Nashville’s Role Developing Ragtime Music

Nashville is known as Music City USA, largely because of country music. Not only was Nashville the original cradle of country music because of the Grand Ole Opry, but it has also promoted, expanded, and elevated country music as a legitimate musical genre around the world. So many country artists got their start in our city.  There are many stories of fledgling singers and writers who went on to make it “big” in country music after arriving here on a bus with little more than a guitar and pocket change.

Although country music has captured the lion’s share of Nashville’s music image, there are other institutions that have enhanced our musical heritage – the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the Nashville Symphony, and the Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music to name a few. However, there are very few Nashvillians who know about the role Nashville played in developing ragtime music.

A Shriner friend of mine, Past Potentate John Weaver, recently informed me about Nashville’s connection to ragtime. John, a superb ragtime pianist himself, has a website that gives essential information about ragtime:  stargoldmusic.com. John’s website reads:

“Ragtime is defined as a rhythm characterized by a strong syncopation in the melody with a regularly accented accompaniment. Ragtime originally was played ‘as written’ and has now become the basis for traditional jazz with improvisations, leaving the original melody and then returning. Ragtime is the American popular music of the 1890s.”

While composer Scott Joplin was developing ragtime music in St. Louis, Charles Hunter (Columbia, Tennessee native and graduate of Tennessee School for the Blind) was composing major rag tunes in Nashville.

Hunter’s tunes became some of the most important rags by a Southern Folk Ragtime composer. Still another great Nashville ragtime composer in the late 1890s was Thomas Broady.

In addition, there was a handicapped ragtime musician by the name of William H. Petway. Petway was pictured in photos with only one leg and on crutches. He played his music in the homes of affluent Nashvillians as well as sold his sheet music on downtown streets. His best known tunes were published around 1912.  He apparently moved away from Nashville – possibly to Chicago – in 1915.

A few years ago, in his Tennessean column, “Learn Nashville”, George Zepp wrote about William Petway, his influence on ragtime, and how little is known of his life either in Nashville or after he left. Zepp also mentioned former New Yorker Lew Roberts who opened a music shop in 1907 in the Arcade specializing in sheet music and small instruments. Roberts sold his own rag tunes as well as rags for other composers.

If it hasn’t been done already, I hope someday that someone will write a history of the Arcade – that quaint and romantic nook tucked away downtown between 4th and 5th Avenues. I remember how intrigued I was as a small boy taking piano lessons and going to Stroebel’s Music Shop in the Arcade to buy my own sheet music.

All of this is interesting because Nashville is associated and recognized for its signature country music. But just think:  around the turn of the 20th century, there were several Nashvillians, who along with the great Scott Joplin, developed ragtime, a forerunner of jazz. What a rich history of musical development Nashville has!