Joplin's Sedalia Footsteps
“Sedalia has been nothing but music. All my life this was called the “musical town of the west.”
— Beatrice Martin (1890-1989) Lifelong black resident of Sedalia
Do you hear the music?
If it’s the first weekend in
June, you do because the Scott Joplin International
Ragtime Festival will be underway.
But if you had been in Sedalia in 1899 at any time of the year, you would likely have heard music all over this thriving, bustling, busy city.
Sedalia was so musically inclined that its reputation probably drew a young musician here from rural Texas in the 1890’s. Young Scott Joplin came up the KATY railroad line and lived here off and on for nearly a decade. He learned and practiced, composed and performed his own
style of music, and it was something new, something mesmerizing,
something captivating, something exhilarating. It was syncopation!
You see, until young Scott Joplin came along, music in this country was really mostly borrowed from immigrants who made up the nation. Americans had put their stamp on nearly everything else, but their music was essentially and ethnically from the Old World.
Scott Joplin listened to all that music and turned it over and around in his head. He took the European melodies and lilting tunes in his right hand, and the pulsing, throbbing, pounding rhythms of the Africans and Hispanics in his left, sat down at a piano and made a new music, an American music, and he did it right here ... right here in ... Sedalia, Missouri ... where classic ragtime became America’s music!
Now let’s take you on a tour of our celebrated musical city.
1 Katy Depot - 600 East Third
You are going to start where Scott Joplin probably
started, here at the KATY Depot. This lovely
Romanesque Revival building wasn’t here when he
first arrived, but by the time it was completed in
1896 he could have been coming and going from
this very building.
Now stop, do you hear the music? He did. Imagine you hear a young man sitting on some old crates with his foot on a carpet bag, strumming his new steel-stringed banjo. He’s playing old minstrel
songs and occasionally sings along. Mostly he’s making it up as he goes, and it is contagious. Enjoy the music and walk around and see the “Syncopated Rhythms” piano sculpture on the tracks, and tour the magnificently restored building with its gift shop brimming with local souvenirs.
The Depot is part of the Katy Trail State Park System, under the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and operated by the Sedalia Heritage Foundation. That group, by the way, acts as curator for the Sedalia Ragtime Archive, sponsors exhibits, and provides research opportunities for visiting scholars.
2 The George R. Smith College - Osage and Thompson
Now I’m sure you hear more music in the distance, to the east this time, and it sounds formal, sophisticated, ... even classical.
That’s because we are now passing the site of the George R. Smith College, a Methodist Church-sponsored school for both freed black men and women. It’s probably one of the main reasons Joplin decided to spend some time in Sedalia because he wanted to formally learn to write music and play the classics. We know he took classes here. The school was built in 1892 but sadly it burned in 1925. The cornerstone was discovered buried in the rubble in 1974 and will soon be displayed.
While we’re out in East Sedalia let’s follow our ears and find where the piano music is coming from.
3 Crown Hill Cemetery - North Engineer
That is foot-stomping piano music this time, and it’s coming from over there by Ragtime Bob Darch’s grave. Quote on tombstone:“He did indeed expect this and there he is the extreme optimist!”
If you can hear Darch’s music, you can see him in his poofy-sleeved shirt with gartered armbands. Topped with an old straw skimmer, he was beating out his bawdy songs on the old slogan-painted upright piano he hauled all over the country.
He respected Sedalia so much, he chose to be memorialized in the town cemetery. Did you hear him playing?
Scott Joplin made many friends who also became his students while he was here.
Let’s follow our ears back to the center of town and locate some of the places where we know Joplin lived when he was not traveling with The Queen City Concert Band as coronetist or as a vocalist in his Texas Medley Quartet.
4 The Edward and Emily Marshall Home - 135 W. Henry
One of the first places Scott Joplin stayed was with the Marshalls. You can tell this is their place by the clunky old piano playing in the parlor. Joplin was never far from a keyboard and was always making up music, sometimes in his head just the way you are listening to him now! Joplin quickly befriended 11-year-old Arthur Marshall and taught him to play his new syncopated style of music.
They would later write two piano pieces together, “Lily Queen” and “Swipesey Cakewalk.”
Marshall and Joplin remained lifelong friends.
5 John Wesley Residence - Lamine and Morgan
We don’t know what took him to this white couple’s home, but perhaps it was because it was quieter...
6 Lincoln High School - 721 N. Osage
...as he may have been a student at the all-black Lincoln High School up the street.
Yes, it is hard to hear the music for the noise of all the young people playing on the playground.
It’s a senior living complex now, but there is a plaque about Joplin and his music placed there by the Sedalia Men’s Choral Club in 1951.
Abe Rosenthal was the director then and responded to a Joplin contemporary, Brun Campbell, who actively advocated for a memorial in Sedalia.
7 Minneola and Violetta Jackson Residence - 525 Lamine & 732 E. Cooper today
A few blocks west you probably hear a child playing her piano exercises for one of the Jackson
sisters. They were living on Lamine when Joplin was in Sedalia and both were recognized for their musical talent.
Minneola ran a day nursery on West Cooper until her death in 1959.
8 Solomon Dixon Residence - 124 W. Cooper
As you go back toward downtown, the distinct chords of Solomon Dixon’s new Emerson Square Grand Piano grow louder and you can hear Joplin in the days he lived at this address expermenting and probably creating his most famous piece.
Joplin’s second wife, Freddie, died here in 1904, just two months after they were married.
9 Marion and Louise Hayden Residence - 133 W. Cooper
Now cattycorner across the street lived Scott Hayden, another pupil of Joplin’s, and later, a collab- orator.
Maybe you can hear their “Felicity Rag,” “Sunflower Slow Drag,” “Somethin’ Doin,’” or “Kismet Rag” wafting through a window.
Joplin married the widow of Hayden’s brother, but they later divorced after the loss of an infant daughter and a quarrelsome marriage.
But joyful music is playing again, and it’s coming from Main Street...
10 Main and Ohio
At the corner of Main and Ohio, all kinds of music is pouring out of nearly every window and door of the two- and three-story buildings.
This was the center of life in 1900 Sedalia because it was where the other rail station emptied out its cargo and passengers.
Off Main Street between Ohio and Osage, on Pacific Street, was a constantly busy place, and Sedalia’s entertainment district grew up around the station.
11 The Maple Leaf Club - 121 E. Main
Joplin played and performed in many of the establishments along Main Street, but he is most associated with the Maple Leaf Club where he was billed as “The Entertainer” since he probably sang as well as played the piano.
The Maple Leaf Club, a black gentlemen’s club, only lasted a year or so, but it will forever be associated with his “Maple Leaf Rag.”
Whether the piece was named for the club (to which it was later dedicated) or whether the Club was named for the music (which was probably already locally famous when the Club was formed)...we may never know.
For now, just enjoy the familiar strains of Joplin’s most famous composition. Hopefully you can be here the first of June when the Maple Leaf Park hosts free concerts during the Scott Joplin Festival. If the structure seems a little incongruous, just shut your eyes and imagine the old building...much of this tour is about imagining anyway.
12 The Black 400 Club - 106 E. Main
You may also be listening to Joplin’s music coming from the second floor of the Black 400 Club where Joplin also found employment.
Though there were also some rough establishments nearby, members of these two clubs were among the most respected and most successful of Sedalia’s black entrepreneurs.
13 The Wood’s Opera House - 2nd Street and Lamine
As we walk south from Main Street up to 2nd Street, the rollicking minstrel music rolling out
from under the beautiful arched stained glass window of the Wood’s Opera House will surely catch your attention.
Joplin had to work where he could find employment, but he really aspired to great performance venues like this one. He may have managed to briefly stage his lost opera “A Guest of Honor” here but for the most part, Joplin had to find employment on Main Street.
14 The St. Louis Clothing Store - 201-203 S. Ohio
If you really want to hear the “Maple Leaf Rag” as only the composer could play it, stand on
the sidewalk in front of the old clothing store and listen with your mind.
It was here that Joplin played for white audiences and where R.A. Higdon, a young attorney, often stood at the piano as the virtuoso composer played.
(Read on to learn more of Mr. Higdon.)
15 Sedalia Municipal Building - 2nd Street and Osage, first floor lobby
Notice the Eric Bransby mural that depicts Joplin’s music so well we can almost hear music coming from it.
Sedalia was granted a city charter in 1864 and the present Municipal Building was completed and its cornerstone placed in 1973.
This building replaced the former City Hall, which was built in 1877. The structure houses city offices, municipal courtroom/city council chambers and police station.
The Sedalia Murals, which depict the
city’s growth and cultural history, executed by muralist Eric Bransby were completed in 1977 and grace the outside
walls of the Council Chambers.
16 Joplin Mural - 205 S. Ohio
And just down 2nd you’ll come to Stan Herd’s Joplin mural.
The north side of this
circa 1880's Romanesque revival style building provides the canvas for a large
mural painted in 1994 by Kansas
muralist Stan Herd. The building is unusual with its intricate castle-like
brickwork at the cornice, decorative brick columns, and the arched central
Now you can certainly hear Joplin playing. He may have been a little near-sighted, but he could sure get into his music!
Now lets do a cakewalk up the street to the ...
17 Pettis County Courthouse - 5th Street and Ohio, third floor Circuit Court Chambers
After you walk up to the third floor, you will find the panoramic story of Sedalia’s past depicted in
mural panels by St Louis muralist and restorationist of oil paintings, Barbara Manes Campbell. And of course there is a panel dedicated to Joplin and his music.
The county seat of Pettis County was moved from Georgetown south to Sedalia on February 15, 1864. The first courthouse was of frame construction and was located on a corner of the alley on the west side of Ohio, between Second and Third St. In 1884 a magnificent new courthouse was built on this block of land donated by General George R. Smith. That structure burned in 1920 and was replaced on its present location by the Classical Revival building in 1924.
Forty murals were commissioned to depict the history of the county on canvas panels which were installed on the walls at the time of the building’s renovation. The subject matter of each painting is arranged chronologically and reads from top to bottom, left to right.
The courthouse is open Monday - Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (closed holidays).
18 A. W. Perry Music Company - Broadway and Kentucky
Ff the venerable old A.W. Perry Music Company building was still standing– and it looked like it
was going to fall over for years before they tore it down in 1967–you would have rummaged through 100 years of music publishing. The music you hear would be coming from the massive, old, out-of-tune grand piano in the entrance room, a space laden with decades of brass music plates, correspondence, sheet music and copies of A.W. Perry’s Musical Magazine going back to 1881.
Perry published Joplin’s “The Favorite” in 1904 but had turned down the “Maple Leaf Rag” earlier – what a mistake!
Now we are going to amble west on Third Street to ...
19 Liberty Park - 3rd Street and Park
Both Joplin and John Stark moved to St. Louis after the “Maple Leaf Rag” came out, but Joplin
returned often to visit friends and put on concerts.
He remarried in 1904 and brought his new bride back to Sedalia in August. He was the featured performer at the annual 4th of August Emancipation Day Celebration, and he put on quite a show.
Tragically his new bride caught pneumonia and died after a short illness while in Sedalia. Joplin was devastated.
On a brighter note, let’s head back back to the south side of the Courthouse Square to one of the most famous places in America...
20 The John Stark & Sons Music Store - 114 E. 5th Street
As you listen, probably in awe this time, you realize that something really historic happened here in 1899. John Stark agreed to publish the “Maple Leaf Rag.” That young attorney R. A. Higdon,
who had stood by Joplin’s piano to watch him play, drew up the papers to a most important contract. The agreement paid Joplin 1¢ per copy sold, and the “Maple Leaf Rag” became the first ragtime composition to sell a million copies. Joplin would tell Marshall that this piece would make him the “King of Ragtime,” but it made him more than that.
What? That business arrangement made a fortune for John Stark, and Joplin lived off the royalties for the rest of his life. This music was something fresh and new, and it would sweep through as the nation’s first #1 hit.
Listen to it for a minute, you know it, play it in your head; ...you are listening to our first, very own national music.
On August 10, 1899, this became a most important spot. You are standing in ... Sedalia, Missouri ... where classic ragtime became America’s music! (Hear it!)