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David and Art - "Ragtime Today"

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

Art forms never simply disappear as long as there are people dedicated to keeping them alive.

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Last week I talked about ragtime music and the great composer Scott Joplin who, for a while, seemed like the living embodiment of what America sounded like. While his musical style instantly takes you back to the turn of the 20th century, it still remains popular and even vibrant today, certainly among its devotees.
I have a friend named Monty who’s an avid ragtime pianist and who knows more about it as a genre than anyone I know.  He attends ragtime festivals (or he did before COVID put things like that on hold), and loves to share his affection for it.  Among his favorite Scott Joplin compositions is “Magnetic Rag,” one I’d never heard of until he told me about it.  Joplin wrote it in 1914 and it was the last rag he published in his lifetime.  It’s unmistakably ragtime, but there’s a melancholy that lurks around the edges of the sort you don’t hear in the genre very much.  It’s interesting.
My friend is dedicated to bringing the art form alive for people today.  I can’t help but think that he has the wind at his back in such an enterprise because I don’t I know anyone who doesn’t like ragtime to some degree.  But more than that, like most artists, he wants to show people the depth of the style and he makes a good case that despite its reputation, ragtime is still a living art form.  There are many modern composers of ragtime, he told me, particularly since the release of the 1973 movie The Sting starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.  The movie prominently featured 3 Scott Joplin tunes and it was a monster hit, winning seven Academy Awards, including one for best original score.
The Scott Joplin International Ragtime Foundation is headquartered in Sedalia Missouri, where Joplin lived and taught piano for a short time.  It hosts an annual ragtime festival along with an artist-in-residence program for performers and composers.  Like so many other artistic gatherings, this year’s festival however is a casualty of COVID.  Beyond that organization, there are ragtime societies coast to coast and more ragtime festivals than you can count.  
Monty told me that he has several friends who have composed some very fine ragtime pieces, and that he has written a couple myself.  I want to hear him play them sometime soon.  I find this very encouraging.  Our national cultural life is enriched when dedicated people like my friend devote themselves to reaching out to their communities and showing why art is something worth knowing about, taking care of, and, most of all, perpetuating.

David Smith, host of David and Art, is an American historian with broad interests in his field. He’s been at Baylor University since 2002 teaching classes in American history, military history, and cultural history. For eight years he wrote an arts and culture column for the Waco Tribune-Herald, and his writings on history, art, and culture have appeared in other newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to the Dallas Morning News.