Sedalia Ragtime Archive
          dedicated to the genius of Scott Joplin and the American Music History he made in Sedalia 

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TOM IRELAND’S: Old ragtime clarinet                    November, 2015                  Larry C Melton

Among the file boxes of yellowing documents, recorded tapes, piano rolls, reams of vintage sheet music and old shellac records there resides a rather pitiful old clarinet in a well-worn case nearly hidden in the Sedalia Ragtime Archive collection. Until now it has had only minimal care the last fifty years or so and tragically the old instrument has gone rather unnoticed and was nearly lost until a few incidents illustrated its provenance.

In conserving the extensive newspaper clipping accumulation in the Archive and supplementing them with additional articles now available on-line I came to realize how important Tom Ireland was to Sedalia’s story. As I decided to see what I could find on this venerable gentleman I soon came to realize how much was lost when he died in 1963, just two years before I moved to Sedalia.

I was about to set his biographical pursuit aside when I realized we do still have an important link to Tom’s story. After letting that sink in for a while (my aging brain soaks things up now more like granite than a sponge) I had a bit of an epiphany...that beat up old clarinet probably went clear back to the era of the original ragtimers. So if I couldn’t get a story from Tom, I’d just find out what his old clarinet had to say.

First of all it is pretty awesome to realize that the old clarinet’s best friend in the 1890’s was very possibly a coronet played by Scott Joplin. It is also amazing to trace the almost constant movement of the now road-weary reed at the turn of the 20th Century. Now though, the retired instrument appears content lying in pieces in its wrinkled velvet lined case. However, and I almost feel guilty, its retirement is about to come to an end, as mine has, and (unlike mine) it will be facing a new career as a celebrity. But I’m getting ahead of myself as usual. Here’s the story I’ve pieced together thus far.

The aging instrument’s owner George Thomas Ireland lived in Sedalia 95 of his 97 years arriving in “the music city” at the age of two years in 1868, the year Scott Joplin was born.1 Now we have no way of knowing exactly when Tom acquired his clarinet or even if he had this same one all his life. So until other claimants to the estate come forward, I’m assuming this instrument was with him most if not all of his life. Someday perhaps, we can at least authenticate when it was made.

I do have to wonder since his father, at least, had some wealth if the instrument wasn’t given to him as a toddler before his mother and his grandparents literally pulled her child out of Louisville, Kentucky to Sedalia in an oxcart. If it dates back that far it had an early shaking up before Tom was ever old enough to play it. I guess that would have been sort of appropriate for a future member of a ragtime band. 2

As with many famous people, the early years are nearly lost to history and the first time we may be able to actually track what was happening would be in the 1880’s. Since Tom went to school in Sedalia until he was 163 in the 4-room all-Black building through the 6th grade,4 I have to wonder if he didn’t pick up the clarinet in those days and learn to play or he may even have received lessons.

The clarinet probably was played more and more as Ireland worked in several newspapers around Sedalia as a young man. This is a photo of him as a press foreman as early as 1883 at the Sedalia Democrat.5
Our clarinet is probably near at hand inside.

Then around 1885 with the help of his White father’s family he and his clarinet took off to finish high school and a pre-med degree at Central Tennessee College in Nashville (now Walden).6 I can hear the ebony clarinet playing through the open window as his train raced through Tennessee. Busy as he would have been there in bustling Nashville, his clarinet undoubtedly got a workout while Tom pursued his education.

When our old friend finally returned home in the early 1890’s it probably really began to go through reeds that young Tom may have had to whittle himself. The Queen City Concert Band had been organized in 1891 and Tom became its solo clarinetist attesting to the fact that he undoubtedly had been playing for some time.7

Our clarinet was to become very politically active from this point on and undoubtedly found itself playing for numerous Republican functions around Sedalia. Tom was often a committeeman from the North side and he faithfully attended all the Republican meetings.8 In fact our clarinet’s owner was so respected he became chairman of the Queen City Republican Club.9 Our black clarinet probably felt as Tom, that but for Republican Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves just 8 days before Tom was born, they would both possibly still be in servitude. By now you see the peppy little clarinet was getting used to spirited jig and coon songs and the thought of having to play the mournful dirges of the field hands day in and day out was all it needed to vote and support the Republican ticket (especially there in heavily Democratic leaning Sedalia.)

Also when he returned from Nashville the well-played clarinet found itself being stored in the Queen City Band’s upstairs room over the offices of the Western World newspaper Ireland bought and edited for several years.10 The paper was well supported by the Northside community. It stayed optimistic but definitely took sides on the many racially tilted issues of the day, even calling out the mayor on one occasion.

It barely had time to rest and dry out when it was off on another train ride, this time to Chicago where the great Columbian Exposition took place in 1893. Ireland worked in a printing office to support himself while there but I have to imagine his clarinet found plenty of opportunities to play around the Fair grounds and learn a lot of new music while he was there.11

Our old clarinet quietly resting in its case now, already had a lot of experience by the time it got back to Sedalia in 1894. It had been playing in the Queen City Concert Band prior to the Chicago interlude and when it got back it was really busy keeping up with all the group’s engagements.

After a series of articles that “freely criticized the actions of prominent colored people in this city, among them leaders in church circles,” and that must have severely rankled some in the community. Tom came to work one morning to find that the building housing the Western World had burned to the ground overnight and all the equipment, uniforms and instruments of the Queen City Concert Band stored in the attic burned with it.12 The authorities said it appeared the conflagration was caused by an incendiary device on the roof.13

Well, since I’m telling the story I’m happy to report that Tom had probably taken our fortunate clarinet home with him that night and it escaped becoming charcoal for the next gentlemen’s club pig roast.

Now here, I have to go out further on a limb at this point. I’ve spent most of my life in just such a precarious spot so it is not unfamiliar. I’m strapped on so here goes…

I’d better fess up here and admit that this clarinetography of Tom’s trusty B-flat might actually be the story of several instruments. However it did somehow survive the fire as Tom told Hazel Lang in 1960 he’d had it since at least 1890 when they went with the Queen City Band.14 Still, taking it back even further is a stretch pretending Tom had but one instrument through their partnership and his lifetime.

It’s sort of like Lassie who was not only several different dogs through the episodes, she wasn’t even a female! Furthermore I spent a summer working with Russell Douglas MacArthur Weatherwax III, Rudd’s nephew, and was devastated to learn Lassie’s real name was Pat. So who ya gonna trust? Somehow Lassie’s story makes mine seem less deceptive...I’ll return now to regular programing.

All of Sedalia was abuzz in the mid-1890’s over the possibility that the state capital was going to be relocated to the Queen City from Jefferson City. There was to be an election to decide the issue and sides were quickly drawn. Tom was so certain that Sedalia would win that he bet $5 on Sedalia with a friend in Jefferson City. Gladly he didn’t bet our clarinet for Sedalia obviously lost the election and Tom was out five bucks. Sedalia did get the State Unemployment Commission Building in 1940 so Tom felt he finally got even.15

So sure was Ireland that Sedalia would acquire the capital designation, he bought into The Future Capital Saloon he ran for a time.16

Just before New Year’s in 1896 Tom married the sister of a fellow bandsman, Ed Gravitt and he and Mary enjoyed 51 years together.17 At New Year’s the Irelands and the Rev. J. William Jacksons were listed as feting guests in their homes for delightful evenings. Now again the clarinet had to have been part of the festivities.18 The Jackson’s daughters, Minneola and Violetta by the way, were shining lights in Sedalia’s sophisticated music scene and would have been well acquainted with all of the ragtime era personalities and their instruments. visiting the Jackson sisters soon in one of these monographs. I’ll be visiting the Jackson sisters soon in one of these monographs.

And there’s even more good news. An 1896 photo of Tom’s clearly shows the Band looking snappy in apparently new uniforms and there's our shiny black solo clarinet cradled proudly in his left arm. Within a very short time these instruments are going to be in trouble again though not before the new cornet arrived.19

We have made our way to 1896 now and our clarinet is going to get quite a work out. First Scott Joplin comes back to town and among other things he signs on with the Queen City Band discovering they are hands down the best around. Now our humble instrument is mingling with future royalty.20

The Band performed a lot of marches in those days and that probably meant our clarinet had mostly runs and cadences to play, but the repertoire was beginning to perk up. Though it was called by many names at first, syncopation was sneaking into the programs and audiences as well as instruments found it very invigorating. It was called hoochy-koochy, ragged and cake walks and it was catching on.

For a few months Scott Joplin lured our clarinet away from the Queen City group when he formed his own six-piece group (Ireland went along too) but it was a short partnership and it was soon back with its old pals.21

Now with a near lifetime of experiences behind them Tom Ireland still not 30 years old and his clarinet “settled down” in Sedalia to live “A ragtime Life”. Tom’s clarinet got quite a workout in those last years of the 1890’s. The Queen City Band was in constant demand and may have been playing regularly in what would become the Maple Leaf Club. They marched in parades, were frequently asked to play for civic clubs, religious gatherings and concert’s in Swisher’s Park. There were also many out of town engagements. After all they were the best Negro band in the state of Missouri by all accounts.

There are also newspaper accounts of the band traveling with the Sedalia Brown’s baseball team. Hopefully our clarinet didn’t get an athletic workout when they ran out of usable bats.22

According to Ireland though, about the biggest thing to happen to them was participation in the week long street fairs held annually at the end of the century.

Now this was really an opportunity for the clarinet to show
off as the Band went from booth to booth and according to
Blesh and Janis syncopated numbers went into their
repertory as soon as they were available. The band played
quick time for the circus acts at the fairs and that really gave
our B flat a work-out. And then there were the railroad
excursions that brought car loads of revelers to picnics,
dances and concerts in Liberty Park and everyone anxious to hear our clarinet (and the Band, too, of course.23

Our clarinet’s and owner narrowly escaped death by incineration in June of 1897 when a lightening bold struck him them and sent them to the Doctor. Ireland, Scott and Cook were walking home from a Band practice when they were all knocked down.24

The Queen City Band fell on hard times and in 1899 found itsself collectively unable to pay a bill for back due rent to the Smith and Cotton sisters. The Constable seized the Band instruments including our clarinet to be sold to pay the debt. However, White citizens (including the judge) stepped in at the very last minute and paid the debt and our clarinet was spared the indignity of going to the highest bidder.25 

What is so telling in the Sedalia Democrat articles is that of all the instruments seized, our clarinet was singled out for mention testifying, I believe, to the sincere respect the entire community had for Tom Ireland as a leader and for our clarinet as a sort of symbol of the best band in the state!

The reputation of the Maple Leaf Club and Black 400 Gentlemen’s Clubs deteriorated around the turn of the century and several prominent African- American musicians pulled out of the Queen City group that played in the clubs. W.H. Carver, editor of The Sentinel, G. Tom Ireland, and the Steeles formed the heart of a new “Colored Orchestra” and happily for our clarinet, they played the new ragtime music but not in the old questionable venues.26

 In fact in June of 1900 this group along with some Black pastors on the North Side signed a petition to close the gentlemen’s clubs for good. I suspect as long as it was still being played regularly, our clarinet stayed out of the fray.27

Otherwise life was tending toward a comfortable routine of newspaper life with evening and weekend performances all around central Missouri. However in 1901 the Band signed on with the DeKreko Brothers Carnival Show for a summer tour. They were quite a hit according to the papers and our clarinet got to see more of the world, well Kansas City and Des Moines at least, before the show disbanded.

Apparently Tom and his clarinet enjoyed touring as they next signed on for a short time with the W.A. and Jack Mahara’s Minstrels. However a few months of that life touring in the U.S. and Canada left both the man and his horn ready to come back to Sedalia and settle down. Like all of its adventures, our clarinet must have had quite a new experience with the Maharas. A young fellow named W.C. Handy was in the troupe and was probably experimenting with what would become the blues. I have to think our friend must have spent some time extemporizing with Handy’s new sound since clarinet’s can really “bend” those “blue” notes.28

Joplin was apparently turning out new manuscripts frequently and the Queen City Band often had them instrumentally arranged to play well before they were actually published. Our clarinet was probably among the first instruments other than Joplin’s piano to play the “King’s” new music. Another feather in our clarinet’s hat ( make that a reed in the case).29

In 1903, Tom Ireland purchased his famous bicycle and it expanded his world considerably. It wasn’t uncommon for him to ride 60 miles or more a day and his favorite ride was to Georgetown and back. He could still be seen riding around town when he was in his nineties.30

Scott Joplin moved to St. Louis shortly after the Maple Leaf Rag was published in 1899. One of his last performances before leaving was to present his ragtime musical in Forest (Liberty) Park where our clarinet undoubtedly was in accompaniment.31

Joplin often returned to Sedalia to perform as at the Emancipation Day Celebration in Liberty Park in 1904. Our clarinet got a workout both downtown and at the park on those occasions. Joplin’s wife, Freddie, died in Sedalia on the 1904 trip, and , heartbroken, Joplin never returned to the city where he became so famous.33

It is not to be forgotten as our clarinet entered the 20th century that printers ink was often on its keys as Tom Ireland pursued his livelihood in the newspaper business. By the age of 35 he had already worked on several papers and even edited his own briefly. Day in and day out, our clarinet waited patiently in its case to make music during all dayz while Tom followed his journalistic career. Then at night, life was literally breathed into the ebony clarinet as Ireland pursued his musical career.

The Irelands had two sons, Ernest and George, Jr. Our little black clarinet had to be careful in those toddler days for tiny hands could play havoc with delicate levers and keys not to mention reeds on something as enticing as a clarinet. It survived their childhoods without major repair.34

Through the years G. Thomas Ireland worked for nearly every newspaper in Sedalia and retired from the Sedalia Democrat after thirty years (not bad for a staunch Republican!).

In 1908, Ireland became advertising manager for the Sedalia Weekly Conservator, a newspaper published by the George R, Smith College. while he apparently continued to work for the Democrat. The Conservator ended publication the same year Ireland hired on.35 It was too late for anyone to save, even for the most respected man in the Northside community.

There were more setbacks. The Queen City Band faltered and then reorganized in 1907. There was a constant need for instruments and of course snappy uniforms. Our clarinet, however seems to have survived all the calamities and just kept on playing.36

Ireland spent the next decades enjoying family life, working at the paper and playing for any occasion that appreciated his talented clarinet stylings. One news item in February of 1936 however indicates that our clarinet escaped incineration once again as fire companies were called to his 1308 East 3rd Street residence to extinguish a flue fire. Only small damage resulted.37

Brunson Campbell, the Ragtime Kid stayed in touch with Tom over the years and Tom sent him some of Scott Joplin’s valuable manuscripts. Campbell was promoting ragtime across the country in those days from his California barber shop and specifically Scott Joplin’s compositions and The Maple Leaf Rag. In 1951Sedalia finally acted on Campbell’s admonition to do something and Abe Rosenthal held a Sedalia Men’s Choral Club concert and afterwards presented a memorial plaque to Principal J.B. Hylick to be hung in the lobby of Hubbard High School. A proud day for old ragtimers and ragtime clarinets.38

Tom and our clarinet drifted into retirement after that concert and his wife Mary had died in 1947. He lived alone as a widower in his tiny Northside home but he could be seen out and about on his bicycle.39

One last series of events brought Tom back into a Sedalia ragtime spotlight. The 1951 concert had generated considerable local interest in recognizing Scott Joplin’s work. In 1959 and again in 1960 memorial concerts were held. Harlan Snow and Jake Siragusa headed up the committee that sponsored the celebrations featuring Ragtime Bob Darch, Arthur Marshall and of course Tom Ireland. Concerts were held at both Hubbard and Smith-Cotton High Schools and Tom and our Clarinet posed for a famous photograph.40

In a news release Harlan Snow wrote…41

Our story ends now but of course goes on for the old clarinet is still here to remind and inspire. Tom Ireland died in 1963 at the age of 97.42 His daughter-in-law donated his old clarinet to the Archive in 1978 along with some of his other belongings.43

I keep thinking how nice it would be to have a piano we know Joplin played in Sedalia to add to our collection. And that would be great. However, like many things in life, we have something better in a way than that for which we wish. We have a great treasure in Tom Ireland’s old clarinet. His old battered instrument participated in a musical nativity and then spanned six decades as a participant and witness to the evolution of America’s music.

Hubbard and Smith-Cotton High Schools and Tom and our Clarinet posed for a famous photograph.40 In a news release Harlan Snow wrote…41

Our story ends now but of course goes on for the old clarinet is still here to remind and inspire. Tom Ireland died in 1963 at the age of 97.42 

His daughter-in-law donated his old clarinet to the Archive in 1978 along with some of his other belongings.43

I keep thinking how nice it would be to have a piano we know Joplin played in Sedalia to add to our collection. And that would be great. However, like many things in life, we have something better in a way than that for which we wish. We have a great treasure in Tom Ireland’s old clarinet. His old battered instrument participated in a musical nativity and then spanned six decades as a participant and witness to the evolution of America’s music.

And, lest we ever take them for granted, I’d like to once again add a few lines to recognize the researchers and historians who dredge up all the material for these citations, In addition I will add with considerable admiration all those armies of data entry personnel and programmers who put endless volumes of printed records and newspapers on-line so that we can sit in the comfort of our cluttered home libraries and diligently search for what we need. Whether it has been offered freely or minimally charged, the information is a nearly sacrificial gift and all of us who benefit from this great collective effort are in their debt.

We Thank you

1 The New York Times; 9/1//1963; “George Thomas Ireland Dead; Ragtime Clarinetist Was 97. Dies Friday; Extrapolated from Obituary

2 ibid. information.

3 Sedalia Democrat; 8/30/63; “Tom Ireland Dies Friday; Known for Varied Talents:” p.5.

4 Chalfant, Rhonda & Tatman, Alien; National Register of Historic Places; Lincoln High School Designation Application 1997.

5 Sedalia Democrat; 10/20/68; p. 36.
6 ibid,; Times; 9/1//1963.
7 Berlin, Ed; The King of Ragtime: The Life of Scott Joplin; p.20

8 Sedalia Democrat; 9/2/1900.
9 ibid,; Sedalia Democrat; 8/30/63
10 Sedalia Democrat; 5/22/1932; “Had Paper for Negro Residents”. 

11 ibid,; Sedalia Democrat; 8/30/63.

12 Newton Kansas Daily Republican; 8/23/1894; p.1

13 Sedalia Democrat; 8/22/1894; p.1 

14 Lang,Hazel;SedaliaDemocrat;7/14/1960;“TomIreland’sClarinetIsn’tWhat

It Use To Be.
15 Sedalia Democrat;6/10/1940; p. 3. “Feels Like He’s Even at Last”

16 ibid,; Sedalia Democrat; 8/30/63. 

17 ibid,; Sedalia Democrat; 8/30/63.

18 Sedalia Democrat; 12/26/1896. 

19 Sedalia Democrat; 11/4/1947

  1. 20  ibid;Berlin,Ed;p.21

  2. 21  ibid; Blesh; p. 23.

  3. 22  ibid;Berlin,Ed;p.20

  4. 23  ibid; Blesh; p. 23.

  5. 24  Sedalia Democrat; 6/27/1997; p.1

  6. 25  Sedalia Democrat; 10/26/1899; p.1

  7. 26  Sedalia Democrat; 6/10/1900; p.1

  8. 27  Berlin, Ed; The King of Ragtime: The Life of Scott Joplin; p.20

  9. 28  ibid; Curtis; p. 93

  10. 29  ibid;Curtis;p.93.

  11. 30  ibid,; Sedalia Democrat; 8/30/63.

  12. 31  Sedalia Democrat; 6/25/1900; p.7.

  13. 32  ibid;Berlin,Ed;;p.142.

  14. 33  ibid;Berlin,Ed;;p.140-144.

  15. 34  ibid,; Sedalia Democrat; 8/30/63.

  16. 35  Sedalia Conservator; 6/15/07.

  17. 36  Sedalia Democrat; 6/25/1907; p.4.

  18. 37  Sedalia Democrat; 2/18/1936; p.1.

  19. 38  Sedalia Democrat; 4/15/1951; p.1.

  20. 39  ibid,; Sedalia Democrat; 8/30/63.

  21. 40  Sedalia Ragtime Archive; 1959 Photographs.

  22. 41  Snow,Harlan;NewsRelease;1960

  23. 42  ibid,; Sedalia Democrat; 8/30/63

  24. 43  Sedalia Ragtime Archives Assoc.; 2/10/1978; Minutes; p.1