PRELUDE: Strap Hill
Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been if I’d listened to my friend Otis. So maybe that’s where I ought to start—with the train pulling into Sedalia, near dark. With me stepping onto the platform, breathing deep, the smell of cow dung in the air—even though it was late December and the ground and everything else should have been froze by then.
The traveling minstrel shows that made stops all through the tourist season, they was long gone. Wouldn’t be back until spring. That was fine by me. I wasn’t lookin’ for work. I had me a fine gig, just a few weeks off, all the way in New York City. Back then, I thought New York was the answer to a poor man’s prayers. With enough talent and a little bit of luck, no telling how far you might go. Me, I was plenty happy to ride on the coattails of Mr. Ben Harney, the “originator” of ragtime. So-called.
Don’t mean to put Ben down. Especially not now—now he’s gone, and with poor Jessie begging the money for a proper grave. Truth is, I owe just about everything to Ben. So did Bernard, yet I didn’t never hear him say a good word about Harney. No, Mike Bernard always thought he was better than the rest of ’em. It’s true, that man’s fingers could dance down a keyboard faster than anything I ever seen. And he knew a thing or two about music—all kind of music. I’ll give him that.
But he wasn’t no Will Marion Cook. Maybe I’m kindlier toward Mr. Cook seeing as how he’s a colored man, but for my money he had more talent than Bernard and twenty more of them Tin Pan Alley types rolled into one. Being a genius didn’t make him no happier, though.
I guess that’s what all of them three taught me best. How it don’t matter in the end how smart you is, not even how good you can play—not if you ain’t happy. Not if you don’t know to be content with what you got.
But on that December night in 1895, when I stopped off in Sedalia to look up my old buddy Otis Saunders, I was still of the mind that money was the answer to everything. And I was fixing to get me a whole bunch of it, just as quick as I could.
Standin’ on the platform, I took me a moment to admire the view. The last rays of sun poured gold as honey on the rolling hills of central Missouri. It was fine farmland. I remember thinking a man could probably make a half-decent living there, if he was of a mind to get his hands dirty. But that wasn’t the life for me. No sir!
I turned toward the east. The heart of town was only a few blocks from the station. The gas lights was lit already, and I knew what that meant. Otis had told me about Sedalia, and I was ready to have me one hell of a good time. I buttoned up my brand new wool frock coat and pushed my bowler down tight on my head so the wind couldn’t take it. Carrying my old leather suitcase, I hurried down the steps and headed straight for town.
Back then, Sedalia already had about fifteen thousand people, but still there wasn’t much to it. A beat-up wood sidewalk ran the length of Main Street, and most of the buildings wasn’t no better than old blockhouses. I passed by a big, long row of storefronts—general store, barber shop, feed store, hardware store. All of them was closed up for the night, the shop keepers home with their families—or maybe enjoying a little libation at one of them taverns down the street. Exactly where I was headed.
“Hey, stranger, looking for a little fun?”
I glanced real quick toward the half-open door but kept walking, chuckling to myself. I ain’t never had no illusions about being a ladies’ man. If they was writing me up for some “Wanted” poster, here’s what they’d say: short and wiry, black as pitch, nose flat and wide as a pancake, and a big, empty space between his two front teeth. No, I ain’t never been handsome, even back then when I was young. Still, I figured I’d have plenty of opportunities with the ladies once I got to New York, after I’d made a name for myself as Ben Harney’s sideman.
By the time I hit the center of town, it was like a whole different place. The doors to the pool halls and honkytonks was thrown wide open, lights glowing and sounds of piano music filtering onto the street.
Without too much trouble, I found the Maple Leaf. It looked to be one of the busiest saloons, the crowd mostly colored but a fair number of whites, too—mingling together like there was nothing wrong with it. But that’s what I done heard about Sedalia. That everybody, colored and white, seem to get along.
I could barely see through the thick smoke. I headed across the room, past the pool and gaming tables, my sights set on the long bar along the back. The colored bartender was sloshing a wet rag across the counter. He looked up at me and tossed it aside.
“What’ll you have, brother?”
“Whiskey.” I settled onto a high stool, unbuttoning my coat and shoving my suitcase under my boots. “Who’s playing tonight?”
“Whoever show up, I reckon.”
“You know Otis Saunders?”
“Otis? Sure, he’s a regular these days.” The bartender yelled out, “Anybody seen Otis?”
“Saw him playing pool little while ago,” somebody answered from the other end of the bar. “There he is, coming this way right now!”
I swung around on my stool and watched as a light-skinned Negro, dressed in a flashy green and tan plaid suit, approached the bar. He was just like I remembered him, with the sure step and easy smile of somebody knows what he’s all about. I couldn’t help being just a little bit jealous the way all the ladies turned to look at him as he went by.
“Somebody asking for me?”
I jumped up and, with a grin, stuck out my hand. “Good to see you, Otis.”
Otis’s eyes lit up. “Why, if it ain’t Strap Hill! I’ll be dogged! What you doing in Sedalia, man?” he said, giving me a hearty slap on the back.
“Way you and Scott Joplin was talking about this place, I knew someday I’d have to see it for myself. Was hoping, by some kind of luck, I’d run into one or maybe both of you.”
I met the two of them fellows during the world’s fair, the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, in the summer of ’93. Never forget how Otis and I got ourselves into a jam with a couple of cops on that so-called Colored American Day, the only time us Negro musicians who came to the fair from all over was actually allowed to play there, and not just on makeshift stages outside the gates or some run-down honkytonk in town. They gave us one day, a Colored American Day. It was all the idea of Frederick Douglass. Of course, white folks didn’t like it much when he got up and made a speech about how bad things was going for Negroes in America—no jobs, no respect, no pay-back for all we done contributed to the country. After his speech, when all of us was leaving the big hall, it seemed like the cops was just looking to nab a colored man, with or without a reason. Otis and me happened to be the ones they chose.
“Bet you’re still thinking about that hootchy-cootchy gal, the one at the fair, huh?” Otis ribbed, bringing me back. “What was her name?”
“Little Egypt. She knew how to shake it, all right.”
By now, Otis was eyeing me up and down, taking in every detail of my sharp new outfit. I figured he was probably wondering what I been up to that I could afford fancy threads like those. But turned out he already knew.
“Heard you’re singing with Ben Harney these days,” he said.
“He ‘fessed up yet to where he learned how to rag, or still claiming to invent it all by himself?”
Otis’s tongue was sharp as a bee sting and put me of a mind to defend myself. “Don’t matter to me if he invented ragging or not. What’s important is people like his music.”
“Don’t get me wrong, Strap.” He put his hand on my shoulder, real friendly, like he was sorry for how he sounded. “I don’t have anything against Harney. I hear he’s a good man, almost like one of us. Fact is, don’t know of any other white man touring with colored players, like he done. Unless maybe he’s got some Negro in him after all. There’s rumors about that, you know. What do you say, Strap? You seen him up close.”
“He looks plenty white to me. And the way he talk about his family, seem they’s all big shots. Said his grandpa’s in the government, a state senator or something. Somebody else a professor at the university, wrote a book about numbers.” I took a swallow of whiskey, grateful that Otis seemed to have eased up on me. “For Kentucky, the Harneys is kind of like blue bloods, I’d say.”
“Sure like to know where Ben Harney learned to rag,” Otis said, shaking his head.
I decided it was better to talk about something else.”What’s going on with Joplin?”
“Joplin? He’s studying over at the college now. Composition, harmony, I don’t know what else. That man, he’s always wanting to do things bigger and better.”
“Deep into it, huh?”
“Deeper into rags than anybody I know. He can take ’em apart and put ’em back together, just like he was building a house, brick by brick, with everything matching up just right.”
I nodded. Fellows like Scott Joplin and Otis Saunders, they was a mystery to me. You see, I couldn’t read or write music—still can’t. But in those days I sure had a good set of pipes. I could sing like nobody’s business, and when I did my ring shout, there wasn’t a soul who didn’t get swept away in the fervor.
“Harney can write a good song,” Otis continued. “Nobody would deny that.”
“Brings the house down every time,” I chimed in, remembering with pride how it felt to hear the crowd stomp and roar. At least part of them cheers, I told myself, was for me.
“Guess he’s a heck of a performer. Imitating colored folks, like he does.”
So Otis wasn’t finished jabbing at me after all! “Why you badgering me about Harney, man?”
He looked me straight in the eyes. “Strap, it’s plain as day. Ragging is the black man’s invention. The rhythm comes straight from Africa, you know as well as me. Straight from the black man’s soul. I’m sorry, brother, but what Harney’s doing just ain’t right. No white man can claim ragging as his own—not him, not any of ’em.”
I didn’t say nothing. When it came to fancy talking, I was no match for Otis. Besides, I thought, maybe he was right. But that wasn’t going to stop me from teaming up with Ben. Have to be a fool to pass up a chance like that!
“He pay you good?”
“Good enough.” Before, I would have bragged to high heaven about how much I stood to make once I got to New York, playing with Ben at Tony Pastor’s vaudeville theater. Now, though, I figured I’d best keep it to myself.
Otis glanced over his shoulder. “Sorry, buddy, but I got to go. The folks are getting restless. I’m on tonight.” He gave his fingers a good stretch, then rubbed his palms together hard, like he was trying to start a fire. “How long you going to be in Sedalia?”
“Got to head out to New York in a few days.”
“You’ll stay at my place while you’re here. Long as you like.”
“You sure I won’t be puttin’ you out?”
Otis leaned in close, like he was about to tell me something secret. “I’m going to introduce you to my sister, Bess. She’s a real looker and sweet as a tub o’ honey.”
“That sounds mighty good.”
“You’re going to love it here, Strap. Fact is—” Otis gave me a poke in the ribs—“I could see you getting real comfortable in Sedalia. Settling down with a nice girl. Doing a little singing and shouting on the side.”
I couldn’t help laughing. No way I was staying in Sedalia! Not with what I had ahead of me in New York. Fame. Fortune.
And everything I thought goes with it.