I’ve always enjoyed stories from music history. In today’s post, I’ll tell you a good one, and introduce you to the music of a ragtime master you may not know about.
Nearly every piano student knows the famous theme from The Entertainer by Scott Joplin, and many can play it. Joplin is called the King of Ragtime, and deserves that moniker for bringing the inimitable ragtime style to its fullest development. Along with Joplin, Joseph Lamb and James Scott make up the triumvirate of the most sophisticated ragtime composers. Most ragtime was written and played by African American composers. Like Joplin, James Scott was African American, but sometimes even ragtime aficionados are surprised to learn that Lamb was white.
In an interview conducted near the end of his life, around 1960, Lamb described meeting his idol Joplin in 1907 at a New York City music publisher and sheet music store. As you read the story, you’ll have to make your own peace with Lamb’s language from another era and his generalization that all black people must have liked ragtime:
I was in Stark’s office [Joplin’s publisher] one time. I used to go up there and get music all the time; they gave me a special price on it. And I went up there looking over the music; Mrs. Stark was there. There was a colored fellow sitting there with his foot all wrapped up, he had crutches. I … got some pretty decent things plus these things written by Joplin, he was my favorite writer. And while I was picking out things, she was suggesting things and then this colored follow he started suggesting things. Well I figured that was natural being a colored fellow and liking ragtime he would naturally be able to know a lot of pieces. Anyway he mentioned some pieces, and I didn’t know some particulars that he mentioned, Joplin pieces. So I got what I wanted, and in the course of the conversation I happened to mention to Mrs. Stark, I said, “That’s one fellow I’d like to meet. I admire him an awful lot and I certainly hope to meet him sometime.”
So she said, “Would you really like to meet him?”
I says “I certainly would.”
So she pointed to this colored follow and said “Here’s your man.”
So I looked at him, I says, “You don’t mean to tell me you’re Scott Joplin?”
He says “That’s who I am. I don’t look much like him now with my foot wrapped up and all that kind of business.”
Well I says, “It doesn’t make any difference to me.” I went over, shook hands with him, and told him I was tickled to death to meet him.
Later, Lamb went to Joplin’s boarding house with his early rag Sensation, which Joplin wanted to hear:
So I went in there and went in the door and there was a big parlor, a lot of colored people standing around, and there’s a piano in the back. I met Joplin at the door. He took me back to play Sensation on the piano. I sat down and I played it, and all the people were talking, which I figured was all right because I was kinda nervous about the thing. I didn’t want to have people stop and listen to me. So I played Sensation and before I finished I noticed there wasn’t any more noise. Anyway, I couldn’t stop in the middle, I couldn’t get nervous then, so I just plugged ahead until I got finished. When I got finished they all clapped and some fellow came over and spoke to Joplin and asked him what that was I was playing. Joplin told him it was Sensation Rag, “he wrote it!” Well this one fellow said that certainly is some rag, it’s a real colored rag. Well, that was what I wanted to hear!
After hearing Sensation, Joplin encouraged John Stark to publish it. Lamb then wrote a series of rags over the following decade that are standards in the literature of this unforgettable style.
Listen to one of Lamb’s most beautiful rags, American Beauty, as played by Joshua Rifkin.