Features and Reviews
Farewell to the Ragtime Patriarch;
An Interview with Rudi Blesh
By Galen Wilkes
With the passing of Rudi Blesh on August 25, 1985 we certainly lost the most important figure in ragtime in the last half of the 20th century. If it had not been for They All Played Ragtime, it is quite possible that everything that followed it would not have existed. Like a domino effect, so much has stemmed from that book over the years. Equally as important was Mr. Blesh's promotion and encouragement of ragtime and new folios. Think of all the ragtime music he made available to us that we now take for granted, especially the later works of Joseph Lamb, whom he discovered.
I had the good fortune of knowing Rudi. He was a very enjoyable man and I admired him a great deal. He was distinguished, quiet, gentle, scholarly and always seemed to speak things that were well-thought. I met him through Max Morath in 1976 when I first began a radio series in college called "The Ragtime Years." It was then that I started to do research and record interviews. I was able to see Rudi rather frequently at Max's old office on 7th Avenue in New York. It seems he was always there when I went up to visit. The last time I saw him was at the 1983 Scott Joplin Festival in Sedalia, an event made quite complete by his being there, and some of my best memories of the Festival were talks I had with him.
The following interview took place on February 20, 1978 in New York City at Max's office. I have carefully edited it. Some interesting points are brought out here: The idea for They All Played Ragtime was Harriet Janis's, not Rudi's. It began in a casual way and the two were unaware of what they were to about to uncover. Once their research was amassed, they considered writing two books. Rudi also tells about Harriet Janis, who is obscure to most of us.
GW: What prompted you and Harriet Janis to write They All Played Ragtime? Was it because nothing was written on ragtime?
RB: Well, we didn't really know nothing had been written until we started, but the thing was that I was egged on by Hansi--that was our name for Harriet Janis. I had finished a book I had spent several years in researching called Shining Trumpets, which is a history of jazz, and it was a lot of work and a lot of research...so I was relaxing out at Amagansett and Hansi said, "I think you ought to get busy on another book!" Well, I thought she meant another book on jazz, and I said, "Gee, I've said all I can think of about jazz." She said, "It doesn't have to be about jazz!" "Well, what?" She said, "Ragtime." I said, "There must be a dozen books on ragtime, it was so popular for so long, so why go over all that?" She said, "I'll just bet you that it's a great field for research. Will you do it?" and I said, "Well, I'll do it if you'll do it with me as co-author." See, I wanted to shovel-off a little bit of the work because Mrs. Janis was, among other things, a marvelous researcher. Oh! Was she great, and she had a way of just digging into documents and coming up with exactly the right page. Also, she got us into the houses of some of the elderly black people that still had the attitudes about race that there were in existence 20 or 30 years ago. And I, as a man, couldn't have gotten over their doorstep because if a white man came to their house they thought that he was a bill collector or that he wanted to sell insurance, but a woman always could...so she said, "All right, I'll do it with you."
We decided to start at the Library of Congress, going over the material that they had and going over all sorts of sheet music. We came up with names after names of composers...but then the question was how to find them. Well, you see, the copyright cards in the Library of Congress might be dated 1903 or 1905, like Joe Lamb was listed as being in New Jersey where he had lived for a long time, and we had an awful time finding him, but others we took the names down, then we went to a friend of ours up in Harlem...and he gave us the addresses of quite a few people. He also said, "See a certain man in Columbus, Ohio...he knows where they all are." And boy did he! And the ones that he didn't know, he gave us a very important clue. He said, "When you're going into the dark areas of town and you want to find somebody who's already pretty old, don't waste your time walking from door to door. Go to the leading undertaker. He keeps tabs on him because he wants him when he dies." And it worked! We went to Kansas City and asked..."Do you know Arthur Marshall?" "Oh yes, he's doing pretty well," he said rather reluctantly, "and he lives on such-and-such a street." Took us right to him.
We got so much material that it became a problem how to organize it. What we really felt we wanted to do...except that we used all of the valuable material in They All Played Ragtime, was first a biography of Joplin and then a general history of ragtime. But we discovered that, although this was the most popular music almost in the entire world in the 1890s and 1900s, there had not been a single book written on ragtime. There's one by one of the Witmarks called From Ragtime to Swingtime, but it's not really a history of ragtime.
Talk about work. We traveled thousands of miles. And that was before tape, you know. Mrs. Janis took down the notes. She had worked out a system of shorthand which, unfortunately, nobody can decipher. We only used part of the notes and after her death I've had any number of people look at these notes of hers. They are in several different systems of shorthand plus something of her own, and they cannot be deciphered. It's like the Egyptian hieroglyphics! It's very frustrating.
GW: Could you tell us something about Harriet Janis?
RB: Well, she was prominent in the art world here, and also connected indirectly with the theater through one of her sons, Conrad Janis, whom you may know. He was a young actor and in the movies. She was one of the pioneer collectors of modern art with her husband Sidney Janis, who still has a gallery here—The Sidney Janis Gallery. She came to San Francisco with her son, who had the lead in a traveling play. I met her through friends of mine and played a little ragtime for her and some jazz things. She became very interested and we became friends. I gave up the work I was doing in San Francisco and came east to write Shining Trumpets. And it was after that when she suggested the book on ragtime.
GW: Did you have an interest in ragtime prior to writing the book?
RB: Just a nostalgic one. It hadn't dawned on me how important it was, or how important it really was in the origin of jazz. Jazz just took the place of everything, you know. It just shoved ragtime off the scene. And, consequently, we began to investigate and Mrs. Janis could play a little—well, enough to go through the various rags—and I found it absolutely enchanting. We just fell head over heels in love with it.
GW: Was Joe Lamb the hardest to find?
RB: The hardest I think, yes. We had been thrown off by a theory among ragtime enthusiasts that Joe Lamb was a pseudonym of Scott Joplin. And when we couldn't find him and so forth...we just thought well, maybe they're right; it was a Scott Joplin pseudonym. The difference of the rags, though, bothered us, because Lamb has a different harmonic sense. And then one day Mrs. Janis said, "You know something we haven't done: we haven't looked in the phone book under the name of Joe Lamb." We called several in Manhattan, but none of them was him. Then we got the address of a Joe Lamb in Brooklyn and went over. There was no answer at the door, but then we saw a gal walking down the street with a perambulator and baby in it and we asked, "Miss, do you know anybody in this block by the name of Joe Lamb?" She said, "Well, that's my grandpa, he lives right there. He's at work, he'll be home. I think his wife is out shopping. Just wait there." So we waited and there he came. Then, you know, he pulled this thing on us. He thought we were kidding him. He thought that we wanted to get money from him to publish a biography in these ways that they do those things--and he said, "Sure, I'll tell you the story. How much is it going to cost me?"
GW: You must have been awfully excited when you found him.
RB: Oh, were we! He was a wonderful guy and he had an impeccable memory. I found out one thing, by the way, that when you're dealing with musicians, they are apt to have marvelous memories. I've done other types of biographical material and I think that the musician having to memorize so much has a trained memory.
Copyright ©1978 Galen Wilkes. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission and with the assistance of the author. Harriet Janis photo © Conrad & Maria Janis; Joe Lamb photo © Patricia Lamb Conn