Ragtime and ice cream are intertwined, for better and worse, in American history. I have found this to be the case at both a personal and a cultural level.
I think I first heard ragtime at an ice cream parlor my dad took my brother and I to once in Portland, Oregon when I was a kid. It was there that I remember hearing Scott Joplin’s music. I had no words for the melodic and rhythmic vitality of Joplin’s music I heard at the age I was, but it made an immediate and positive impression on me. I asked who wrote the music. My dad told me the music was written by Scott Joplin, one of America’s greatest musicians.
Throughout my childhood there was another, more regular, reason I associated ragtime with ice cream. I, like many other children in the 1980s, heard the strains of “The Entertainer” ringing out in chimes or bells when ice cream trucks would roll through the neighborhood. To hear Scott Joplin’s music was to hear the visits of the ice cream truck on your street.
As I learned more about the history of ragtime it began to be clear that the link between ice cream and ragtime went back to the days of Scott Joplin. John Stillwell Stark was an ice cream vendor before starting up an instrument shop and, eventually, a music publishing company. Stark’s advocacy for ragtime in general and the music of Scott Joplin in particular is the stuff of American musical history, but had Stark been a less successful ice cream vendor would he have ever had the resources get into the music business as an instrument vendor or music publisher? Ice cream sales turned out to be the economic foundation for the publishing firm that gave us Scott Joplin’s music. Ragtime, despite Scott Joplin’s most determined efforts, has been musical ice cream ever since.