Due to a major infrastructure project, the FRHS Museum will be closed until further notice, starting July 23, 2023.

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Fall River in the Ragtime Era

by Robert Kitchen

Fall River in the Ragtime Era by Robert Kitchen

Music has been a driving force in America since the founding of the Republic. However, it wasn’t until people gained the ability to move from place to place that it really impacted local communities. In the early- to mid-19th century, people learned the words to popular songs when small circuses with singing clowns came to town. Those clowns also sold songsters with the printed words. The Civil War had its own music and both sides took pride in their own. It became a rallying point for Confederates and Yankees alike. With the end of the war, itinerant musicians began to carry this music to new places and soon found a demand. There were no radios or recordings; it was strictly live entertainment. Even modest-size cities began building permanent theaters for this new live form of entertainment. The period where ragtime music raged was roughly from about the mid-1890s to the late-1910s. Here is a bit of Fall River history from that era.

The Sousa Band – John Philip Sousa joined the Marine Band at the age of 13. He would rise to become its conductor. He also composed many pieces of music of all genres including light operas, but it was his marches that drew the most demand. In 1889, Sousa wrote a march called the “Washington Post," which would set him in a different direction. It was written as a march and two-step. The two-step was a new dance that was gaining popularity and the “Post" march was the most popular of all. In 1892, Sousa left the Marine Corp Band and started his own. This was just about the time of the beginning of the ragtime era. He wanted an organization that could play all kinds of music, be it classical, popular, marches, etc. In his new band, he reduced the brass and percussion sections and increased the reeds, and soon took his band on the road. While there were other bands, it was Sousa’s that was the most popular. This gave him the opportunity to introduce the public to classical music as well as his own compositions. The Sousa Band might best be compared to the modern-day Boston Pops, with the exception that there were no strings in Sousa’s Band. His first appearance in Fall River was in 1895, and his band would play that city well into the 20th century.

In 1898, Sousa played the Academy of Music with a typical concert. His soloists for the evening were: Miss Maud Reese, soprano; Mr. Arthur Prior, trombone; Miss Jennie Hoyle, violinist. The last was a Fall River girl, which helped account for the overflow house at the Academy. As was typical, there was only one march programmed, Sousa’s latest, but his encores were mostly his older marches. When the applause was great, he would oblige with two encores in a row. The band would not know what they would play next. Sousa would turn, softly tell the band what was coming and give the downbeat. The musicians had the first few bars of every march memorized and while some played the other person sharing the music stand would look for the music. The audience would yell “play a post," which wasn’t necessarily the “Washington Post" but any two- step. Because of the many encores, this concert didn’t end until 10:30. After the concert, some 100 friends crowded the stage to greet Miss Hoyle. Sousa was a business man and knew how to sell a concert, and this hometown girl was an attraction. The Sousa Band would play Fall River just about every year from 1895 until well into the early-20th century. In his career, he would visit Fall River close to a score of times, playing to capacity or near-capacity houses.

Ragtime music is said to soothe the savage beast but, in its history, there have been controversies. Every time a new music rage hits us, the flags go up and we are sure this will be the end of civilization. Sometimes it is the music but at other times who performs it. Perhaps the biggest and most controversial of these music rages was the introduction of ragtime music. One could argue that it was the most controversial of all. It was developed around the early 1890s. It was primarily music written for piano with a heavily misplaced beat, which produced syncopation or displaced the expected beat in the music. It developed in the South in brothels and sporting houses primarily in Missouri. It incorporated some aspects of African American music, and many who played and wrote it were the piano players in those establishments. Many first heard ragtime when they visited the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Some 27 million visitors passed through the gates of the Fair in the five months that it was open, a fair number of them Fall Riverites. By the early 1900s, the music was still controversial. The dancing masters declared that ragtime-type dancing destroyed all the grace and beauty represented by the terpsichorean art. The American Federation of Musicians passed resolutions condemning ragtime and recommending its members stop playing it. The dancing masters also called it a deep-rooted evil. Several newspaper articles at the time negatively referred to its African American origins. Needless to say, racism played a part in the denunciation of ragtime music, and it was attacked from its start to finish. But the public liked those syncopated melodies and its place in history was guaranteed.

The Musicians – The first composers of rags were primarily African Americans but, with success, non-Black composers looked to cash in on the new fad. The three giants of ragtime were: Scott Joplin; Joseph Lamb, a caucasian composer; and James Scott, another African American. Joplin is considered the Father of Ragtime, though he didn’t invent it. His forty-plus rags give him that title. Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag," written in 1899, is considered a masterpiece of the style and really set ragtime off into the early-20th century. Joplin would even compose a ragtime opera. The rag form itself generally is considered to come from classical and march roots, though others include all sorts of explanations.

Bert Anthony – In the archives of the Fall River Historical Society, there are two large boxes of sheet music written by Fall River composers in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Foremost of these composers was a gentleman named Bert Anthony. Herbert Ray Anthony (called Bert) was born in the city in 1876. He was educated in the city schools and showed an interest in music at an early age. He played in local bands and orchestras in his early years. Though he could play several instruments, his forte was the piano. He studied composing under George H. Monroe, who owned a piano store in the city; later, Anthony would work for Munroe. This was a time when many people could play the piano. They would go to the music store and Bert would play the tune for them and, if they liked it, they would buy the sheet music. Some of this music was written by Anthony himself. At about the turn of the 20th century, Anthony would write a number of compositions that had some commercial success. The first was a tune written in 1899 called “Dancing With My Baby,” a schottische. Also written in 1899 was perhaps his most successful piece called “A Warm Reception,” a march, rag, and cakewalk, written right when the interest in rags was soaring. When the Sousa band visited the city the next year, Sousa would include “A Warm Reception" in the program, and repeat it the next night when the band played Boston. The following year, Anthony would write an oriental march called “Fan Tan,” again good enough for Sousa to play when the band visited the city again. This piece was played for many years by circus bands when oriental acts were popular in the circus. It has been recorded many times. Anthony continued writing commercial pieces but, in later years, seemed to favor writing simpler pieces to be used by his piano students. He also continued playing in dance bands in the city and giving piano lessons. Anthony passed away in 1923 in his home on Bank Street at the age of 46.

York Anderson – At about the same time that ragtime was taking the country by storm, a dance called the cakewalk was interesting the locals. Anthony’s previously mentioned “A Warm Reception" was written as a march, rag, and cakewalk. The cakewalk is thought to originate on the plantations in the south and was an exaggeration of the dances that the slaves saw in the manor houses. However, it was encouraged and the prize to the best couple was a cake – hence the cakewalk. This part of the ragtime era might have escaped Fall River if it weren’t for a gentleman named York Anderson. Anderson doesn’t show up in the Fall River Directories until 1896. He is listed as an actor. He was a native of Keokuk, Iowa, and had worked in catering and the theater. What attracted him to Fall River is a bit of a mystery, but it might have been the Fall River Line, which used Blacks in their dining rooms, and his catering experience might have helped him get a job. However, there is no indication that he worked on the boats. He and his brother had a singing act, and they did perform in vaudeville and minstrel shows; they show up in a Black minstrel show at Lincoln Park in the summer of 1895. He somehow got involved with Storey’s Band and became their drum major. Newspaper articles mention his high-stepping style, and he was invited to join the band in the local Republican Club’s parade. Anderson was often mentioned in the local papers and was well received. An article from the Fall River Daily Herald perhaps sums up Anderson’s effect on the city. On this occasion he led the St. Mary’s Band in the parade and the reporter asked why so many people were around the St. Mary’s Band: “Why was that? Why, bless you wasn’t that Mr. York Anderson leading that band? Do you suppose the crowd had time or inclination to look at anybody else after its collective eyes had rested upon Mr. York Anderson? Not much … He was a poem in motion.”

Anderson began promoting cakewalks, and we find the first in October of 1895 held in Ogden’s Hall on Columbia Street. The crowd of 100 was made up of African Americans from Fall River and surrounding towns. Miss Emma Hicks of Newport and Mr. George Hazard of Providence were the hands-down winners, although there were many vying for the prize. In early March of 1896, Anderson held his second cakewalk, this time at the Casino on North Main Street. The Daily Evening News reported a crowd of a thousand made up of “high toned” colored and non-colored. The Casino had a rink that was used for skating, and the early part of the evening was devoted to that entertainment. That was followed by general dancing, and then it was time for the cakewalk. Some 30 couples competed, both Black and white, and the cake went to Mr. Ted Kelly and Miss Sarah Gray. It was generally concluded that the event was a roaring success. Later in March, Anderson changed the venue for his next cakewalk, using a skating rink in New Bedford. The reporting here by the Fall River Daily Globe was less complementary than previously seen. There were a couple of early incidents, which were checked early. The reporter cited one of Fall River’s “doves,” Jennie by name, for her unseemly conduct and dirty lace. In general, the Fall River Daily Herald‘s reporting seemed to be color oriented. In early April, Anderson held another cakewalk at the Casino in Fall River. The early evening was set aside for roller skating followed by dancing to Storey’s Band. At 11:30, they had a waltzing contest with six entries, the winner being Mr. Michael Derrig and Ms. Rose Parker. After another short contest, the big event occurred with fourteen couples competing. Mr. Thomas Cusick and lady were the winners and were awarded the cake. A grand time was had by all. In early September, Anderson ran what would prove to be his last cakewalk. It was again held in the Casino on North Main Street.

In late November of 1896, Anderson had a fall on the sidewalk near his house on 32 Seventh Street. It seems that he incurred a spell of weakness and, on falling, struck his head. His condition did not appreciably improve, and his friends decided to have a fund raiser for him in late December. It was again held at the Casino, which seemed to be the only venue capable of holding such an event. Storey’s Band provided the music for dancing and singing. A waltz contest was held, followed by the feature of the evening, the cakewalk. Anderson was unable to lead the walk and he apologized. In his place, he introduced his “little mascot,” Master Ebenezer Callahan, to lead the walk. All in all, the fund raiser was a success. In late January, Anderson passed, much to the consternation of his fans. His Fall River career was short but, in his two years in the area, he entertained and created excitement in the city. In an age of blatant racism, he was well received in Fall River. A fund raiser was held in Rich’s Theater on Second Street to raise money for his widow, Rose. A newspaper article a few months later, during the parade season, reported that “Storey’s Band without York Anderson seemed lonesome indeed. Last year he was with us.” His obituary occurred in the January 28, 1897, Daily Herald. It read: “York Anderson, well known in this city and elsewhere as an enterprising showman and better liked still for his genial and obliging nature, died at his Seventh Street home after an illness of some months. He was about 35 years of age and up to his late illness appeared to be in the prime of strength. Ever a familiar figure at the cakewalk and drum major on the line of march, York had found a warm place in the heart of Fall River’s citizens. It is with regret that his death is announced. A widow survives him who deserves the sympathy of all.”

Theaters – The most popular form of entertainment in the late-19th to early-20th centuries was the circus. It didn’t need a place to show, since it brought its own tent. As the demand for more entertainment grew, the need for theaters in which to play also grew. The Fall River City Directory lists only one theater in 1891, the Academy. This theater would have a long history. It was joined by the Wonderland Theater at 10 Rock Street the following year. By 1895, the list grew to five: the Academy, the Gaiety, the Bijou, Rich’s on Second Street, and the Wonderland. The Fall River Opera House was also operating but was not listed in the Directory. This later theater, called an Opera House, was located on Court Square, which was near Bedford and North Main Streets. It is doubtful that it ever saw an opera. Built in the 1870s, they seemed to feature primarily stock companies from the area and, later, vaudeville. The original plans show a rather elaborate building, but the final version was far from those plans. It would later turn to vaudeville, with some features thought questionable. There was burlesque, which did feature some perhaps risqué comedy and dancing girls. An attempt was made in 1881 to cancel the license for the theater with no-other than Robert Remington putting his objections to the license on the line. Complaints said that young men were begging pennies so that they could go in and see the show, and were being a general nuisance. Having not seen the show, Remington asked the young men what they had seen, and an answer was “a leg show,” adding “and that’s not all.” In the period of ragtime, several theaters operated in the city, many offering live entertainment in the form of vaudeville shows. These featured singers and dancers, and often circus acts in the off season. The demand for live entertainment in the city was substantial as citizens sought to bring some enjoyment into their lives. Also popular during the rag era were the minstrel shows. In most cases, the minstrels were white and would “cork up,” playing the part of African Americans, using stereotypical dialog. There would be comedy, singing, and dancing. Even George M. Cohan and partner Sam Harris put out a minstrel show which played Fall River in the late winter of 1909, and they would play the Academy. The shows could definitely be classified as racist and most featured white minstrels. While the minstrel shows did help promote ragtime, it was not in a positive way. Many social groups, including churches, would run minstrel shows to raise money for the sponsor.

The number of theaters in the city began to grow, offering a variety of entertainments. Some provided higher class entertainment than others, but vaudeville seemed to be the most in demand. Rich’s Theater on Second Street offered more prurient entertainment. Perhaps the most talked about event was the visit to the city by none other than Little Egypt, the belly dancer. Little Egypt was featured at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair in a setting called “The Streets of Cairo." There was actually more than one Little Egypt, and even more by the conclusion of the Fair. One of the most successful Egypts was a lady named Ashea Waba, aka Catherine Devine, a Canadian dancer probably of Syrian or Lebanese descent. She was involved in an incident at a birthday party for the grandson of P.T. Barnum. She supposedly would do her act for a private group ending with less than a full costume. The party was broken up by the police and it got nationwide publicity. Egypt started her own burlesque company, and booked Fall River appearing for a mid-March 1900 date. The show opened on a Thursday, and Egypt performed. The police, after viewing the show, told her to cease and desist, as the show was too risqué for Fall River. Egypt ignored the edict and performed again, and a summons was issued for her arrest. The police had no luck in serving the summons and Miss Devine escaped to the McKinley House Hotel at the railroad station. When she did not appear for her Saturday performance, the manager of the show stepped before the footlights and said, “such a wave of morality had suddenly swept up Second Street as to render it impossible for honest people to make a living dancing for the public.” It was reported that she made her escape in a hack over the Slades Ferry Bridge to the Somerset railroad station. The Egypt affair had been good for business at Rich’s, though those who attended on Saturday were left wanting. In October, her manager arrived in town to see if he could square things with the city fathers, but to no avail. He said she would plead nolo, get up on a table and do a few steps, pay a fine and perform at Rich’s. The city was not going to let that happen. Her show performed, but without Little Egypt. The paper also commented on the fact that Miss Devine did a private show for some of the city’s elite on the Thursday evening much like what happened at the Seeley (Barnum) affair. Fact or fiction of this event has never been established.

End of the Ragtime Era – The ragtime era continued into the early part of the 20th century. Joplin, the Father of Ragtime would pass away penniless in an asylum suffering from dementia and disease in 1917, at the age of 48. This was just about the end of the ragtime era. He once said that he wouldn’t be recognized for twenty-five years after he died and, unfortunately, he was right. However, in 1972, his ragtime opera “Treemonisha” would get its due and, in 1976, Joplin would be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the opera. Like everything, music evolves and there was a new music called jazz that would replace ragtime. The city itself would begin to evolve. While the mills were still here, there were fewer of them, as many moved to the south where there were no unions and newer machinery. Fall River would continue its journey into the 20th century not quite what it was at the turn of the 20th century.


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