The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

April 21, 2013

Jo Ellis: Ragtime redux a nod to James Scott

By Jo Ellis
Globe Columnist

CARTHAGE, Mo. — Historic Phelps House will be filled with toe-tapping syncopated rhythms from 7 to 11 p.m. Saturday as Carthage Historic Preservation celebrates the Phelps House Ragtime Ball III.

The ball dates to the first ragtime ball in 1910 and a re-creation in 2009 on Carthage Historic Preservation’s 30th anniversary. Refreshments will feature “bathtub and bootleg” beverages, lots of hors d’oeuvres, and cake with caramel icing like that served at the original ball.

Adding to the early 1900s ambience, “Ragtime Bill” Rowland, of Broken Arrow, Okla., will be on the piano, and Judy Schneider, of Judy’s Ballroom Dancing in Joplin, will give impromptu lessons on popular dance styles from the era.

The entertainment will focus on the music of James Sylvester Scott, a famous ragtime composer who lived in Carthage from 1901-1914, formative years during which the majority of his popular rags were written and published. Born in Neosho, Scott was the second of six children whose parents were former slaves. His musical ability probably was passed down by his mother, who played all types of folk and African-American music without formal training.

After a brief residence in Southeast Kansas where he practiced on a neighbor’s organ, Scott’s family moved to Carthage, and the family was able to buy a used upright piano.

Scott was employed as a general helper at Dumars Music Co. It wasn’t long until he was elevated to song promoter after Charles Dumars overheard him taking a musical break in the back room of the store — playing one of his own compositions.

Dumars published Scott’s first rags, “A Summer Breeze” and “The Fascinator: March and Two-Step” in 1903, and “On the Pike,” about the midway at the St. Louis World’s Fair, in 1904. Altogether, Dumars Music published 21 of Scott’s rags, many of them with words by Dumars himself. During his time in Carthage, Scott loved to sit in at the piano and organ when the band at Lakeside took breaks. He played for tips at several Carthage saloons, religious organizations and benefits.

Scott met the older Scott Joplin during a visit to St. Louis in 1906, and biographers say his compositions seemed to become a bit more sophisticated after that. His peak productivity came in 1909 when, at age 24, he had seven compositions published.

He was a contemporary of Clarence Woods, a Carthage native whose first rag compositions also were published by Dumars. The two, although they didn’t really know each other, shared the same piano teacher. Woods later became known more as a performer than a composer.

Scott’s later life was spent in Kansas City, Kan., where he continued to compose rags, play in silent movie houses and teach piano. He died in 1938, but his and his wife’s graves were not marked until 40 years later. A plaque in the sidewalk on the north side of the Carthage square, where the Dumars Music store was located, honors Scott’s musical contributions.

Admission to the ball includes a year’s membership in Carthage Historic Preservation. The cost is $30 for individuals and $50 for a family. Details: Judy Hill, 417-358-9688.

Address correspondence to Jo Ellis, c/o The Joplin Globe, Box 7, Joplin, MO 64802 or email