Joseph Lamb


Born: December 6, 1887; Montclair, NJ   Died: September 3, 1960; Brooklyn, NY  
Joseph Francis Lamb is considered, along with Scott Joplin and James Scott, as one of the big three "fathers of ragtime." Ragtime, short for "ragged time," because the rhythms are syncopated, began its roots among Negroes within the Midwestern states, and became popular around the years 1895 - 1920. Ragtime was an early form of jazz and some ragtime musicians began to call themselves jazz musicians when the ragtime heyday ended.

Read more Lamb, however, does not fit the mold of the "average" ragtime composer, not only because of his extraordinary compositional skills, but because he was white, not black, and lived in New Jersey, not in a Midwestern state like Missouri (where Joplin and James Scott were from), or Louisiana (birthplace of Jelly Roll Morton). Also, despite the fact that he wrote many rags in his lifetime, it was not his main occupation. Instead, he worked in the textile trade throughout his adult life. He remained somewhat of an enigma to the public, some calling him a recluse, and his personal identity was not well known, even though his rags were popular.

Lamb learned music from his sisters, who were classical musicians, and was astonished when he realized that the symbolic notes on paper could produce music on the piano. Lamb learned to play by reading music, and was not an improviser. He probably could have composed in any style he liked, but he happened to like ragtime and his most admired composer was Scott Joplin. Lamb wrote his first rag at the age of nine, and continued until ragtime began to go out of style around 1919. During this time, he wrote approximately 12 major ragtime pieces that gave him prominence in the genre.

Lamb had the good fortune of meeting Joplin in New York in 1908. He had gone to John Stark's publishing office to buy a current Joplin rag. He mentioned to the clerk that he wished he could meet Joplin, and was told that Joplin was standing in the room, not far from him. Lamb was thrilled, and introduced himself as a ragtime composer. Joplin was interested in new talent, and asked Lamb to come and play for him. Lamb later arrived at Joplin's home and played his Sensation Rag. Joplin gave him the compliment of saying the piece sounded like "good Negro ragtime," which is exactly what Lamb wanted to hear.

Lamb became a protégé of Joplin's, and Joplin helped Lamb get his first rag, Sensation Rag, published by Stark. The piece was a success, partly because Joplin stated he arranged it, and after that, Lamb's rags sold on their own merit.

Some of Lamb's most notable rags are, The Bohemia, American Beauty, The Ragtime Nightingale, The Alaskan Rag, and the Excelsior Rag. Lamb had his own style, and while James Scott preferred two-bar phrases, and Scott Joplin favored four-bar phrases, Lamb's tendency leaned toward eight-bar phrases, which gave a different feel to the rag, and a new structure all his own.

After 1920, when jazz came upon the scene and ragtime receded, Lamb stopped writing down his rags and became relatively unknown. It wasn't until 1949, when he was rediscovered, that he began composing rags again and performing in public. His works were first recorded in 1959, and an anthology published in 1964. Lamb also wrote several waltzes and songs with lyrics, many of which were unpublished. Read less

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