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Ragtime music peaked in popularity between the years of 1897 and 1918. It is largely characterized as syncopated, or having a ragged rhythm.
The music originated in the red-light district in African American communities in New Orleans and St. Louis, and then it became widespread as sheet music that was often played on the piano, (Smith, 2012). In this essay, I will explain the origins and genesis of ragtime music. The music is extremely grassroots, but due to the mass appeal of its up-tempo sound, it is one of the first forms of music to earn widespread appeal once converted into sheet music, and this makes it the first true American music genre and the source of many incarnations.
One of the most dominant figures in ragtime music is Ernest Hogan. He was an African American entertaining and was the first black person to star and produce in a Broadway show. It was called “The Oyster Man,” and it hit the stage in 1907. This musical helped create the widespread appeal of ragtime, and helped launch Hogan and the music genre into fame, (Smith, 2012). While ragtime largely originated in New Orleans and St. Louis, Hogan was born in Bowling Green, Kentucky. When he was a teenager, he travelled with minstrel shows as a musician, dancer and a comedian. Even prior to “The Oyster Man,” Hogan had published many popular songs (in the late 1800s), and these were in the ragtime category. In fact, Hogan named the new musical genre. The hit songs included “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” and “La Pas Ma La.” In “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” there were many spinoff songs created by other artists, and these were called “coon songs.” They used stereotypical and racist images of black people. The racial slur “coon” in the song made many African American people very upset. Despite that, the song sold over 1 million copies. When other people performed the song, they took out the word “coon” and replaced it. Hogan said before he died that he regretted using the word “coon” in the song as it is a “race betrayal,” (Smith, 2012).
This controversy associated with the word “coon” in the song has led Hogan to be overlooked in some instances as being the originator of ragtime. His songs are among the first published ragtime songs and they are the first to use “rag” in their copy of sheet music. Hogan did not claim that he created ragtime, but fellow African American musician Tom Fletcher that Hogan was the first person to put the type of music onto paper. His song “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” is considered to be one of the most challenging songs to play. In fact, during the 1900 World Competition in New York, competitors played the song to show how skilled they were at their instrument, (Smith, 2012).
Despite the negative publicity, Hogan was one of the most successful performers of his time, not only for his music, but also for his comedy. While Hogan regretted using the word “coon,” he said that it was good for the music business, because it got people to start listening to the music, and generating a cash flow, based on the controversy of the word “coon.” Another notable achievement, and as a spinoff of ragtime, Hogan created a dance called the “pasmala,” and this was a dance where people walk forward and then take three steps back, (Smith, 2012).
Ragtime also gained much of its popularity from John Philip Sousa. He was a composer and he conducted much of the music in the “Romantic era,” which was known much for the American military and the patriotic marches. He was a master of the “march” composition and is best known for his “The March King.” His style of music is believed to be the precursor to ragtime, and he is responsible for a large amount of ragtime’s tempo. The music that he composed had a strong regular rhythm that was originally expressed through marching, and it was often performed by a military band. The music ranged from the moving death march, to the fast-paced military marches. Sousa was most known for the latter. Many of his compositions found their roots in Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. Other influences include Chopin’s Sonata in B flat minor, Franz Schubert’s Marches Militaries and in Handel’s Dead March in Saul, (Award, 2006).
Ragtime was also largely influenced by the “cakewalk,” which was a dance that came out of the “Price Walks.” These were held during the late 19th century, and were generally performed during social occasions on slave plantations in Southern United States. There were alternative names that were released, such as the “chalkline-walk,” and the “walkaround.” At the end a performance in 1976, there was a massive cake that was awarded to the winning couple at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. This is how the name of the dance was changed to the “cakewalk.” After that, the dance was only performed by men during minstrel shows until the 1890s. Thereafter, women were once again added, and this facilitated a slew of improvisations. Eventually it was changed to create what many called a “grotesque” dance, which was popular throughout the nation. The style of dance is perhaps best explained by 1950s ragtime entertainer Shepard Edmonds:
“The cakewalk was originally a plantation dance, just a happy movement they did to the banjo music because they couldn’t stand still. If was generally on Sundays, when there was little work, that the slaves both young and old would dress up in hand-me-down finery to do a high-kicking, prancing walk-around. They did a take-off on the manners of the white folks in the ‘big house,’ but their masters, who gathered around to watch the fun, missed the point. It’s supposed to be that the custom of a prize4 started with the master giving a cake to the couple that did the proudest movement” (Gawlikowska, 2013).
According to Brooke Baldwin, who wrote an article about the cakewalk, “The Cakewalk: A Study in Stereotype and Reality,” the dance is intended to satirize the white culture, which was deemed superior at the time. However, the masters did not consider it to be offensive because they determined that it was just a simple performance that was created for the masters’ pleasure. The cakewalk is largely associated with ragtime music because of the musical comedy that was performed in 1898 called “Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cake Walk,” which was performed on Broadway. The music that was played during the show was ragtime. The show represented the first time that black and white performers were a part of the same cast on a New York stage, (Gawlikowska, 2013).
Other influences of ragtime include the polyrhythm, which uses conflicting rhythms that are not often perceived immediately as coming from each other. And they are not seen as being from the same meter. This conflict in rhythm is often the basis for the entire musical composition, but it can also come in the form of a momentary disruption. The polyrhythm is often distinguished from the irrational rhythm, and this can happen in the context of a single part of the song. These rhythms are often used in ragtime music, and the chaotic nature can be heard in Hogan’s “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” which makes this an important form of music to understand in order to gain a sense of where ragtime originated, (Delahoyde, 1982).
As another major influencer of ragtime music, Scott Joplin gained fame through his release in 1899 of the “Maple Leaf Rag,” which is a stringed form of ragtime music. He is the creator of the hit song “The Entertainer.” However, he was largely forgotten for his contributions to the genre. Only a small and dedicated following of ragtime lovers kept following him, and then he was brought back to prominence when ragtime revived around the 1970s. In the 12 years after “Maple Leaf Rag” was produced, it influenced many of the ragtime musicians due to the melody lines, metric patterns and harmonic progressions, (Scott, 1996).
Joplin was an African American, and it is largely in this demographic where ragtime grew. Emerging in the late 19th century, it became most widely famous at the beginning of the 20th century and people frequently danced and listened to it. And this fame was not only in the African American community, but in many other cultures. It was a music that brought people together, and broke down cultural barriers, which were very thick during that period. Furthermore, those who wrote and performed ragtime music were also from various cultures. Whatever the culture performing the music, it can be distinctly categorized as being a synthesis of European classical music and African syncopation, and this is particularly evident in Sousa’s marches, (Scott, 1996).
It was not long after Sousa that ragtime was in its heyday, and was considered to be among the most popular music for its time. This was just prior to sound recordings, near the end of the 19th century. Since that time, it has become obvious that classical ragtime had a written tradition of being a form of distributed sheet music, rather than by being communicated through recordings. This is similar to how classical music was transmitted over the years, but unlike how jazz was transmitted – those two genres represent from where ragtime came and what ragtime influenced, respectively. In addition to sheet music, ragtime was transferred with piano rolls that are used for player pianos, (Jennings, 2012).
Prior to this popular period of ragtime, a folk ragtime existed. This was mostly created by Scott Joplin’s “John Stillwell Stark.” This was often played with the banjo, in stringed bands and at mandolin clubs. It origins are thought to be from the itinerant African American piano, which is a form of the non-formal syncopated music. This form of ragtime remained active until the 1920s, similar to the regular ragtime music. The revival followed much of the same pattern as regular ragtime, but instead of beginning in the 1950s, it started in 1947 at the re-discovery of Sanford Brunson Campbell. He was one of the most famous folk ragtime performers and he was also a student of Joplin. Folk ragtime was also famous in the early 1960s, when it was once again brought back to the forefront by Trebor Jay Tichenor, (Jennings, 2012). Folk ragtime mainly differed from regular ragtime in that it mixed the various themes of the traditional styles, but performed them in a random way. The uniqueness of the performances can be heard in the Folk Rags by Sanford Brunson Campbell in 1947. These performances show the embellishment and improvisation of the basic themes of ragtime, and they seem to be making up the melody as the music goes along. The folk ragtime music also has a distinctly blues influence. They are also based on a 12-bar pattern and often seem to incorporated blues notes that are flatted. Also, many of the themes that are used in the folk ragtime are based on simple chords mixed with tonic-dominant chord relationships, (Jennings, 2012).
Another form of ragtime to emerge is called “novelty piano,” or “novelty ragtime.” This started to gain dominance as the traditional forms of ragtime became less popular. The traditional form of ragtime often relied on sheet music and pianists, but the novelty ragtime used the new piano-roll technology and phonograph records to make the music more pyrotechnic, complex, and performance-oriented. One of the most famous novelty rag composers is Zez Confrey. His song “Kitten on the Keys,” made novelty ragtime popular in 1921. The music can be characterized at being the piano cousin of jazz music, and both styles of music appeared around the same time. The first novelty ragtime hit is by Felix Arndt, “Nola.” That song was released in 1915, but the genre did not really catch on until six years later, (Gawlikowska, 2012). The earliest composers of the music were keen on selling the piano rolls, and many of these pieces began as very complex rags that had characteristic breaks, advanced harmonies and consecutive fourths. This style of ragtime was much more complex than regular ragtime, which was sold in sheet music and was limited in its complexity. Also, sheet music was often written so that it could be played by an amateur. Charley Straight is largely considered to be the pioneer of the style. He compositions were typically issued on the piano roll many years before Confrey’s novelty hits took over. Novelty ragtime kept its popularity until the end of the 1920s. This was a time when bands were starting to gain much of the public’s attention. Player pianos started to fall into decline, and the vast popularity of jazz music continued to grow. The novelty piano eventually was brought into the orchestral styles, due to the fact that pianos were often moved off of the public limelight and were used more for a supporting role in much of the music that was popular at the time, (Gawlikowska, 2012).
Ragtime is also credited as providing the roots for the stride piano, which is an improvisational piano that was popular throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Included in the music are various forms of ragtime. Stride piano typically utilizes the left hand to play four-beat pulses that have a single bass note, seventh or tenth interval in the third and first beats, and an octave. The style also possesses a chord on the fourth and second beats. Sometimes, the pattern is reversed by the pianist placing the bass notes on the upbeat and the chard on the downbeat. The stride players use their left hands to often leap over longer distances on their keyboards. This allows them to put a larger emphasis on improvising and they can also play a wider range of tempos. The style is highly rhythmic and it is somewhat percussive in its nature because of the “oom-pah” action that is taking place with the left hand. The musician usually plays a single bass note in their left hand, or a bass octave or tenth, which is then followed by a chord. In the right hand, the pianist plays a syncopated melody. This is characterized by its similar nature to blues-type embellishments and a similar fill pattern. Stride and ragtime, however, has its differences. For example, unlike in ragtime, the pianist in stride style is not concerned with the ragtime form of music, and they did not intentionally avoid playing the pop songs of the times, which ragtime did avoid. It should be noted, however, that while similarities can be drawn between the pop music of the day, and stride piano, the stride always kept its flavour of tempo. Another difference between ragtime and the stride piano, is the improvisation, (Smith, 2012). Ragtime was typically very detailed in its composition, but stride piano often took on an improvised quality. Generally, the beat of the stride piano would be the same, but there was a lot of opportunity for chord improvisations with the right hand and many of the stride pianists were well known for being extremely talented at improvisation. In fact, many of the best stride piano players did not know how to read music, as they were talented for their ability to understand the general style, and then create music around that basic structure. Another key difference between ragtime and stride is its fast tempo. Ragtime is not generally known for having a fast tempo, but the vast majority of music related to stride has a rapid pace.
While ragtime was hugely popular around the turn to the 20th century, it gave way to a new incarnation: jazz. In 1917, jazz took the public eye, but ragtime has made a comeback through various other forms of music, and this has led to periods of its rediscovery. For example, in the 1940s, various jazz bands started to play ragtime with their music. A larger revival came one decade later when there was a larger variety of the ragtime styles that emerged from the past. At this point, much of the old-time ragtime music began appearing on many records. Also during the 1950s, new compositions of ragtime started making their way to the charts, and this represented a period where it was not just the revival of old ragtime songs that were coming back, it was a time where there were new compositions. Then, in 1971, Joshua Rifkin came out with a compilation of Scott Joplin’s music, and this was nominated for a Grammy Award, (Ragtime, n.d.). Two years later, The New England Ragtime Ensemble, which was then a student group that was called The New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble, released “The Red Back Book,” which is a compilation of the Scott Joplin rags that were composed in a period orchestration that was edited by the conservatory president named Gunther Schuller. That album was the recipient of a Grammy Award for being the Best Chamber Music Performance of that year, and it was named onto the Billboard’s Top Classical Album of 1974. Not too long after, the hit movie “The Sting” presented ragtime to a large audience, as it had the soundtrack of the Joplin music on it. “The Sting” gave ragtime a wider audience than it perhaps ever had. The film created its own rendering of Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” which had originally gained fame in 1902. In 1974 it was a top-5 hit song.
Perhaps it is due to that revival that Joplin’s music is at the forefront of the ragtime music, and has been compared to the mazurkas by Chopin, the minuets by Mozart and the waltzes by Brahms. Ragtime has even influenced Erik Satie, the classical composer. Both Igor Stravinsky and Claude Debussy are the products of ragtime. As has been shown, ragtime ties closely with the styles of music prior to its existence, and it provides the link between classical music and jazz, which has in turn influenced much of the music we hear today. Music continues to take influences from previous genres, and alter them in a way that creates new styles. But ragtime is arguably the most important link in music, taking what was old instrumental styles, and giving it a contemporary, vocal flavour.
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