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Great Scott
Sedalia honors “King of Ragtime” with festival

By Margaret Dornaus
Published: May/Jun 2001

A mural on a building at Second and Ohio streets leaves no doubt that Joplin is Sedalia’s favorite son./ Sedalia CVB photo
He may not have been born there. His introduction to music began before his time there. And he attained the peak of his fame elsewhere, in St. Louis, Chicago and New York.

But the residents of Sedalia, a small, western Missouri town, claim the “King of Ragtime” as their own, and they've got the history and a festival to back up that claim.

Born in Texas

Despite Scott Joplin’s prominence in American music, many facts about his life elude us. According to biographer Edward A. Berlin, Joplin was born somewhere in Texas, between June 1867 and mid-January 1868.

According to anecdotes, Joplin taught himself piano in a white-owned home where his mother worked in Texarkana. In the 1880s, he moved to Sedalia and attended Lincoln High School. In 1896, he attended music classes at George R. Smith College in town, a black institution established by the Methodist Church.

Joplin lived in Sedalia from the late 1880s to 1901. Sedalia music store owner and publisher, John Stark published his signature composition, “The Maple Leaf Rag,” in 1899. Sales that first year were slim (400 copies), but by 1909, approximately 500,000 copies had been sold. Joplin composed three other rags while living in Sedalia.

Sedalians remember Joplin’s contribution to American music by paying homage to the musician their town helped to educate during his high school and college years. Today, the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival boasts an audience of toe-tapping, ivory-tickling fans from around the world.

Sedalia: A rags to riches story

Sedalia seems to be the perfect choice of towns for this celebration of ragtime. Visit the Scott Joplin Foundation and Ragtime Store, located downtown in the historic Hotel Bothwell, to learn more about Joplin’s time in Sedalia. The Maple Leaf Room, housed at the State Fair Community College Library, has an array of ragtime artifacts, including the bar from the original Maple Leaf Club where Joplin entertained Sedalia patrons. In 1994, Sedalia added another sign of its admiration for the ragtime king. Muralist Stan Herd painted Joplin seated at the piano on a building at Second and Ohio streets.

Even without these connections, Sedalia could host a commemoration of ragtime without missing a syncopated beat.

Founded in 1860, Sedalia came of age during the pre-jazz era. When the railroad connected Sedalia with the West a year later, the dusty frontier town once known as the end of the cattle trail blossomed, eventually earning a new moniker, Queen City of the Prairies.

One of the most spectacular examples of Sedalia’s heyday is the Bothwell Lodge State Historic Site, located just north of the city off U.S. Highway 65. The country home of John Homer Bothwell (a Sedalia lawyer and one of its most prominent benefactors), this massive stone structure was constructed in sections between 1897 and 1928.

Surrounding the estate is Bothwell Lodge State Park, a year-round recreational area featuring picnic grounds and hiking trails. But for serious hikers and bikers), Katy Trail State Park Trail–the country's largest rail-to-trail conversion–winds through town.

Hail to Joplin

With musical roots closely tied to plantation life, ragtime perfected its boisterous syncopated rhythms from cakewalks, as well as from more traditional African-American dances dating to antebellum times. As the son of a former slave, Scott Joplin was familiar with this musical heritage. It's a heritage that comes alive each June in Sedalia.

This year's Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival begins June 7 with an opening parade through town and closes June 10 with a farewell brunch and mid-afternoon concert. In between, symposiums, tea dances, a catfish fry, and afternoon and nightly concerts fill the bill for ragtime lovers.

At the time of Joplin’s death in 1917, he was almost forgotten, according to Berlin. Through revivals in the 1940s and 1970s, plus festivals held in towns like Sedalia, this quiet, modest man's music is a permanent part of the American musical landscape.

Margaret Dornaus is a contributor from Springdale, Ark.

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