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You've Heard of 'The Birth of the Blues'

  • Ted Landphair

Scott Joplin played the piano at clubs and bars throughout Sedalia. He wrote 44 original rags that put an emphasis on the off-beats within scores. He also wrote a complete ragtime opera.

Scott Joplin played the piano at clubs and bars throughout Sedalia. He wrote 44 original rags that put an emphasis on the off-beats within scores. He also wrote a complete ragtime opera.

But do you know where Ragtime was born?

Here's one of those word-association games.

If we said waltz, you'd probably think of Vienna, Austria.

In an American context, if we said Dixieland, New Orleans, Louisiana, would likely rush to mind.

Country music? Nashville, Tennessee. Blues? Memphis, also in Tennessee. Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin

The Motown soul sound? Detroit, Michigan. Folk? San Francisco or New York City's Greenwich Village.

Now here's a tougher one: How about ragtime?

Ragtime was born, and is still king, in a little town that even many Americans have never heard of.

It's Sedalia, in the Midwest state of Missouri.

Sedalia is a factory town of about 21,000 people. But you should have seen it at the turn of the 20th century. Cattle drives from Texas still passed through Sedalia, and two cross-country railroads had big engine shops there.

And with all those cowboys and railroad workers came saloons and what the folks called sporting houses - a fancy term for brothels. That meant lots of jobs for the piano and banjo players who had found their way to Sedalia. This is a player piano, also called a pianola. The piano roll, inserted into the opening, can play a tune, or the instrument can be played like a normal piano.

This is a player piano, also called a pianola. The piano roll, inserted into the opening, can play a tune, or the instrument can be played like a normal piano.

Into this scene came Scott Joplin, who played piano in some of those lively establishments. And to keep his sometimes-intoxicated audience interested, he developed a ragged, herky-jerky style of music called Ragtime.

It really caught on, in part because it was ideally suited for piano rolls, which were then wildly popular. As rolls of heavy paper punched with holes slowly turned within so-called player pianos, they activated the keys and produced tinkly music all by themselves.

That's the short version of the story about ragtime, Scott Joplin, and Sedalia, Missouri.


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