February Features

Patricia Lamb Conn: Connecting with Ragtime's Glory Days

Composer Joseph Lamb poses with his wife and three of his children in this photo, c. 1950,  taken on East 21st Street in Brooklyn, N.Y. From left: son Don Lamb, daughter Patricia Lamb Conn, wife Amelia (Melie) Lamb, Joseph Lamb, and son Bob Lamb. Click here for more photos.
Text by Fred Hoeptner
Photos Courtesy Patricia Lamb Conn

Regularly gracing ragtime festivals is a familiar figure -- a spry lady, slight of stature -- who seems to revel in all the commotion. Speak to her, and you're sure to get a cheery response. I had the pleasure of interviewing Patricia Lamb Conn in Missouri during the 2006 Scott Joplin and Blind Boone festivals. Despite not being a musical performer, she has emerged as a star in her own right through her seminars in which her goal is to perpetuate the memory of her father, Joseph F. Lamb, who died in 1960. She presents him as more than a renowned composer of classic ragtime in the Joplin tradition; he comes across as a person, a father and a devoted family man.

A recent photo of Patricia Lamb Conn

Living quietly in a two-story house not far from Coney Island in Brooklyn, N.Y., where Joe Lamb worked for a dry goods commission house, the family included Joe, his son, Joe Jr., and his second wife, Amelia, when Patricia, Joe's second child and only daughter, was born February 6, 1924. This was some years after the "ragtime era" had ended. Joe's first wife, Henrietta, had borne his first child, Joe, Jr., in 1915. Henrietta died in the 1920 flu epidemic, and, several years later, he married Amelia Collins, who bore him four children -- Patricia, followed by sons Dick, Bob, and Don. Patricia attended kindergarten and half of first grade in public school, then was enrolled in Catholic school which she attended through the eighth grade.

Amelia Lamb was a full-time mother who competently managed the normal child rearing and disciplinary duties in the family. Pat recalled her cooking supper, sewing, and singing a lot around the house. In fact, Amelia could play the piano and tried to play some of Joe's compositions. She'd ask him, "Why did you make them so hard?"

He'd respond, "That's the way I wanted them to sound," or words to that effect.

At the family dinner table, Joe would proudly repeat his famous tale about meeting Scott Joplin in John Stark's office, and then being invited to play some of his compositions for Joplin and guests at a gathering in Joplin's apartment. He told the story so often that the kids would silently protest, "Here he goes again."

Although usually even-tempered at home, Pat's father dutifully involved himself in family affairs when some incident violated his sense of propriety. Pat recalled, "My brother, Joe, was in a Catholic high school where he had Brothers for teachers. The teacher asked him something, and my brother didn't answer. So, the teacher asked him, 'What's the matter, are you deaf?'

"Smart aleck Joe said, 'Yes.'

"In response, the Brother grabbed him and threw him against the wall. When my father heard that, he went down the very next day, took Joe out of the school, and put him in Brooklyn Tech."

When Pat was 10 years old, her mother started her on piano lessons. "My aunt, my mother's sister, was friendly with the organist in church," said Pat. "She found out that she gave piano lessons. It ended up that I took piano lessons from the organist in church. Of course, it was classical, because that is what everybody took. I used to tell her that my father wrote this [ragtime] music. She shook her finger at me and said, 'Don't you ever play that music.' But, of course, I was a timid kid, so I never said anything to her."

Pat played ragtime surreptitiously anyway. Eventually, she had eight years of lessons and was able to play along with her father. She remembers, "I'd play up at the top with my one hand, and he'd play where he was supposed to with his two hands. Every once in a while a piece would jump up an octave, but where I was playing there was no octave to go up to. So, I stayed where I was, and he'd move up and he'd hit my hand. I'd say to him, 'Get down where you belong. This is my part.' But it was fun."

Pat recalls her father encouraging her pianistic efforts. "I remember one time," she said. "He was drying dishes, I think, and I was in playing the piano. I think I was playing 'Patricia Rag' at the time. [Joe Lamb composed "Patricia Rag" long before Pat's birth, and the similarity of names was purely coincidental.] I was sort of patting myself on the back, thinking I was doing such a good job with this thing. All of a sudden, he hollers in to me from the kitchen, 'Will you count that thing, Pat? One and two and one and two and-.'

"I said, 'Oh, gosh.' Of course, I never counted then, and I still don't count."

Pat recalls her father's playing the piano nightly after dinner, and the kids enjoying every minute of it. Although he would often play his rags, going from one to the other. At first Pat didn't realize the rags had names. In fact, some didn't. "He'd play something, and I'd say to him, 'What's that? That's nice.'

"He'd say that it had no name. I'd say to him, 'Have you got it written down some place?'

"He'd say, 'No.'

"I'd say, 'Why don't you write it down?'

"He'd say, 'No, nobody cares anything about it. Why should I bother?'"

"Sometimes he would bring home some of the popular songs of the day from the music store. I thought it was wonderful when he could get this music. He'd play them for awhile, and then he'd go back to playing his own stuff. All of us kids would sing along with the songs that he had written. It was just fun."

Pat was referring to the songs that Lamb had composed for the annual charity minstrel shows for his church that ran from 1929 through 1935. I asked her how she came to know the words to these songs. Apparently it wasn't difficult, because her bedroom was directly above the living room where Lamb held regular rehearsals for several months before the shows.

"I'm trying to sleep, and I'm thinking, 'I wish they'd stop.'

"But," she continued, "then they had a dress rehearsal, which was always on a Sunday afternoon, that the kids could go to. I'll never forget how it was. I had heard these songs for weeks before. When I went to the show and heard them, I was thinking, 'That's my father up there, leading all these people singing!' It was nice."

Pat's childhood summers were spent at a cabin in Vermont that Joe Lamb had purchased on the advice of a physician to benefit her brother's asthma. Lamb used the carpentry skills he had learned from his father to renovate the rather decrepit structure and to finish the second floor. Then Amelia and the kids would go there for the summer, and he would join them every other weekend.

Pat was sent to high school at St. Francis Xavier Academy for young ladies, where her schooling ended. She explained, "I never went to college. I was going to go, but when I got there it was too overwhelming for me -- too many people -- because I came from a very small high school."

Since college was no longer an option, Pat had to get a job. An employment agency sent her to a bank branch in midtown New York at Seventh Avenue and 39th Street. Her father worked at Madison Avenue and 40th Street, so they would ride the train together in the morning. Pat recalls, "When I told him where I was going to go to work, he says to me, 'Oh, you're going to be right near Holy Innocents Church. You can go to church on your lunch hour.'

"Well, maybe I did a couple of times, but more than likely I went up to Macy's to shop."

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February 2008 issue | © 2008 The Mississippi Rag

P.O. Box 19068, Minneapolis, MN 55419.