[Pastel portrait of Joseph Lamb] by A.J. Wilson, 1959. Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.
Joseph Lamb was born in Montclair, New Jersey, in December 1877. A family man who was an anomaly in the contemporary music world, Lamb shunned the ups and downs of show business for a steady job in business. Nevertheless, Lamb is remembered alongside Scott Joplin and James Scott as one of the three great ragtime proponents.
As a teenager, Lamb commuted from New Jersey to New York City where he worked for a dry goods merchant. He attempted a job at song-plugging in Tin Pan Alley, where he became acquainted with Joplin, but after less than a year, he returned to selling textiles. Ragtime, however, remained an important part of his personal life. When he was "discovered" in the late 1940s by ragtime historians Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, he once again became an active composer. He made his first recording in 1959.
Lamb liked to describe his rags as either "light" or "heavy"--the former were simpler pieces in line with the popular rags of the era of John Stark & Sons, with whom he published many of his works. The "heavy" rags were more complex and virtuosic. In these compositions, he exploited the richest harmonies and stylistic intricacies of European art music. Works such as the "American Beauty" and the "Alaskan Rag" demonstrate Lamb's genius.
Lamb died in September of 1960 in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, recognition of his contributions to ragtime came only at the end of his life.