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Ragtime community comes together to keep the music and its history alive

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Sara Williams
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TJ Muller takes care of Scott Joplin's piano at the Scott Joplin House, in St. Louis, Mo.

The music known as ragtime first swept the nation more than 100 years ago. Missouri, known as the heartland of Ragtime, is a big part of the ragtime story. The music is still toe-tapping today but the music was born out of an oppressive time.

Evan Musil wrote and Xcaret Nunez produced this story, which is a collaboration between KBIA and Vox Magazine.

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In a weathered but restored brick building in St. Louis, musician T.J. Müller pulls from a stack of slim boxes and unsheathes a paper roll punched with holes. He places it in a compartment above the keys of a player piano and hooks the rolls into place. The sheet is stamped with a label: “Maple Leaf Rag” by Scott Joplin.

Müller sets his feet on two large flat pedals and cycles at a quick and steady rate. The piano sings to life with a catchy, tumbling melody set against the even one-two beat of the bass.

This is ragtime, the American musical phenomenon at the turn of the 20th century that has its roots in Missouri.

From 1901 to 1903, this brick building was the home of Scott Joplin, who’s commonly dubbed the King of Ragtime. He composed more than 40 rags, including the popular song “The Entertainer,” which was likely written in the cramped quarters of this home. Now, the building is named the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site and serves as a museum and time capsule from another era, when streetcars ran the streets and people packed rows of houses in an increasingly segregated neighborhood.

Müller works at the site, giving tours and preserving the home’s history. When he’s not teaching visitors about ragtime music, he’s performing it on trumpet in early jazz bands.

He’s drawn by ragtime’s definitive feature: a syncopated, off-beat melody paired with a bouncy on-beat bass. This “ragged” rhythm gave the genre its name, and it’s the same quality that made Joplin’s 1899 “Maple Leaf Rag” a nationwide success — its sheet music sold over half a million copies by 1909. It’s the quintessential ragtime song, and Joplin wrote and published it in Sedalia.

Missouri is a crucial part of ragtime’s history. Ragtime still has its devoted, modern-day fans — a small community of performers, historians and enthusiasts spread across the world. They organize festivals, with one of the most popular ones in Sedalia. They host radio shows, such as Ragtime with Joy on Columbia’s KOPN. They write new compositions, and teach the style’s tradition and Show-Me roots.

“Missouri is such an underdog in terms of musical history,” Müller says. “So much influential music was created here, but it always gets skipped from the narrative.”

As a genre developed by Black musicians, ragtime’s complicated legacy is tied up with racism. But the timeless beauty of its rhythm and melodies encourages modern enthusiasts to explore questions of injustice and continue spreading the music.

Müller was born and raised in England but left college at the University of Edinburgh and moved to St. Louis in 2013 to tour with a jazz band. Even after leaving the group, Müller says he felt the need to stay and work in Missouri, the musical home for ragtimers.

Drop the needle

No one knows exactly when ragtime originated, but scholars estimate the style started taking shape in the 1880s. As Black southerners fled the South to try to escape oppression and search for opportunities, many traveled up the Mississippi River and settled in Missouri. The arrival of the railroad hastened the flow of people and musical ideas, and Black American and European influences converged. There’s little written music from this period; songs were spread by ear only.

Ragtime didn’t even have a name when it was first introduced to white audiences at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. A young Scott Joplin from Texarkana, Arkansas, attended the fair before moving to Sedalia to join its vibrant Black community. He studied composition techniques at the city’s George R. Smith College in 1895, which allowed him to document the burgeoning musical developments in sheet music. Joplin mentored many influential musicians while in Sedalia, including Missouri ragtimers Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden.

Joplin mostly performed in brothels and saloons, which were often the only places that allowed Black musicians to play. These seedy settings associated ragtime music with racy escapades.

But Joplin disliked the perception of moral looseness, says Susan Curtis, a professor emeritus of history at Purdue University and a Joplin biographer.

“He thought it gave ragtime a bad name,” she says. “He encouraged people to write this great music but not associate it with a kind of lower-class bad behavior.”

As ragtime became popularized in the 1900s, white musicians and audiences appropriated the music and ascribed racist lyrics and imagery to rags. Racist stereotypes plastered on many sheet music covers appealed to white perceptions of the music.

“It was kind of a racial masquerade that (white audiences) were playing to what they thought Black people represented,” Curtis says. By the 1910s, many Black ragtime originators were overlooked in favor of imitative white performers and composers.

Joplin started printing his own compositions in 1898 with music publisher John Stark. When “Maple Leaf Rag” became a smash hit, Joplin left Sedalia for St. Louis. He continued writing rags in his rented room, but he aspired to write theatrical music. He moved to New York, penned two operas and published one, "Treemonisha," in 1911. It tells a story of a young Black woman who uses her education to ward off ignorance and save her community. Joplin couldn’t gather enough funding to perform it in its entirety, likely owing to class and racial biases. He died at 49 from syphilis in 1917 with little money to his name.

Fifty miles away from Sedalia, Columbia was home to another eminent ragtime figure: composer and performer John William Boone. A childhood illness left Boone blind, and he was nicknamed “Blind” Boone. Although other performers with disabilities were marketed as gimmicks, Boone’s manager and close friend John Lange Jr. promoted Boone’s concerts under the phrase “Merit Wins, Not Sympathy,” with his musical skills as the only highlight. He traveled the country performing in churches and theaters.

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Wiki Commons
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Ragtime composer John William "Blind" Boone and his wife, Eugenia, spent their lives giving back to Columbia.

Boone’s abilities are enshrined in myth. Spectators would say his forceful fingers would tear away every key of a piano during a performance, says Clyde Ruffin, chair of the John William Boone Heritage Foundation in Columbia. Another rumor spread that the powerful rumbles of his infamous piece the “Marshfield Tornado” fooled an audience into thinking a real storm was striking. Boone’s programs would include a mix of rags, classical works and his own compositions.

Boone lived from 1864 until 1927 in a house on Fourth Street in Columbia, where the Blind Boone Home remains today.

“He had a true heart, a giving heart for the city of Columbia,” Ruffin says. Boone would play piano for the neighborhood children and open his doors to the community. He donated money to Columbia College and the Second Baptist Church next door to his home. When his wife died three years after him, all of their belongings were left outside the home for anyone to take.

“Although we’ll never discount the levels of poverty that existed here, there was also another story of achievement, success and prosperity, and this house is a symbol of that,” Ruffin says.

“Although we’ll never discount the levels of poverty that existed here, there was also another story of achievement, success and prosperity, and this house is a symbol of that."
Rev. Clyde Ruffin

Currently playing

By the ’20s, the emergence of jazz made ragtime seem obsolete. It remained in the shadows for decades as a side note and steppingstone for newer genres. Then, in the early ’70s, ragtime music saw a sudden revival that inspired a new generation of enthusiasts.

One reason for the resurgence was the award-winning 1973 film The Sting, with its anachronistic soundtrack comprised entirely of Joplin rags. Another was the first fully orchestrated performance of "Treemonisha," which premiered in Atlanta in 1972.

Larry Melton, a dedicated ragtime historian for over 50 years, attended that performance as a graduate student. He returned to Sedalia inspired and founded the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in 1974, which intended to bring high-class musicians together to celebrate mid-Missouri’s ragtime heritage. It’s now one of the two largest ragtime festivals in the U.S and typically held outdoors in late May and early June.

Virginia Tichenor directs the other festival, the West Coast Ragtime Festival in Sacramento, California. Tichenor hails from St. Louis, and ragtime has surrounded her since birth. Her late father, Trebor Tichenor, had already amassed an impressive archive of piano rolls and sheet music over some decades when the revival hit. “

The phone just never stopped ringing,” she says. “Everyone wanted to talk to him about ragtime, about Scott Joplin and about learning the history here in Missouri.”

Pulling inspiration from modern styles of bluegrass, folk and rock, enthusiasts began composing new works. These compositions brought back a craft that’s still practiced today.

The renewed interest spread to Columbia in the ’90s and toward John William Boone’s dilapidated home. A devoted group of historians and ragtime aficionados rallied to restore the house in a nearly 20-year process, Ruffin says. Columbia Parks and Recreation Department stabilized the house, and a contractor remodeled the inside. Ruffin searched antique stores for furniture to recreate the original home’s elegant interior. It opened in 2016, not as a museum but as a community space available to all, which was how Boone wanted it to be after he passed away, he says.

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State Historical Society of Missouri
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The Blind Boone Festival took place for 19 years with the assistance of Lucille Salerno, former chair of the Blind Boone Foundation.

Lucille Salerno was instrumental in sustaining ragtime’s legacy in Columbia. As former chair of the John William Boone Heritage Foundation, she applied for grants for the home’s restoration. She hosted her own ragtime radio hour on KOPN and served on several festival boards, including the Scott Joplin Festival, which awarded her an Outstanding Achievement Award. She also organized her own event in Columbia, the "Blind" Boone Ragtime and Early Jazz Festival, by asking performers at Sedalia’s festival to make the quick trip east.

The 2012 event was ragtime player and the first encounter with Columbia for composer John Reed-Torres. Since then, the Los Angeles musician visits almost every year.

Reed-Torres discovered ragtime as a kid in the ’90s when he heard Joplin’s “The Entertainer” blaring from an ice cream truck. Growing up in South Central Los Angeles as an Afro-Latino, he became fascinated when he learned Scott Joplin was also Black and that ragtime had a strong Black heritage.

“There’s only a small handful of people of color within the ragtime community,” Reed-Torres says.

He believes some of this is due to lack of proper exposure; many people only hear ragtime in cartoons or Western movies with saloons. But he also believes the genre’s historical baggage leads to it being ignored.

“I know a lot of Black musicians that don’t want to touch it,” Reed-Torres says. “But that was just the world (early ragtimers) lived in. They had to navigate it the best they could.”

“I know a lot of Black musicians that don’t want to touch it,” Reed-Torres says. “But that was just the world (early ragtimers) lived in. They had to navigate it the best they could.”
John Reed-Torres

Reed-Torres’s love for ragtime’s enduring sound has pushed him to share the legacy with everyone. He performs rags around L.A. and across the country to draw people to the genre. He formed the Ragtimers Club Facebook group, which remains the hub of the ragtime community today with nearly 1,200 members. He
also visited Columbia to dress up as Boone for performances and bring the musician back to life, and his ragtime admiration cemented his connection with Salerno.

After 19 years, the "Blind" Boone Festival halted in 2015 after health concerns prevented Salerno from filing for grant money. The festival never returned, and Salerno died in July 2020.

“She was a champion of ragtime,” Reed-Torres says. “I mean, she was hardcore. She was heavily invested not only in the preservation of the music but the people who played it.”

Reed-Torres says Salerno valued young ragtimers and booked them hotel rooms when they toured Columbia to ensure they were able to keep performing.

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Sara Williams
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What’s up next

Joy Rushing spends her Sunday mornings flipping through CDs and airing her picks on her KOPN radio show, "Ragtime with Joy." She took over Salerno’s ragtime block when she retired from the station, and Rushing has been broadcasting tunes and interviews to listeners around the world for 10 years.

Rushing is a ragtime devotee but a self-described introvert, and she isn’t looped into the community.

“Part of that is me not being aggressive enough in going out and meeting people,” she says. “I tend to go to ragtime festivals and listen.”

Still, Rushing immerses herself in ragtime’s players and qualities, and she hopes her show inspires the same personal joy in the music that it brings her. She also knows that keeping it alive means dispelling the dismissive notion of ragtime as outdated music.

“If young people don’t carry on the music, it’ll just sit on somebody’s shelf,” Rushing says. “People won’t be able to love it like I do.”

Several festivals try to expand their reach by holding competitions for young performers. The Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival plans to nationally recognize an under-18 player next year and invite them to take the stage, says Doug Freed, president of the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Foundation. The festival also selects an artist in residence every year to teach ragtime’s roots in Sedalia public schools.

Reed-Torres says he has seen ragtime still resonate with younger generations, and social media helps them connect.

“There’s Gen Z kids now on Facebook and TikTok, and they have their own little ragtime chat groups,” he says. Reed-Torres had a 13-year-old ragtime composer thank him for his videos.

Melton knows younger performers don’t necessarily translate to a younger audience.

“It’s something that people grow into as the popular music of their generation grows old,” he says. But he’s optimistic that ragtime isn’t going away anytime soon. “I think some of the best rags are being written right now.”

Speaking of modern ragtime, on a Friday evening, in a narrow, dimly lit wine bar in St. Louis, Müller’s band, the Gaslight Squaresm warms up on its usual stage. A concoction of trumpet, clarinet and piano fill the chattering air with jubilant melodies. The steady bass measures the pulse of the room and reflects the lighthearted unwinding after a long week. It’s Müller’s ideal setup.

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Sara Williams
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T.J. Müller, pictured playing a trumpet, is a ragtime aficionado. When he's not showing visitors around the Scott Joplin House, he's usually performing it.

“I hate recording in sterile environments,” he says. “I want to be in the corner of some noisy bar. People are drinking, having a good time, thumping out some ragtime with other buddies who love the same thing.”

As the band takes a break, Virginia Tichenor, who’s visiting from California, strolls up to the piano and lays down “Swipesy” by Joplin. The tune slides, jaunts and hops, and Tichenor’s body mimics every alternating beat with genuine love. The crowd slips out of conversation, diverts its attention to the sound and falls into a trance — aware of a master at work. There’s a sense that this is how ragtime is meant to be appreciated: by forming connections in crowded places across generations over a syncopated rhythm.