I recently enjoyed a week of fabulous ragtime music - first at the Scott Joplin Festival in Sedalia, and now at the Blind Boone Fest in Columbia, Missouri. In the process, I've had the pleasure of spending some time with Carol Binkowski, whose book, Joseph F. Lamb: A Passion for Ragtime has recently come out.
Joe Lamb was one of the three major composers of ragtime a century ago, and lived a life of stunning variety and accomplishment. To date, there's been no full-length biography of Lamb, but Carol has rectified this omission. She's presented Lamb's story in a most effective way, painting such a clear and captivating background of the times that at times you'll think you're reading a novel. But it all really did happen, and whether or not you're a musician, and whether or not you like ragtime music, you'll get sucked into this book, and then, when you turn the last page, you'll sit for a moment, dazed, feeling as if you've just been dumped out of a time machine. Get it from a bookshop, or from a library, but get it and read it. I don't think you'll be sorry.
Here's my short review.
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A century or so ago, there were three major composers of classic ragtime music: Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb, and James Scott. Book-length biographies of Joplin have been available for some time, but in this regard, Lamb and Scott have been sorely neglected. Now, happily, we now have Joseph F. Lamb: A Passion for Ragtime, by Carol Binkowski (McFarland, 2012). The wait has been worth it.
Joe Lamb's story is a classic American tale, and Binkowski does a first-rate job of telling it. Born in 1887, Lamb grew up in Montclair, NJ, basically taught himself piano, and as a teenager, began to compose popular tunes in the styles of the times. Then he heard Scott Joplin's ragtime, and became hooked. He began to write in this genre, met and got to be friends with Joplin (who enthusiastically endorsed the younger man's work), and saw his compositions achieve considerable popularity. But about 1920, the market for ragtime vanished. Lamb continued to write rags and other tunes for his own enjoyment, held a responsible corporate job, and lived a quiet life with his family, in Brooklyn.
By the time of the ragtime revival in the 1940s, Lamb was a mystery man to music historians. Most of them assumed that like Joplin and Scott, Lamb was Black, and probably long dead. But in 1949, while researching the book that became They All Played Ragtime, Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis discovered him, and he got to enjoy his celebrity for the remaining eleven years of his life. Many of the rags he'd composed during the prior thirty years were published, as were a bunch of new ragtime pieces he set onto paper during the 'fifties. He performed at ragtime festivals, and made recordings.
The author recounts Lamb's life story through a beautifully-drawn background of the times in which he lived, which stretched from the late Victorian age to the last days of the Eisenhower presidency. Social customs and mores of the day, business practices, geographic considerations, and certainly entertainment - particularly music - are used effectively to give the reader a full and satisfying picture of Lamb's personal and professional life. Binkowski's descriptions of places play like movies.
Most fortunate is the fact that two of Lamb's children are still with us, and cooperated fully with the author regarding documents, photographs, and family stories. (The composer's daughter Patricia has been active for years, attending ragtime festivals and presenting seminars related to her father's work).
The material should be of interest to musicians and music historians, while remaining fully accessible to nonmusical readers. In her introduction, the author states, "...this is not a musicological study. Nor is this a comparative or critical analysis of Lamb in relation to Scott Joplin, James Scott, or any other composer." But the scholarship is outstanding, as reflected in the long and comprehensive list of references, and the pertinent chapter end-notes. In addition, appendices list Lamb's published and unpublished compositions, recordings, and folios of his work.
No question, Joe Lamb lived the quintessential American dream. It's satisfying to learn that such a good man received his just and full reward, perhaps not in the coin of the realm, but in currency that mattered deeply to him.