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Sedalia's Ragtime Heritage

In the late 1890s, a young itinerant composer/ entertainer made Sedalia, Missouri his residence.  What he did here made American music history.
Scott Joplin was born in Texarkana about 1868.  His mother struggled to nurture his musical interests and paid for his classical piano lessons as a boy.  He joined up with vocal and instrumental groups and traveled by rail performing all over the country.  In 1893, he attended the Chicago Columbian Exposition in Chicago where he heard music from around the world and he was especially interested in an emerging form called syncopation.  After the Fair, he came to Sedalia where he easily found employment, signed on to play with the Queen City Concert Band and attended music classes at the all-Negro George R. Smith College.   Joplin also gave piano lessons and taught two young men so well (Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden), they would become collaborators.
Joplin published several pieces of music in the popular genre of the day while on his travels including his first ragtime piece Original Rags in Kansas City.  But it was his landmark Maple Leaf Rag published by music dealer John Stark in 1899 that jump started ragtime as popular music and made Scott Joplin the “King of Ragtime.”    It was Classic Ragtime and and it made Sedalia a place where America’s music began.

(America’s Ragtime Reunion)

The 2019 annual Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival was the 36th in a row and the 38th since the inaugural event in 1974.  The heritage of this internationally respected event has now become part of our national musical culture as it celebrates America’s music...classic ragtime.

When community leaders came together in 1974 to hold the first series of concerts, symposia, contests and an idyllic ragtime in Liberty Park afternoon we only dreamed of the legacy that would be that first event.  So many of the second, third and even fourth generation performers gathered for that first “family reunion” here in Sedalia and all were thrilled that Eubie Blake, a first generation ragtime original, could still perform and entertain with the best of them. ​

​After two initial festivals, energy waned and finances failed, but the dream of an annual event was just too well established; so, all the accumulated ephemera and artifacts and all the documents of the festivals were gathered into an archive to keep the heritage alive.

Then, in 1982, a group of community leaders again had the vision.  First, they again sought a U.S. postage stamp commemoration for Joplin in to be issued on its first day from Sedalia.  That campaign was successful and a third festival was soon organized around that June 9, 1983 postal cancellation ceremony.   It has continued annually since that date.

Hundreds of performers have participated, with many young talents going on to real fame as composers and entertainers.  Beginning in 1989, a prestigious Outstanding Achievement Award in Ragtime has been presented to deserving recipients.  Compositions have been commissioned, artists in residence have been sponsored, and untold pieces of vintage sheet music have changed hands at these annual events.

But above all, these Sedalia festivals celebrate the musical genius who gave us the Maple Leaf Rag .  And, they bring a remarkable group of talented performers, and those who appreciate their talent, together in an annual reunion, here, in a place where America’s music began.

Sedalia has actively celebrated its ragtime heritage thro
ugh the years in many different formats and through many individual organizations.  Rarely, however, have the various community groups worked together to acknowledge or promote the area’s common cultural assets as they are right now.
In 2015, a new collaborative  initiative was begun to bring together the Liberty Center Association for the Arts, the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival and the Sedalia Heritage Foundation and its Ragtime  Archive Project.   In 2016, Sedalia’s Central Business and Cultural District became involved by erecting a plaque at 114 East Fifth Street, the former address of John Stark's business where he and Joplin executed the Maple Leaf Rag publishing contract.
In addition to improving communication among the groups, cooperation will enhance the programs of each organization by providing expertise, funding assistance, and in some cases, by sharing facilities, personnel and equipment.  This larger collaborative will also make it possible to expand the volunteer base during special events or projects and to broaden publicity opportunities.
The SJRF has produced an informative orientation film about Sedalia's role in Ragtime history at our YouTube channel.  A direct link to the film is available 

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