At a Georgia Camp Meeting (Kerry Mills)

By some measures the first major hit of the ragtime era, “At a Georgia Camp Meeting” was played by brass bands, mandolin orchestras, banjo virtuosos, pianists, and everyone else who tried their hand at the ragtime style.

It was composed in 1897 by the violinist, music teacher, orchestra leader, and publisher Frederick Mills, who wrote under the name Kerry Mills and published it under his own imprint. One of the first writers to publish syncopated melodies, Mills was inspired by African American cakewalk melodies, and titled this piece to evoke the Black Christian camp meetings that were already famous worldwide thanks to groups like the Fisk Jubilee Singers, as well as from parodies circulating on the blackface minstrel stage. Notably, the sheet music for this pioneering hit described it as a “Characteristic March which can be used effectively as a Two Step & Polka” — the term “ragtime” would not become popular for another year or two.

This is by far the best remembered of Mills’s 19th century ragtime hits, but at the time, it was not significantly more successful than his “Whistling Rufus,” another title capitalizing on the rage for cakewalks and “coon songs.” He would soon follow these up with other hits, most memorably his tribute to the 1904 World’s Fair, “Meet Me In St. Louis, Louis” and the pseudo-Native American love song, “Red Wing,” which is probably best known today as the melodic source for Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid.”

As I say in the intro to my video (recorded back in 2009, to promote my pop music history How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll), there are no recordings of this kind of classic ragtime on fingerstyle guitar from the ragtime era — though plenty from the 1960s and ’70s, as noted in my posts for “St. Louis Tickle,” “Maple Leaf Rag,” and “The Pearls” — but that doesn’t mean much, since most music of that early period went unrecorded. It seems safe to assume that some guitarists came up with settings, and as evidence in favor of this assumption, the cover of “Whistling Rufus” showed an African American guitarist apparently playing fingerstyle — an offensively stereotyped image, but all the more suggestive of a familiar tradition of black instrumentalists who played this sort of tune.

As further evidence, check out the New Orleans guitarist and banjo player Johnny St. Cyr playing his solo arrangement of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Original Jelly Roll Blues,” recorded circa 1940 as an example of how they used to play such music earlier in the century: