Ragtime Journal: Sedalia 1983

By Bill Mitchell

Following are some notes I took in Sedalia, Missouri, in June of 1983 at the Scott Joplin Festival and Stamp Dedication. (Remember the Scott Joplin commemorative stamp?) This will be an incomplete account of that memorable event, but it may well be continued...


I flew out of Ontario the morning of Wednesday, June 8. The plane touched down at Kansas City Airport at 1:52 p.m. Galen Wilkes, whose plane arrived an hour earlier, met me at the exit gate, and a few minutes later Paul Johnson, his friend from Oakland, arrived. I picked up the big Lincoln I had reserved at Budget, and we were on the road about 3:00 p.m.

K.C. Airport is about twenty miles north of the city itself, so the drive to Sedalia was actually about 100 miles, and took a couple of hours. The rolling Missouri countryside was green with grassland and woods, and looked quite similar to Oregon's Willamette Valley near Salem. Galen, Paul, and I talked ragtime unremittingly all the way to Sedalia.

Arrival in Sedalia was a thrill! This is a town of 20,000, largish for Missouri, important for railroading, industry (Levi-Strauss has a plant there, for example), farming, and the Missouri State Fair, whose home it is. The outskirts were like any other prosperous and expanding community's — fast food stores, new motels, restaurants — but when we reached the old business section, the downtown area, an ambiance of 1900 was apparent. Old brick buildings, many of them now vacant, some still used for offices and shops, caught the eye. The Bothwell Hotel, 4th and Ohio, is probably the tallest structure in town, except for the huge water tower. The seven-story Bothwell was built in 1927, and now has a faded charm reminiscent of the Alexandria Hotel in L.A. My room, #505, was smallish, and minimally satisfactory (not even a closet to hang clothes), but the price was right at $15.00 per night. When I checked into the hotel, someone was playing good classic ragtime on the second floor in the conference room. It was Paul Molens, a young man from the East, who wore a fancy red ragtime vest and arm garters everywhere during the four days of the festival. He played nicely, and had written a few original rags.

After unpacking, I had a buffet supper in the hotel restaurant on the ground floor, and then went for a walk on the quiet deserted streets of downtown Sedalia on the eve of the Joplin stamp dedication and festival. The Maple Leaf Club site on Main Street was occupied by a large open tent with a couple of hundred chairs and a platform with an upright piano and seats for the program's participants on the morrow. All stores were closed, as it was 8:30 p.m. in the evening, though it was still light. It was eerie to see no one on the streets except for a police car in the area...

Dave Reffkin and I practiced at the Bothwell in the conference room from 9:00 to 10:30 p.m. It was hard work, with many weak spots in my accompaniment. He was very patient with me, however. I was concerned with getting the material under control by the following evening's concert. I got to bed about 11:00 p.m. Very tired!

Thursday I awoke before 6:00 a.m., too excited by the day's prospects for more sleep. I had breakfast downstairs about 7:30 a.m. I practiced some by myself in the conference room, and then headed for the MLC site early, since I wanted to be certain of getting a seat. I took along my copy of They All Played Ragtime, in case I had some time to read. Crowds were beginning to gather on Main Street. The block on which the tent was located was closed to traffic, and it was a carnival midway of refreshment stands, souvenir tables, art displays, etc. I went to the tent and sat in back of Rudi Blesh, who was sitting up near the front. It was lucky I had brought my copy of TAPR along, for I got him to autograph it for me. He was easy to talk to. He mentioned that it was quite remarkable that John Stark, a Southerner from Shelby County, Kentucky, had gone into partnership with Joplin, a black man, on "Maple leaf Rag" in 1899. Blesh is now 85, walks with a cane, but is very sharp and alert. We talked a little about Buster Keaton, who biographer Blesh is.

The Post Office Department was doing a brisk business selling the new stamp and first day covers at tables set along the left side under the tent. All available seating under the tent was soon taken, and a crowd had to stand outside in the sun during the ceremonies, which got underway about 11:00 a.m. The Spokane Falls Brass Band (two trumpets, two French horns, and one trombone) played Joplin selections as a prelude to the ceremonies. It was a moving program, with fine tributes to Joplin, and I caught it all on tape with my new Sony Walkman stereo, a birthday gift from Yvonne. Near the end of the program Bob Darch played "Maple Leaf Rag," and Dick Zimmerman played "The Cascades." Four of Joplin's relatives were present, and were introduced.

After lunch I drove out to Liberty Park, where Joplin once played cornet with the Queen City Concert Band in the late 1890s, for a run-through of the evening's numbers with Dave Reffkin. I then came back to the hotel and practiced some more.

Kathi Backus, David Gillespie and Bill Russell were staying at the Bothwell too, and I drove them over to Liberty Park for the evening's concert, which was produced, as were all the concerts, by Dick Zimmerman. The Spokane Falls Brass Band performed first, followed by Dave Reffkin (violin) and me. We played Lamb's "Contentment Rag," "Non Profit Rag" (a Reffkin original), and "A Coon's Birthday," by Paul Lincke, the German composer of "Glow Worm." The Et Cetera String Band was next, a trio of violin, mandolin and guitar.

They specialize in Kansas City folk ragtime, and are delightful to hear. The St. Louis Ragtimers played several numbers in their jaunty, captivating style. They have been together for 20 years now.

(To be continued)

John T. Carney's Original Rags for Download

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