Joseph Lamb: an Unlikely Ragtime Giant

The following is a guest post from Processing Technician Pam Murrell.

Black and white image of Lamb and Cassidy facing each other in exterior setting.

Unidentified photographer. Joseph Lamb (left) with Russell Cassidy (right) in July 1958. Cassidy authored a series of biographical articles on Lamb, which were published in 1961. Box 2, folder 5, Joseph F. Lamb Papers, Music Division.

Joseph Francis Lamb was born in the suburban township of Montclair, New Jersey in 1887. The fourth and youngest child of Irish immigrants, James and Julia Lamb, Joseph grew up with his brother and two sisters in a spacious home built by his carpenter father. It was from his father that he acquired woodworking skills, while from his mother, a former choir member, he developed an affinity for music. Lamb’s initial sources of music instruction were his two siblings Katherine and Anastasia, both of whom received formal piano lessons. Instead of doing homework, young Joseph would spend hours with them at the family’s parlor piano or perusing copies of The Etude, a renowned journal for musicians to which his sisters subscribed. From it, Lamb would hone his piano and composition skills, learn about musical genres, and draw inspiration from featured works such as Ethelbert Nevin’s “The Nightingale’s Song,” which influenced Lamb’s 1915 “Ragtime Nightingale.” A photocopy of “Ragtime Nightingale,” under its alternate title “Nightingale Rag” can be found in the Joseph F. Lamb Papers.

Following the death of Lamb’s father in October 1900, his mother sent him to St. Jerome’s College in Ontario, Canada. She believed that the Catholic preparatory school and seminary would offer her teenage son a “cultured masculine environment” in which he would learn discipline. Inspired by the training he received from his late father in the building business, Lamb enrolled in an electrical engineering program. Still, he continued composing in his leisure time and soon approached the Harry H. Sparks Music Publishing Company in Toronto to publish his music. The firm agreed and would ultimately issue more than 20 of his works. One piece, “Celestine Waltzes,” for which Lamb was paid $5, was dedicated to his sister Anastasia. (Celestine was her confirmation name). A photocopy of the printed piano score for piano is available to researchers upon request in the Performing Arts Reading Room. Copies of other compositions published by H. H. Sparks, such as “Lilliputian’s Bazaar” and “Florentine [Waltzes]” are also available. Concerning the latter, patrons will notice that Lamb’s name is spelled Josef. This was likely done to appeal to the sizable German community which resided in the town of Kitchener, what was then known as, Berlin, Ontario.

In 1907, just a few years after completing his studies at St. Jerome’s College, Lamb took a job with a trading firm which purchased goods for department stores in New York City. While there, he resumed composing and studying the works of other musicians. Studying sheet music purchased from local publishers was how Lamb learned the syncopated rhythms of ragtime. And the “King of Ragtime,” Scott Joplin (ca. 1867-1917), was one of Lamb’s favorites. Serendipitously, while shopping at the John Stark publishing office, Lamb encountered his musical role model. Lamb was invited to play a couple of his compositions at Joplin’s home, and so impressed was the ragtime hitmaker that he persuaded John Stark to publish them. The Stark Company issued twelve of Lamb’s songs in twelve years, including “Sensation,” which, ironically, the firm had previously rejected. The sheet music lists Scott Joplin as the arranger—in an apparent effort to boost its sales. A photocopy of this “classic” rag, published in 1908 by the Stark Music Company, is housed in the Joseph F. Lamb Papers.

First page of annotated handwritten manuscript score.

Joseph Lamb’s “Alabama Rag” manuscript, which he dedicated to his son Joseph. Box 1, folder 1, Joseph F. Lamb Papers, Music Division.

With the exception of a brief stint as an arranger and song plugger in New York’s Tin Pan Alley, Lamb’s career resided outside of the music industry. In his late teens, he transported animal hides for a leather goods firm. In 1914, around the age of 27, he was hired as an accountant for L. F. Dommerich & Co. Inc., where he worked until he retired in 1957. Lamb never pursued musical fame, choosing, instead, to focus on his family. In 1908, Lamb married Henrietta Schultz and the couple had one son, Joseph Lamb, Jr. (born in 1915). Henrietta died on February 20, 1920 during the influenza epidemic. Two years later, Lamb married Amelia Collins, the sister of a longtime friend, and after the family moved into a large home in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, they had four more children: Patricia (1924), Richard (1926), Robert (1927), and Donald (1930). Lamb’s devotion to his family is evident from the inscriptions on some of his music manuscripts. Although most of the songs in the Joseph F. Lamb Papers are printed editions and photocopies, 15 out of the 46 available compositions are unpublished manuscript scores, of which five are signed. Included among the inscribed unpublished pieces are “Joe Lamb’s Old Rag,” which was dedicated to his wife, who he identified as ‘Melie’ on the title page; “Alabama Rag,” which was inscribed to his son Joseph; and “Hot Cinders,” a novelty song which displays his granddaughter Laura Cindy as the dedicatee.

At a time when many of the classical ragtime figures were Midwestern black Americans, Joseph Lamb was something of an outlier. He hailed from the northeast, was an Irish Catholic, and was certainly not, as the 1900 tune declared, “living a ragtime life.” Thus, it is all the more notable that he would one day be lauded as one of the “big three” ragtime composers—along with his friend Scott Joplin and Kansas City native James Scott (1885-1938). For Lamb, composing was recreational. According to his son Robert, Lamb “gave away many sheets of music he wrote, never asking for any compensation. He only wanted to see his music published and for people to enjoy it.”1 In a 2006 interview conducted by the Library of Congress, Lamb’s eldest daughter, Patricia Conn, said that her father would often play or jot down tunes which he never titled. One such piece was found among her father’s possessions after he died. As she played through the work, she felt inspired to call it “Ragtime Reverie.” A first edition of the score is housed in the Lamb collection. It was among 150 items, pertaining to the life and career of Joseph Lamb, which Conn donated to the Library of Congress in 2006. The Joseph F. Lamb Papers are stored in two archival boxes and consist of sheet music, articles, clippings, correspondence, photographs, and realia.

1 Binkowski, Carol. Joseph F. Lamb: A Passion for Ragtime. (North Carolina, McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012), 1.

One Comment

  1. Wes
    June 19, 2021 at 11:13 am

    I’ve had the privilege of seeing Patricia Conn and her husband at a few of the free ragtime concerts performed at Saint Michael’s Cemetery in Queens where Joplin is buried. Lamb’s music is wonderful!! indeed, I am enamored with the music of the Big 3 ragtime composers and will enjoy it as long as I live.

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