COLUMBIA — Reginald Robinson wants to change Americans' perception of ragtime music.
For the past two years he has been working on his documentary and interviewing ragtime historians and family members of musicians. This week he is at the J.W. "Blind" Boone Ragtime and Early Jazz Festival in Columbia doing the same.
Robinson said Columbia native John William "Blind" Boone will play an important part in the film.
“He was as significant as Scott Joplin,” Robinson said of Boone.
But the documentary isn't just about ragtime music; it's about ragtime culture. Robinson thinks history has not fully represented the lifestyle of ragtime musicians, and he said ragtime has a perception of being music for the backdrop of Charlie Chaplin-like antics.
“It’s more than just bow ties and derby hats,” Robinson said.
Robinson entered the world of ragtime in the seventh grade in 1986, when he heard ragtime at a school assembly and recognized the sounds of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” from ice cream trucks in his Chicago neighborhood. For the first time, he heard the song as something played by serious musicians.
Robinson immediately went home after the assembly and begged his mother for a piano. He dedicated countless hours teaching himself ragtime and, by age 15, he was making original compositions.
He enjoys ragtime because of its emotional range; it's not just happy or sad, but complex.
"Ragtime is real," he said.
But as a child, Robinson struggled to find information about ragtime. He said he wants to prevent that from happening to future generations by capturing the whole history of ragtime in one film.
After the passing of Bob Darch, a man who had worked with many ragtime musicians, Robinson realized the conversations he and Darch had through the years were mostly forgotten and undocumented.
“We were taking these fountains of knowledge for granted,” he said.
While in Columbia, Robinson will be working with historians to unearth the role ragtime played in the area. Robinson said he would compare old photos with current ones and highlight the J.W. "Blind" Boone Festival to show that the people and cities once prominent in the ragtime scene have not vanished.
Robinson said past ragtime research is good, but it does not touch on the artists' life outside of music.
“Before Puff Daddy there was Tom Turpin," Robinson said of another ragtime musician. "He was a tough guy who owned a saloon."
Robinson said Turpin was involved in one particularly nasty fight at the bar, in which Turpin went outside and washed his bloody hands at a curbside fire hydrant.
“I want people to know this wasn’t just cartoon music,” Robinson said.
Lucille Salerno, a member of the John William Boone Heritage Foundation, said Robinson's project is “phenomenal.”
“He’s found incredibly obscure things we never knew,” Salerno said.
Robinson is funding the project through the $500,000 “genius” grant he received in 2004 from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and paying for the remaining costs out-of-pocket.
Peter Lundberg came to the 'Blind' Boone Festival from Sweden and said he admires that Robinson is not using the project for personal gain.
"His enthusiasm shines through," Lundberg said.
This is Robinson's first shot at filmmaking, and he said he is learning the art of film the same way he taught himself music.
"I'm doing a lot of watching," he said.
He has experienced some difficulties. At times he has struggled to get in contact with family members of deceased ragtime musicians. He said he is concerned that some will take their stories to the grave.
There is no timetable set for the film's completion, but Robinson said he hopes to finish within the next two years.
“I’m putting together the whole puzzle,” he said.