The question has been asked so many times it seems to have become rhetorical: What will it take for Sedalia residents to embrace – or in many cases at least accept – ragtime?
I was intrigued by the story earlier this week by the Democrat’s Faith Bemiss on a collaboration among the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Foundation, the Liberty Center Association for the Arts and the Sedalia Heritage Foundation. The groups are working on a collection of projects to promote Joplin’s connection to Sedalia and his pioneering work in the ragtime genre.
Deb Biermann of the Sedalia Heritage Foundation told Bemiss, “A lot of historians believe that ragtime was the first American music.”
Sedalia has promoted its ragtime roots for decades, but area residents in large measure treat that element of the city’s history with a resounding, “Meh.” The Joplin foundation’s annual festival offers a dizzying array of world-class talent, but the crowds are composed of out-of-towners – and none of them are getting any younger. Many local residents have a “been there, done that,” mindset about the festival, which is too bad because I experience something new every year at the Joplin fest.
I get that ragtime music isn’t for everyone, but it is a significant piece of Sedalia’s history and that alone should garner more interest than it does. I believe appreciation arrives through education, so I am glad to learn that the Joplin foundation and LCAA are pushing for more teaching opportunities.
Terri Ballard, executive director for LCAA and interim director for the Joplin foundation, said the artist in residence program is being reviewed as the foundation examines its strategic plan. This year’s artist, Jeff Barnhart, is a remarkable artist and an incredible showman. Ballard said Barnhart will do spots on local radio stations to let people get to know his personality, which should increase interest in his appearances at local schools and his public performances.
“We plan to supplement his school programs with a one-page handout for the students, a curriculum guide along with other resources for each classroom teacher,” Ballard said. “Jeff will also mentor piano students and encourage them to play during an open piano spot at the festival as well as provide feedback to the students.”
Another way LCAA is expanding the ragtime reach is by reaching out to local musicians who work in other musical genres.
“Sedalia has some excellent musicians. Can we infuse our musicians into the festival and build their relationship with our ragtime artists? Over time this would make the festival a great mix of local musicians and our world renowned ragtime musicians,” Ballard said. “I believe this would help bring our local people out to see their friends and family members on the ragtime stage. It would also encourage our local musicians to do more ragtime, stride, blues and jazz. As the city ‘Where America’s Music Began,’ we should have that kind of music being played year-round.”
As Biermann noted in Bemiss’ report, the Katy Depot and LCAA will have ragtime history exhibits on display over the next couple of years. Ballard told me that the long-range plan is to have all musical sources available for scholars doing advanced degree work. While these are positive steps in enhancing the profile of ragtime in Sedalia, I contend the city needs a physical Scott Joplin/ragtime museum, a destination space to house pieces of history that could draw people here and boost ragtime education locally.
But first, we need more local residents to show interest in ragtime. To that end, the collaboration of the Joplin foundation, LCAA and the heritage group seems to be hitting the right notes.
Bob Satnan is the communications director for Sedalia School District 200.