John Stark had an important ragtime role

Doug Kneibert - Contributing Columnist

The highlights of every Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival are, of course, the various concerts. But other important events happen from time to time, and one of those occurred on June 4.

I’m speaking of the historical marker that was unveiled and dedicated at 114 East Fifth Street, the former location of the John Stark & Son music store. That was significant, for next to Scott Joplin himself, John Stark may have been the most important person in launching the ragtime era.

Stark, who as a bugler in the Union Army during the Civil War, didn’t compose music, but he had a keen ear for it and could recognize a hit when he heard it. His instincts told him that Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” was one. On Aug. 10, 1899, he bought the piece, giving Joplin a small share of the royalties. Up to that point ragtime had enjoyed a rather limited audience. Stark was about to change all that.

Although sales of “The Maple Leaf Rag” were slow the first year, after that they took off, eventually reaching 1 million copies, according to Stark. That would have made it the first piece of American sheet music to do so. Scott Joplin’s career was off and running.

A devotee of classical music, Stark recognized similar elements in Joplin’s compositions. Stark coined the term “classic rags” to describe the music composed by Joplin and those he inspired. In a promotional piece for his company he wrote:

“We mean to advertise these as classic rags and we mean just what we say. They have lifted ragtime from its low estate and lined it up with Beethoven and Bach.” By “low estate,” Stark probably had in mind the honky-tonk brand of ragtime, which was played fast and loud. Joplin’s music has little in common with that style.

Stark went a bit over the top in his comparisons with Beethoven and Bach, but he did succeed in setting Joplin and a few other ragtime composers who followed him in a class by themselves — in the process giving Sedalia title to being “The Cradle of the Classic Rags.”

Both Joplin and Stark moved to St. Louis shortly after the turn of the century, and then on to New York after that. But they eventually parted ways over a business dispute.

A Stark family member brought the original Stark-Joplin contract to Sedalia for the first ragtime festival in 1974, where it was put on exhibit and copies made. After that, things begin to get a little mysterious.

Larry Melton, now of Union, who organized the first festival and made it such a smashing success, told me that the contract later was sold by the Stark family to a New York lawyer and avid collector of musical artifacts by the name of James J. Fuld. When Fuld died in 2008, he left his collection, which spans four centuries, to the Morgan Library & Museum in New York.

“The Fuld collection is absolutely incredible,” Melton said. “There are original manuscripts and scores from every major composer in the world. But no sign of the (Joplin) contract. I’m actually concerned.”

Melton said he hasn’t given up yet, however, and vowed to “chase the contract down. I still dream of having it at least on loan back in Sedalia some day.”

Doug Kneibert

Contributing Columnist

ReachDoug Kneibert is a former editor of the Sedalia Democrat.

ReachDoug Kneibert is a former editor of the Sedalia Democrat.

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