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Authors: Larry Karp

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The Ragtime Kid

BOOK: The Ragtime Kid
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The Ragtime Kid

The Ragtime Kid

Larry Karp

Poisoned Pen Press

Copyright © 2006 by Larry Karp

First Edition 2006

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 2006900750

ISBN 10: 1-59058-326-4 Hardcover

ISBN 13: 978-1-59058-326-5 Hardcover

ISBN: 9781615951086 ePub

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.

Poisoned Pen Press

6962 E. First Ave., Ste. 103

Scottsdale, AZ 85251

[email protected]


This one’s for
Dorrie O’Brien of Write Way Publishing
Barbara Peters of Poisoned Pen Press
They wave magical blue pencils,
clouds clear,
and a writer sees
just how to make a manuscript into a book


History never embraces more than a small part of reality.

—La Rochefoucault

So very difficult is it to trace and find out

the truth of anything by history.


There is properly no History; only Biography.


The Invocation/Dedication Prayer offered at the dedication of the Scott Joplin Memorial Park in Sedalia, MO, on June 1, 1999, is reprinted with the kind permission of the Reverend Dr. Marvin G. Albright, Pastor of the United Church of Christ in Sedalia.


Many people helped me construct the historical framework for
The Ragtime Kid
. Special thanks to Betty Singer, the cheerful and indefatigable researcher, who replied with lightning speed to my endless email requests. Betty’s information about everyday life in Sedalia in 1899 was instrumental, and without her research, the characters of Dr. Walter Overstreet and P. D. Hastain never would have asserted themselves, nor could I have properly represented the Pettis County Jail. Mark Forster worked his way through impressive genealogical tangles to find critical information about the Stark and Higdon families, including John Stark’s army record. The Reverend Dr. Marvin G. Albright, of the United Church of Christ in Sedalia, was generous in permitting me to reproduce the moving and eloquent prayer he offered at the dedication of Sedalia’s Scott Joplin Memorial Park. Rhonda Chalfant steered me toward invaluable reference reading regarding social and political affairs in Sedalia a century ago. Richard Egan helped me locate material on the life and music of Brun Campbell. Nora Hulse certified a pivotal piece of information concerning Will Stark. And the staff at the Carnegie Library in Sedalia were patient far beyond the call of duty, as I pestered them for days on end to dig out century-old newspaper microfilm and locally written historical material.

Thanks to Jeanne Dams for telling me the secret of the geographic accuracy and verisimilitude in her fine Hilda Johansson series: Sanborn historical maps.

A particular thanks to my friend John Wright for permitting me to poach a line from the title poem in his collection,
The Beginning of Love
, that leaped into my story and excluded any other possibility.

I apologize to anyone I should have mentioned but didn't.

If you find merit in the historical aspect of my novel, much of the credit goes to those who gave me so much help. If you find errors, the blame is all mine.

Chapter One

Oklahoma City
August, 1898

Brun Campbell heard a piano, and that was all she wrote. Any time Brun heard a piano, that was all she ever wrote. The piano was Brun’s one true love, and when it called him, the boy dropped whatever he was doing and attended.

When this particular piano summoned Brun, he was walking down the main street of Oklahoma City with his friend Sam Mueller. The afternoon before, Brun had dared Sam to run off with him for the day and go to the fair in Oklahoma City, thirty miles down the road from El Reno, where the boys lived. Sam’s father, the town doctor, was forever warning his son he’d find trouble associating with that Campbell boy, and you know what the effect of that was. For his part, Brun figured Dr. Mueller for a decent old guy, and saw no reason to make him a liar.

So early that morning, Brun and Sam hopped a freight. Brun had been bringing home good money, playing piano for tips in restaurants and hotel lobbies, and he and Sam could have ridden in the passenger coach like gentlemen. But no point throwing away money you could otherwise spend at the fair.

The wooden sidewalks in Oklahoma City looked solid with people. As the boys worked their way through the crowds toward the fairgrounds, Brun set his mouth into just the right degree of sneer so as not to gawk. More plug hats and swallowtail coats than he’d ever seen before in one place at one time, and though it was only eleven in the morning, some women were gussied up so you’d think they were on their way to a fancy ball. The boys walked past a hotel grander by degrees than anything in El Reno, saw restaurants with white linen, gleaming glasses, and silverware shining in the sunlight. Shops of every sort, groceries, coffee and tea, shoe stores, leather goods, men’s clothing, women’s. “Hey, Brun,” Sam shouted. “I bet you can buy anything you’d ever want in Oklahoma City.”

That’s when the piano sang to Brun. Soft, but loud enough to drown out anything more Sam might have had to say, and Sam right with it. The music made the shops disappear, the hotels, the restaurants, the crowds of people. Picture a string between the piano and Brun’s neck. The boy crossed the street, came close to getting hit by a horse and wagon, never heard the old farmer up behind the horse cuss him out for a young whippersnapper, never realized that by the time Sam got across, trying to follow, Brun was already lost in the crowd.

He trailed the melody to a large music store,
in white letters on a glittery black background above the door, then stood a moment and goggled through the open doorway like the half-grown Reuben he was. Rows of shiny brass horns, clarinets, accordions ran down the sides of the store; guitars, banjos, mandolins and fiddles covered the back wall. Music stores in El Reno couldn’t hold a candle to this. And all the while, the piano called.

Just inside the door, a woman considerably ample in the bosom and hindquarters, and a little older than women like to say they are, struggled to play a religious dirge on the house piano. Brun walked inside to get a better look. The woman’s cheeks were on fire; water ran down in front of her ears. The boy nearly laughed out loud.

At the counter, to Brun’s left, a clerk held up a small wax cylinder under a customer’s nose, then slipped the cylinder onto a tiny mechanical contraption. Brun had heard tell of these talking machines, but this was the first he’d seen. He edged a couple of steps closer. Music, a band playing a snappy two-step, poured through the little black and gold horn, scratchy and thin, but to Brun it seemed a miracle. The customer, a stringy man with arms and legs at odd angles that made him look like some sort of human spider, pushed his wide-brimmed leather hat back off his forehead and shook his head side to side in wonder.

The woman finished playing her hymn, gathered up the sheet music like it might’ve been Holy Scripture, and waddled toward the counter to pay. Brun quickly moved sidewise, sat on the bench, and began to play the same tune he’d just heard coming through the phonograph horn. People all around stopped talking and looked at the boy. The spider-man laughed and poked a finger into the clerk’s vest. “How about you sell me that kid, Marcus? He sounds a whole lot better than this here phonograph of yours.”

Brun briefly considered that his playing might be a bother to the clerk, but when somebody praised his piano work, he likely wouldn’t have stopped if his pants were on fire. With all his energy, he swung into “Hot Time in the Old Town,” playing it march-style, pounding the keys for all he was worth. People commenced to sing; he saw men nod approval. A pretty young woman in a frilly white blouse slipped him a wink that nearly threw him off the beat. When he hit the final notes, there were loud whistles of approval, and everyone in the store applauded. But if Brun Campbell had any say, the show was not over. A quick transition, and now he was playing “You’re a Good Old Wagon But You Done Broke Down.”

All commerce in that Armstrong-Byrd ceased.

Brun had an audience of nigh-onto twenty. A man and a woman beside the piano kicked up their heels. Brun gave them “The Band Played On”; people whooped and shouted and clapped their hands. The boy already had his next two tunes in mind, but when he felt a sharp tap on his shoulder, his hands froze on the keyboard. The dancers stared over their shoulders.

Likely the shopkeeper, Brun figured, aggravated at the way sales had gone south since he’d sat down at the piano. He turned half-way around on the bench, ready to cut and run. But the tall, slim man standing behind him was smiling, friendly as could be. He looked to be in his twenties, light-skinned but not altogether white. A quadroon, maybe even an octoroon. Dressed to the nines in a pinky-gray suit and vest, diamond collar-studs, no kink at all in the black hair below the derby hat, and every hair slicked right smack in place. The man turned up his smile. “You play pretty good, boy. How old you be?”


The man raised his eyebrows and reached inside his suit jacket, whereupon Brun commenced to feel a bit uneasy. Those days, in that part of the country, nice as a man may seem, when he reaches inside his coat, you’d better keep watch. “Mmmm, on’y fourteen, huh?” The light-skinned Negro looked impressed. “Well, you pretty good right now, and you got a passel of years ahead to get better. You play any syncopation? Know what syncopation be?”

If his schoolteachers’ questions were that easy, Brun thought, he’d be class valedictorian. He swung back around to face the piano and played a little of “Mr. Johnson, Turn Me Loose.” The Negro nodded in time with the beat; his smile worked up into a soft laugh. He brought a sheet of paper out of his pocket, unfolded it, and set it on the music rack in front of Brun. “Let’s see how you do with this, boy.”

Brun stared at the pen and ink manuscript. It looked like no music he’d ever seen. He put his fingers to the keys.

For the rest of his life, Brun told anyone who’d listen that before he’d played ten measures, he knew he was in the grip of something powerful. Like the music was playing him, not the other way round. Mr. Johnson, turn me loose? The notes seemed to reach down from the manuscript, place Brun’s fingers, push them down, then move them along. As if from somewhere far off he heard the Negro say, “That’s good, boy, good. But you playin’ it too fast. Scott Joplin ever hears you play his tune so fast, he ain’t gonna talk pleasant to you. Slow it down, now…yeah. That’s better.”

As long as Brun played, that room was dead-quiet, but the instant he stopped, all Niagara broke loose. People whistled and cheered and pounded their hands together. The Negro opened his eyes wide; one corner of his mouth moved upward just a little. “You mighty good, boy,” he said. “That is no easy piece of music to play, for sure not the first time.
for sure, not for a white boy. Why, you only made two mistakes! One day you gonna be a great piano player.” He reached for the music, folded it, started to put it back into his pocket.

that?” Brun whispered the words.

“That,” the Negro said, then stopped like he was waiting for a trumpet to play a fanfare. “Is called ‘Maple Leaf Rag.’ Composed and written down by Mr. Scott Joplin. You ever hear of him? Mr. Scott Joplin?”

“Not until now,” Brun said, in a strange, strangled voice. “But I’d sure like to know what other music he wrote.”

The spiffy quadroon sized the boy up and down. Brun didn’t stop to think how his youth was all to his advantage. If he’d been a grown man, the Negro would never have dared take such personal liberties with him, and definitely not in that very public place. “I be Otis Saunders,” the man finally said. “Scott Joplin’s my friend. Lives in Sedalia.”


Saunders laughed. “Ain’t no other Sedalia I know about.” He took Brun by the elbow. “Come on, boy, you look like you could do with some lunch. I’ll tell you all about Scott Joplin, an’ Sedalia too.”

It occurred to Brun that if his mother were there, she’d already have two arms around him, hustling him away from this colored stranger who was going to take him God knew where to do God knew what. But Mrs. Campbell wasn’t there, and Brun followed Otis Saunders out of Armstrong-Byrd, onto the wooden sidewalk, down a block, around a corner, through a doorway into a hole-in-the-wall where he found himself face to face with a huge sable-skinned woman in a tent of a white cotton dress, grease stains all across her white apron, and a dirty towel over one shoulder. Below a red polka-dot bandanna, she had a face on her that would have frozen the bogeyman in his tracks. But Otis Saunders just smiled and motioned with his head and eyes toward the back of the room.

The woman glared at Brun, then led the way to a table all the way in the rear, and snapped a curtain shut to close off Brun and Saunders from the rest of the room. “Thank you, Minnie,” Saunders said, polite as if she was the queen of England. “Fix us up, if you please.”

Minnie walked away without a word. Saunders rolled himself a cigarette, his long, slender fingers swift and agile.

play a mean piano,” Brun said.

Saunders laughed. “You pretty quick. Yeah, a man live in Sedalia, he play
. Most musical town in the country.” He passed tobacco and paper across the table. Brun managed to roll a smoke without spilling too much tobacco.

They lit up. Saunders smoked his cigarette the way he seemed to do everything, smooth, easy, and cool. Brun was more deliberate, taking care not to embarrass himself by choking on the intake. Saunders looked just this side of amused.

In a few minutes, Minnie was back. Still without saying a word, she set a platter of ribs on the table, then a bowl of collards. As she started to walk away, Saunders chirped, “Hey, now, Minnie. You done forgot the beer.”

The woman turned back, eyes bulging. Brun stopped breathing. But Saunders just laughed in an easy manner. “You don’t expect this young gentleman and myself to be eatin’ our ribs without no beer, now, do you?”

Minnie took a moment to glare at Saunders, then pulled the stained towel off her shoulder and snapped it into the mulatto’s face. Saunders lurched back, shrieking with mock fear. He jumped out of his chair and threw both arms around the big woman. “Me an’ Minnie, we goes back a long, long way,” he said to Brun. “She always take good care of us young boys. Don’tcha, Minnie?”

The woman gave Brun another hard look, then pulled away from Saunders and started toward the door. “An’ don’t you be forgettin’ the corn cakes,” Saunders called after her through a giggle.

Once Minnie was past the curtain, Saunders said, “She a good woman. I likes teasin’ her when I can.”

“She doesn’t say much,” said Brun.

“She don’t say nothin’. Eight years old, they went an’ cut out her tongue. ’Cause her massa’s li’l daughter say Minnie sassed her.”

Minnie was back directly with a plate heaped with cornmeal bread, and a pitcher of beer. Brun forced himself to look the woman straight in the eye. “Thank you,” he said. Minnie nodded, then walked off. Saunders grabbed a rib off the plate and motioned for Brun to do the same. And for the next two hours, while they ate and drank, Saunders told Brun about Scott Joplin and Sedalia.

No story in any book Brun had ever read came even close to the yarn Otis Saunders spun him that day. Sedalia was built on music, Saunders said, all different kinds of music. Walk down a street where white folks lived, you’d hear girls and ladies practicing their Mozart and their Chopin, or playing waltzes by Strauss. Night after night, bands and small orchestras played concerts in the park, or on street corners. Jig bands played one competition after the last. Clubs, white and colored, held dances. There were wonderful musical shows at the grand Wood’s Opera House. And every night except Sunday, of course, a man could walk down West Main Street and just listen to the music. Every bar, saloon and parlor on West Main had a piano man, and what they played, they called ragtime. “Ragtime music been with us colored forever,” Saunders said. “When white folks first really hear it was in ’ninety-three, Chicago, at the World-fair, and you shoulda seen their faces. Scott Joplin and me, we were there—fact, that’s where we first got ourselves acquainted. Afterwards, we go to Sedalia, and Scott study composition at the George R. Smith College for Negroes, an’ what he learn, he show me. Mark me, boy—one day you and everyone else gonna see his name and mine on music sheets in that Armstrong-Byrd, and every other music store in the country besides.”

Brun swallowed a mouthful of collards. “George R. Smith College for

Saunders wiped at his mouth with the edge of the tablecloth. “Oh yes. Yes, indeed. Mr. George R. Smith founded Sedalia in 1860, an’ it was a big outpost for the Union all through the war. Afterwards, the railroads come on through, so they need plenty of workers, don’t they, good hard workers. Colored come up from the south, bring they music with ’em. An’ when Mr. George R. Smith die, he leave money in his will for a school for colored, supposed to teach all the subjects, but most of all, music. I say if a man don’t like music a whole lot, why, then he best go’n live someplace else besides Sedalia.”

BOOK: The Ragtime Kid
12.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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