note: Early in the 1960s Trebor Tichenor and Russell E. Cassidy established and edited "The Ragtime Review," the first modern journal devoted to ragtime. Russ had enjoyed a friendship with Joe Lamb during Lamb's last years, and had several visits with him in addition to exchanging letters. After Lamb's death Russ wrote a short biography of the composer which he donated for publication in the newsletter of The Ragtime Society of Canada. We want to thank Fred Hoeptner for delving into his newsletter files and offering this material for reprinting here. Since the biography is lengthy, it will appear in several installments.
On September 3, 1960, Joeseph Francis Lamb, the last of the "Big Three" classic ragtime composers, died in his home in Brooklyn, New York, where he had lived for the past 49 years with his family. His contribution to the literature of classic ragtime was equaled or excelled only by the towering figures of Scott Joplin and James Scott, both acknowledged leaders in the field. Analysis of the literature of ragtime from 1897 to 1920 leads inevitably to the fact that the works of these three men, in quality and quantity, are outstanding amongst the work of any of the many gifted composers in the idiom. For this reason, the term "The Big Three" is indeed not inappropriate, and ragtime can claim its Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. (It should not be inferred that ragtime aspired to the profundity or emotional depth of the works of the great European masters, though Joplin wrote two folk operas, and his "Euphonic Sounds" and "Magnetic Rag" have a serious cast.)
Joseph Lamb's career as a ragtime composer began in 1908 with the publication of his "Sensation," a number which had been selected from several manuscripts by Scott Joplin, who endorsed it by allowing his own name to appear on the title page as arranger. Lamb composed rags until 1919, when ragtime's popularity was fading and being superceded by the new jass bands. About 1949, he began composing again, although he was unaware of a beginning revival of interest in ragtime during the 1940s. This later period is important because it demonstrates a continuation of development of an early ragtime composer's ideas, the later rags bearing little resemblance to "Sensation." The later rags also demonstrate eloquently that utilization of the syncopated idiom of ragtime need not produce a dated composition. Although a fickle popular taste once rejected ragtime, its potentialities have not been exhausted, and it is still a dynamic art form capable of further development. These newer rags do not "belong" to any period of musical Americana. Their quality and appeal is essentially timeless (as is true of all classics, ragtime or otherwise). They are capable of standing on their own musical merits without the crutch of nostalgia, or sentiment for bygone days.
The following account of Joseph Lamb's life may be considered as co-authored by Lamb himself, because wherever possible, it has been written in his own words taken from personal letters to the author and to Mr. Trebor Tichenor of St. Louis, as well as from personal conversation during weekend visits in the Lamb home. I am particularly grateful to Mrs. Lamb for permission to use this material as well as for supplying much additional information and for checking the final result for accuracy of the material not actually written by Joe himself. Despite the personal aspect of Lamb's letters, I have made every effort to use only that material which is relevant to the story and which best portrays Joe Lamb as a personality.
Joseph Lamb was born December 6, 1887, in Montclair, New Jersey. His father was a building contractor who had married a girl from Ireland, and they lived in a middle-class neighborhood. Before the turn of the century, Montclair was a typical small eastern town with, as far as Joe remembered, no colored residents. As a result, Joe's early life was far removed from the origins of ragtime music: the Midwestern area of America and Negro culture.
Neither of his parents was musically inclined, but he had an early aptitude for melody and harmony. Lamb has said, "I never took lessons, and I can't explain how I happened to be able to write the rags I did. At about eight I started to fool around the piano, but didn't know one note from another—on the piano or on the music. I had two sisters who played classical music and they showed me what the different notes were and gave me a book that they used when they first started taking lessons. Instead of doing homework for school I studied that book. No more help. I used to put notes down on music paper and ask one of my sisters to play it, but it didn't mean anything. Later, after absorbing more of it, I got an idea of what the notes really meant. I sort of doped out something on the piano, and checking up on the notes in the book, wrote them on paper. No rests, measures, time or key. No half or quarter notes, just little round black notes. When I asked my sister to play it, you could have knocked me over with a feather when it sounded like what I had in mind. That did it, I guess. One of my sisters remarked to the other, 'Maybe Joe will write music some day.' Self-taught? Definitely. The only help my sisters gave me was telling me what the notes were and giving me that book. From then on I was on my own. The talent was undoubtedly inborn and harmony came with it. My sisters didn't play ragtime and it was laughable later on to hear them try to interpret my rags when I wrote them down. They played the notes all right, but the tempo—wow! So far as ragtime was concerned, I had absolutely no background. It just appealed to me when I was able to understand it. The talent was there for playing, for composing and for harmony, and I simply had the sense to make use of them–thank the Lord."