Ragtime at the St. Louis World's Fair

By Fred Hoeptner

The year 2004 marking the 100th anniversary of the St. Louis World's Fair, ragtime festivals featured discussions of ragtime's role at the fair. Celebrating the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase, the exposition opened April 30, 1904, and closed December 1, attracting a reported 20,000,000 visitors. The fair's iconic symbol was a magnificent cascade of water descending from Festival Hill to a lagoon below, which Scott Joplin extolled during the summer of that year with his celebrated rag "The Cascades." On display were the latest manufacturing processes and their products; scientific inventions and innovations; agricultural advances; famous paintings, sculptures, and art treasures; and unique cultural customs of the world's ethnicities. Forty-three of the then 45 U.S. states, several U.S. territories, and 62 nations participated by sponsoring individual buildings devoted to displaying their native products, commodities, and activities.

The Pike was an area adjoining the fair proper requiring a separate admission. As the visitor progressed down the mile long midway, he or she never knew what treat would next delight, or, for some, surfeit the senses. According to one observer, "The din of cowbells, whistles, megaphones, the infernal yelling of the barkers mingled with the boom of cannon...rendered a pandemonium that I don't expect to hear again this side of Hades" (Sam Hyde, "Thanksgiving Night on the Pike"). Although primarily dedicated to pleasure and featuring rides, amusements and fantastic attractions, many of its features educated as they entertained. Food choices at the over 100 restaurants evoked the cultures of almost as many nations. The ice cream cone and cotton candy originated here, as did the expression "coming down the Pike." By night 50 different shows beguiled audiences in the Pike's theaters, where belly dancing became a favored entertainment for many fairgoers. The gigantic Ferris wheel, each of its 36 cars accommodating 60 people, towered 250 feet above the grounds.

Reportedly the musical program at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago had been a disastrous failure. A musical elite had sought to elevate the taste of the public by presenting classical music and rejecting what it termed "primitive music." The Chicago Chronicle described the resulting music as "incomprehensible," and contended that people were justly angry at the "high-priced bands and orchestras tooting, banging and sawing at noisy productions unintelligible except to the elect."

Susan Curtis, in her book Dancing to a Black Man's Tune, presents some background on the planning for music at the St. Louis fair. In an attempt to avoid another fiasco, the St. Louis officials had consulted their Chicagoan predecessors. Curtis quotes from a retrospective on the fair by Professor Ernest Kroeger, Director of Programmes and Awards, in the World's Fair Bulletin 5 (September 1904): "The Chicago officials informed the St. Louis bureau in the most emphatic manner that a scheme of high-class music at any Exposition would be a serious mistake; that the crowd in attendance would not have it at all; that the energy, enthusiasm, and money spent in this direction would be largely thrown away." Accordingly, the fair directors promised "music for all at the World's Fair in 1904—brass bands and ragtime for the many" as well as music "for the most exclusive sort of virtuosos."

In a symposium at the 2004 Blind Boone Ragtime and Early Jazz Festival in Columbia, MO, ragtime authority, pianist, and author Trebor Tichenor presented his perspective on ragtime at the fair, a reality that seemingly fell short of the promises. However, recently Trebor has generously informed me that since his presentation in Columbia newly published information has emerged causing him to revise his opinion. Bands at the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904: Information, Photographs and Database, a book by Dr. Richard Schwartz, a native St. Louisan who is now an associate professor of music at Virginia State University, compiles all the printed programs of the bands at the fair and lists all tunes by composer. "While ragtime was given short shrift, it was tolerated," Trebor now advises.

Trebor perused the book's listings and selected some typical examples, with the number of times played (arranged alphabetically by composer): Theron Bennett, "Satisfied" (8 times); Scott Joplin, "The Entertainer" (once); E. Harry Kelly, "Peaceful Henry" and "Southern Smiles"; Wm. C. Polla as W.C. Powell, "Funny Folks"; Tom Turpin, "St. Louis Rag" (once); Whitman, "An Arkansas Tussle" (twice); Clarence Wiley, "Carbarlick Acid"; and Henry Williams, "Topsy's Dream." About 30 cakewalks, syncopated tunes often included under the ragtime rubric, were performed, including M.S. Clayson, "Coons in the Canebrake"; Will Marion Cook, excerpts from "Clorindy"; Abe Holzmann, "Alagazam!"; J. Boudewalt Lampe, "Creole Belles" (twice) and "Dixie Girl" (15 times); Charles Kunkel, "Southern Jollification"; Wm. Christopher O'Hare, "Cottonfield Capers"; Wm. Henry Myddelton, "Down South" (medley); Arthur Pryor, "Mr. Black Man" and "Coon Band Contest"; and Fred Stone, "Belle of the Philippines." Trebor plans to prepare a complete listing of ragtime and related pieces of interest soon.

Concerts at the six outdoor pavilions featured six different bands, including that of John Phillip Sousa. Although Sousa emphasized marches, he also programmed cakewalks, such as "At a Georgia Camp Meeting" and "Whistling Rufus," both by Kerry Mills. According to Jasen and Jones in That American Rag, "Although ragtime was not to Sousa's personal taste, he was showman enough to program some syncopated numbers in deference to the city's musical rage."

Tichenor explained that opportunities to hear ragtime played by pianists existed at booths established by music publishers. Victor Kremer, Chicago publisher specializing in ragtime and publisher of Joplin's "Palm Leaf Rag" (1903) and Theron Bennett's "St. Louis Tickle" (1904), had booths in ten buildings stocked with compositions, many of them related to the fair. The cover of "St. Louis Tickle," for instance, shows black children merrily dancing near a board fence behind which looms the fair's domed buildings, the Ferris wheel, and a dirigible. It seems reasonably certain that both of these compositions would have been performed at Kremer's locations. Another composer employed by Kremer at the time and who doubtless performed at the fair was Fred Brownold, who in 1901 had composed "Manhattan Rag" published by Stark.

Tichenor also discussed the ragtime scene on the Pike. Herbert Spencer, schooled musician and composer of "Nonette Rag" and "Barbed Wire Rag" was in charge of music at the Irish Village. Arthur Marshall, famed ragtime composer and student of Scott Joplin, played at Old Seville restaurant and featured "Swipesy Cakewalk" until, overwhelmed by competition from the music at the adjoining Hagenbeck's Circus, he was replaced by a band. At the cavernous Old St. Louis Beer Hall, Louis Chauvin, legendary flamboyant "ear" pianist, dancer and singer, and his partner Sam Patterson entertained. Chauvin, later composer (with Scott Joplin) of "Heliotrope Bouquet," was to die four years later at an early age.

Did Scott Joplin perform at the fair? Curtis contends that he played on the Pike, but presents no documentation. Tichenor reported no evidence that Joplin ever attended the fair. Ed Berlin, in an email to me, also disputed Curtis' claim. In his biography of Joplin King of Ragtime, Berlin indicates that Joplin probably traveled to St. Louis from Sedalia for the fair's opening on April 30 (where he surely viewed the elaborate waterscape that inspired "The Cascades"), but by June had returned to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he married his second wife, Freddie Alexander. The couple then returned to Sedalia, where she contracted pneumonia and died on September 10. Thus, for most of its run Joplin would seemingly have been preoccupied and little interested in the fair.

Tichenor reported a ragtime piano-playing contest held in St. Louis during the fair, but not at the fairgrounds, probably at the Beaumont Hall near Tom Turpin's Rosebud Café. According to King of Ragtime, Jelly Roll Morton, in his memoirs recorded for Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress, had said that he had wanted to enter but was scared off for fear that Tony Jackson would beat him. Morton regretted that decision when he learned that Jackson didn't enter and that Alfred Wilson, whom he believed that he could have beaten handily, had won.

Numerous ragtime compositions were written to commemorate the fair, but there is no evidence that they were performed there. In addition to "The Cascades," the most notable was probably James Scott's tuneful "On the Pike," with cover artwork surveying the celebratory scene, "especially dedicated to visitors of the 'Pike.'"

It now seems evident that ragtime's exposure to many millions of fairgoers from throughout the country was a major factor in its exploding popularity in the mid-nineteen-aughts.

John T. Carney's Original Rags for Download

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