Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



The second internationally popular genre in modern popular music after minstrelsy, sweeping the world between c.1897-1920, and also the second indigenously American music and the second Afro-American music to influence world popular music. Ragtime has syncopated melodies set against a march-type ('oompah') bass line. In retrospect ragtime is regarded as solo piano music, but that was only its most highly developed (and most enduring) manifestation; ragtime songs, music for small combos and brass bands, and ragtime waltzes were important, as was banjo music: ragtime may have begun with attempts to imitate the banjo on the keyboard.

The seminal West African roots of ragtime include additive rhythms; concert pianist and composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk (b 8 May 1829, New Orleans; d 1869, Rio de Janeiro) was lionized in his day, wrote syncopated piano pieces (including 'The Banjo') and might have been America's Glinka (the great Russian nationalist) if he had lived longer; he undoubtedly influenced ragtime, which seemed to emerge in the Midwest, chiefly in Chicago, St Louis and Louisville, but like jazz later, it probably happened in many places at once, and certainly spread rapidly. The dancing in Congo Square, New Orleans was described as in 'ragged' time in 1886; a banjo player in Nebraska wrote in 1888 to a music magazine requesting music in 'broken time' like the 'ear-players' played, but none had been printed yet. The World's Fair of 1893 in Chicago attracted pianists who were already playing the style.

The first compositions using the words 'rag' or 'ragtime' were published in 1897. Non-ragtime songs including classical instrumental and operatic pieces were 'ragged' (played in a syncopated way) but both banjo music and true ragtime songs came from minstrelsy (which see), the songs through 'coon songs', soon seen as racist but popular in the 1890s: most notorious of these, 'All Coons Look Alike To Me', was written by Ernest Hogan, who was black; it was not racial in intent (though he later regretted writing it) but about a woman rejecting her lover for another man with more money: a huge hit, the first published song (1896) to include optional 'Negro ''Rag'' Accompaniment'. The term ragtime, like the words jazz and rock in later years, was applied to music that was merely rhythmic; Irving Berlin was the most famous composer of 'ragtime', but 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' (1911) is probably not ragtime at all. It was not so much the rhythmic pattern within each bar that distinguished ragtime, but the fact that it was tied across to the next bar, and that the next note of the melody (in the treble clef) was not supposed to be struck on the first beat of the following bar: this is what made the melody syncopated.

About 2-3,000 instrumental rags and a similar number of ragtime songs were published, and about 100 ragtime waltzes. Most of the songs are forgotten (though some, like Ben Harney's 'You've Been A Good Old Wagon But You've Done Broke Down', made a transition to other genres); many instrumental rags are miniature masterpieces comparable to piano pieces of Chopin: the greatest composer of these undoubtedly Scott Joplin ('Maple Leaf Rag' was the best-known in the genre, and he wrote the best waltzes: 'Bethena', 'Pleasant Moments'); others were James Scott (b 1886, Neosho MO; d 30 August 1938, Kansas City KS), Tom Turpin (b 1873, Savannah GA; d 1922), Eubie Blake and Luckey Roberts, all black; Joseph Lamb (b 6 December 1887, Montclair NJ; d 3 September 1960, Brooklyn, NY), Charles L. Johnson (b 3 December 1876, Kansas City KS; d 28 December 1950, Kansas City MO), George Botsford (b 24 February 1874, Sioux Falls SD; d 11 February 1949, NYC), and Percy Wenrich, b 23 January 1887, Joplin MO; d 17 March 1952, NYC), who were white. Women also wrote fine rags; the most prolific May Aufderheide (b 21 May 1890, Indianapolis IN; d 1 September 1972, Pasadena CA) and Irene Giblin (1888-1974), both white. Banjo players included Vess L. Ossman (1868-1923), an international celebrity, and Fred Van Eps (father of jazz guitarist George Van Eps); among the famous singers seen at the time as ragtime artists were Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker, Dolly Connolly (1888-1965; Mrs Percy Wenrich), Bert Williams (1874-1922; a Broadway star and a dancer, immortalized by Duke Ellington in 'Portrait Of Bert Williams'), and Billy Murray (b 25 May 1877, Philadelphia PA; d 17 August 1954), one of the biggest stars in the history of recorded sound, with a great many hit records 1903-27, plus a great many others as a member of various groups: his 'The Grand Old Rag' (became 'You're A Grand Old Flag', by George M. Cohan) in 1906 was said to be the biggest hit in Victor's first decade.

Ragtime's heyday was 1910-20 in a watered-down, ricky-tick style; coin-operated player pianos in public places were probably adjusted to play the piano rolls quickly in order to make money faster, and Joplin found it necessary to print on his music that 'Ragtime should never be played fast'. Controversial in its day, seen as a racial threat by some, it allowed commercial success for some blacks even as racism was being institutionalized in the USA, and encouraged questions about what American music was and could be. It led to 'novelty piano' music, seen by some at the time as modern jazz (Sophisticated Innocence: American Novelty Piano Songs by Lincoln Mayorga on the Town Hall label included pieces by Zez Confrey, Felix Arndt's 'Nola' and Gus Chandler's 'Canadian Capers', also the impressionistic 'In A Mist' by Bix Beiderbecke, 'The Moth' by Lee Sims, who influenced Art Tatum; etc). Most importantly ragtime influenced jazz, which succeeded it, but ragtime never went away: it was part of the revival of early jazz which began c.1940 and it was kept alive in the '50s by Dick Hyman (as Knuckles O'Toole, among others) and Lou Busch (as Joe 'Fingers' Carr), in novelties by Fritz Schulz-Reichel in Germany, Johnny Maddox in USA and Winifred Atwell in UK; Knocky Parker, Max Morath, Bill Bolcom, Joshua Rifkin and Gunther Schuller played it properly on LPs in the 1960s-70s and the film soundtrack The Sting '73 gave ragtime its biggest boost in 50 years. They All Played Ragtime '50 by Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis was a seminal book, but easily superseded by Ragtime: A Musical And Cultural History '80 by Edward A. Berlin and Ragtime: Its History, Composers And Music '85 ed. by John Edward Hasse, which included essays by Morath, Schuller, Berlin and many others.