the 1910s Promise and Peril
by Jo Allison
The 1910s were promising and perilous years in America and across the world. Many pages on this site deal with St. Louis, Missouri, a city representative of all the 1910s had to offer—and the setting of many of my novels.
Music in 1910
I think this is one of the hardest ideas for people, from baby-boomers on, to understand: you could not hear music wherever you were. Even as a baby-boomer, I could take a transistor radio (look that one up, younger readers!) and hear music on a variety of radio stations. Today, I can listen to music in my car (not subject to the radio), while I’m out walking, virtually anyplace. A Pandora station is always playing in the background as I write. But in 1910, most music people heard had to be live. Wealthy families might have a Victrola, but the music recorded for that device was limited.
Find a parade or a Victrola
Where could you hear music? Well, you could wait for a parade to come along. This was the era of John Phillip Sousa’s march music (although he wrote other kinds of music as well.) In fact, Sousa was one of the first recording artists, recording for the Victrolas. (If you want to know more about Sousa, check out the PBS page on him.) Schools traditionally had bands that played in parades; there were community organizations as well where adults played (and sang) together. The various singing societies also provided music. You could go to a park in good weather and hear a concert by a singing society, doing anything from what we call barbershop quartet to folk music (such as Stephen Foster songs) to popular ballads.
Play it yourself
And, you could hear music at home if someone in the house played an instrument. It was a common home entertainment to have a piano. I don’t have the numbers but I think many more people learned to play the piano back then for this very reason: someone who could play the popular music of the day was a hit at any party. Plenty of music stores—many of them located on Olive Street downtown—sold “sheet music.” Young and old pianists bought up their favorites and practiced so they could play the latest popular numbers when company visited. People also played violins and mandolins and other instruments at impromptu home entertainments.
And, of course, there was ragtime. One of my novels centers on the ragtime scene in St. Louis. St. Louis is associated strongly with ragtime. That’s because Scott Joplin lived in St. Louis for a number years. By 1910, he had moved on to New York City. His ragtime pieces were favorites for the sheet music trade—although you had to be a pretty good piano player to take on a ragtime piece. One of his pieces was called “The Cascades” and was written to celebrate the water feature at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. His most famous was written in Sedalia, Missouri, before he moved to St. Louis: “The Maple Leaf Rag.” You can hear the Maple Leaf, played by Scott Joplin in a recording for player pianos on this YouTube clip (playing below). I love Scott Joplin work, the first ragtime my mother played—and encouraged me to try to play. But when I started doing research, I learned about Tom Turpin, a St. Louis African-American legend. A better player than Joplin, Turpin was the first African-American to publish a rag, his “Harlem Rag,” in 1897. (See below.) There is talk that he wrote it earlier than that, but couldn’t get it published because of his race.
Ragtime is a precursor of blues and jazz and rock and roll, musical forms that became, progressively, more mainstream. Ragtime, however, was heavily associated at the time it was being written with African-Americans and beyond that, with “sports,” men who lived on the wilder side, who engaged in dancing to “slow drags” and other rag forms considered indecent, who spent time in brothels, who gambled, who drank. Other African-Americans frequently complained about ragtime, insisting it lowered white opinions of all blacks. (This conflict is at the heart of my novel which has the working title St. Louie Slow Drag, a combination of Scott Joplin/Scott Hayden’s "Sunflower Slow Drag" and Tom Turpin’s "St. Louis Rag." Joplin has a cameo role in the opening of the novel; Tom Turpin is a major character.)
So, ragtime may sound “old-timey” to us, and we may associate that with wholesomeness, but there was little wholesome about ragtime when it was created. (Scott Joplin died of syphilis, a disease he might well have picked up in a brothel where ragtime was played. And Joplin was considered a very quiet, conservative man, a more serious musician than most of his ragtime colleagues.)
You can learn more about both Joplin and Turpin at the Scott Joplin House on Delmar Street. It is housed in a boarding house where Joplin lived with his wife Belle Hayden during his time in St. Louis. Recreated next to it is Turpin’s Rosebud Cafe.