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Saturday, April 10, 2021

In Market: A tale of two Cowtowns and a ragtime legend

I could dance for ever

To this refrain

To that 12th. Street

Oh you 12th. Street Rag

Mayor Betsy Price and several business and civic leaders spent a couple of days in Kansas City, Missouri, last week.

They were there to learn how the city also referred to as Cowtown is moving forward with education, entrepreneurship and collaboration.

They probably vowed to cooperate and share information, signed some memoranda, etc., as that’s how most of those things go. If so, they just should have said they were going to follow the example of Euday Bowman, a man who lived and made a career for himself in both Cowtowns.

“Euday who?” I hear many of you saying.

Think back to the days of The Sting and the days of ragtime. You may not know his name, but you’ve probably heard his most famous tune. It’s an earworm from 1914.

Bowman was born in Fort Worth in 1886 and was famous as a ragtime piano player and composer of the Twelfth Street Rag. He was raised on a farm east of Mansfield and, according to most accounts, his mother and sister were both music teachers. Eventually, Euday began playing in night spots around town and headed north to Kansas City, probably about 1897, when ragtime was the hippest thing since Coca-Cola (1886).

In K.C. (another city nickname), Bowman began writing his most famous composition, Twelfth Street Rag, as he often played in the bordellos on that street in Kansas City. At least that’s one story. Jack Gordon, the late columnist for the Fort Worth Press knew Bowman, who died in 1949. Gordon, and perhaps Bowman, seemed to indicate that the piece was written about Fort Worth’s 12th Street.

The Texas State Historical Association bio of Bowman says: “He probably wrote Twelfth Street Rag while playing in a Main Street shoeshine parlor located between Tenth and Eleventh streets in Fort Worth.”

Maybe. Euday obviously had ties to both cities. Shoeshine parlor just seems like a bit of PTA-approved history to me.

Around 1914, Bowman did apparently attempt to sell the composition to some publishers in Dallas, but he rejected their lowball offer, going with a Kansas City publisher, J.W. Jenkins’ Sons Music Company. Further buttressing the K.C. argument, Bowman apparently had help in the composition from several musicians at various theaters in the area.

Gordon does note that Bowman had a distinctive piano style, saying “He would strike his piano keys like a blow from a sledge hammer. He did not merely play his piano. He assailed it.”

Adding more fuel to the K.C. argument. You don’t have to play loud to be heard in a shoeshine parlor. A bordello? Yeah, probably. I wouldn’t know.

By 1914, the piece was ready and the music company gave it a big advertising push. The song, which has a distinctive melody going from the tonic to the major seventh to the sixth (in C, that’s C-B-A) was a hit and popular with Kansas City bands such as Bennie Moten, who had a certain piano player named Count Basie. Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven also recorded it as have more than 120 other musicians over the years. It has since become a standard of early jazz repertoire. Most currently, you may be familiar with it from SpongeBob Squarepants in a version played by a ukulele and a steel guitar. According to Encyclopedia Spongebobia, “It usually plays when something weird or crazy might happen.” Which is pretty often on Spongebob.

Bowman never had another hit as big. He did write two songs that should have been played while the mayor and other leaders were in that town that lays claim to superb barbecue: Kansas City Blues and Fort Worth Blues. Euday, you were ahead of your time.

Like most musicians, Bowman struggled. According to the Texas Historical website, in May 1949 he made his only trip to New York City to appeal for royalties earned by his one hit. There he contracted pneumonia and died on May 26, 1949. He is buried in Fort Worth’s Oakwood Cemetery.

According to the Texas Historical write-up, Bowman left a car and royalties to the tune of $11,000 to his sister, Mary. A Texas Historical Marker was erected in his honor in 1988. Most of his hand-notated sheet music, along with his piano, was in an extensive Bowman collection at the Pate Museum of Transportation, near Cresson, until that facility closed in 2009.

Where are they now? Somebody out there knows. Let me know. Euday deserves to be better known. His most famous composition is still out there, getting stuck in people’s brains. Reminding them of Kansas City. Or Fort Worth. Or both.

Robert Francis is editor of the Fort Worth Business Press.

To hear the Spongebob version of 12th Street Rag:


And here’s Roy Clark planing it on the Jimmy Dean Show


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Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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