Ragtime: A Bridge Between Two Cultures
In 1974, Hollywood released a picture entitled The Sting. The film starred Robert Redford and won numerous awards, including Best Picture of the Year and Best Musical Score. Almost overnight, the American public was captivated with what some perceived as a new music, Ragtime!
Actually, the rebirth of Ragtime began several years earlier, in the mid-sixties when the nation, after a period of fifty years, began to take a new interest in this music form. And the music of Scott Joplin, the King of Ragtime, is now far more popular than was the case during the Ragtime Era (1897-1917).
Ragtime sits at a point in musical history, balancing both written European tradition and improvised, syncopated African style. Ragtime’s musical roots can be traced through the spirituals sung by the slaves, the minstrel shows of the 1870’s, and the march. With this integrated history, Ragtime occupies a unique position in American history. It was the first American music that bridged the gap between western and African traditions.
In regard to the origin of the music there are many theories. One view contends that Ragtime syncopation first appeared in the classical works of the American composer, Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869). Others maintain that the music emerged from the minstrel show circuit, and thus was originally a vocal form. Another opinion is that Ragtime developed on the heels of the Cakewalk, and was primarily dance music.
In the European written tradition of music, there are strict definitions of the roles of composer, performer and audience. The European notation system has strict rules of meter and rhythm. A time signature dictates how many beats are in a given measure and what kind of notes receives one beat. For example: in 4/4 time there are four beats per measure and a quarter note receives one beat. A half note would receive two beats and a whole note would receive four beats. Each note is a division of the measure. The African musical tradition sees no such boundaries.
African musical tradition is based on entirely different frame of reference. To begin, nothing is notated; music is handed down aurally. Unlike the European tradition, African music gives art least as much attention to rhythm as to melody and harmony. With this emphasis on instruments without pitch African music contains very sophisticated and complicated polyrhythmic patterns.
Also, in the African tradition there is no separation between the performer and the audience. Everyone is a participant in the performance, whether through call and response, dance, or rhythmic contributions through chants, stamping or rhythm sticks. The Europeans tradition tendency to isolate these various participants and function created a product that is quite separate from the audience. Sense this product is transmitted through the medium of notated music. A great deal of emphasis is placed on the written note rather then the total live performance that is such an important part of the African musical tradition. This is the difference between classical music and folk music; and
this is where ragtime sits: straddling the fence between the two.
The Africans transported to this country for the purpose of slavery were not allowed to perform their own traditional African music. They were, instead performing European music in an African style. A large part of music that comes to us from those slaves fall into three categories: religious music, dance music, and work songs.
Many of the slave owners were very concerned with the spiritual uplifting of their slaves. Many permitted them to attend religious services, although in a separate section of the church, or to hold their own services. Over the years the slaves modified the traditional hymn and added their own lyrics . This gave us the spiritual.
Slaves provided dance music for both their own communities as well as their masters. The primary instruments were handmade fiddles and banjos, primarily made out of gourds. Every plantation had at east one fiddle player who could play the lively jigs and reels for the slaves to dance to as well as the more formal minuets, and schottisches, and cotillions for the masters.
song melodies were often based on the major or pentatonic
scale, but in actual singing, certain notes were lowered.
This produced a more melancholy tone to the music. These would most likely be the notes we now call the “blue” notes. Many of these melodies found in the spirituals, dance music and work songs of the slaves later appear as themes or melodies in early ragtime .
The minstrel show, which can be traced back to as early as 1830, started out as small groups of slave performers who presented shows at their plantations for guest. They were not necessarily musicians, but improvisers who sang songs, danced and told jokes. Minstrel shows were originally down home clean entertainment, devoid of racial stereotypes. It was only after it was picked up by white performers, who added the black face and crude charecatures
of black singing, dancing and humor. It was during the heydays (1870) of the minstrel show that we get the term “Jim Crow”. Jim Crow was a character created by a white performer named Thomas “Daddy” Rice.
The minstrel shows were important to the development of Ragtime because the primary instrument used in these shows was the banjo, and an institution called the “11:45″ A.M. parade. The parade was given down the center of the main street in which the troupe was performing. This was usually accompanied by a march.
As many of these musicians played the popular marches of the day, they “ragged” it up a bit while keeping the march tempo and feel in lower voices. It is from the march that ragtime gets its form and structure.
Where the term “Ragtime” comes from exactly has been lost with time. The term ragged time came to be used in the late 19th century to describe the syncopation of a style of music. The term to rag meant and still does, “to tease” and the music just does that. The term could also come from the itinerate musician who roamed the small towns playing for dances and fairs who were usually dressed in little more then rags. When a musician ragged a song, it original meant he simply syncopated it. How these ideas and terms ended up as the name of a style of music is lost.
Ragtime borrows its musical structure from the march. They consisted of three or more independent 16-bar themes,
divided into periods of four-bar phrases. These were arranged on patterns of repeats and reprises. The typical pattern was AABBACC, AABBCCDD and AABBCCA. The first two strains were typically in the dominant and the additional strains were in the subdominant. Most rags are in major mode.
Most rags were written in 2/4 or 4/4. The left-hand part usually provided a solid reinforcement of the meter. This consisted of alternating low bass noted or octaves on the beat and mid-range chords on the off beats. The right hand provided the melodies and gave us the characteristic syncopated feel to the music.
Although ragtime had a place in underground black subculture, it did not appear in print until 1897. Two important musical fads proceeded it, ultimately leading to ragtime, as we know it: the cakewalk and the “coon song”. Both of these were outgrowths of the minstrel show.
these shows, representing the upsurge in racist thought that permeated not just the south, but the whole country. These songs presented the stereotype of the African-American as lazy, dishonest, vicious, gluttonous and stupid.
The cakewalk was a far less offensive form of music then the “coon song”. It was an energetic, vigorous, exciting dance, which, like ragtime, transcended the racial stereotypes that were associated with it. The dance was said to have come from as early as 1840 when slaves would dress up in “high fashion” and mimic the formal dances of their masters. This charecature was used by the white
performs as the finale to their minstrel shows. By the beginning of the ragtime era, which began around 1896, the cakewalk was being performed by blacks imitating whites who were imitating blacks who were imitating whites.
The first popular entertainer to play ragtime was a white performer named Ben Harvey. He billed himself as the “Originator of Ragtime”, and toured the country playing his discovery, ragtime piano. The fad can actually be traced to a run at Tony Pastor’s Caf in New York.
Soon after, ragtime began to appear in published form. The first instrumental rag appeared in 1897. It was no accident that the first published works were by white musicians, because by the time ragtime hit the publishing scene it was all ready a standard of white mainstream “pop”.
Ragtime, however, never lost its connection to black subject matter. The cover illustrations often showed scenes of “happy blacks” dancing on the levee to a banjo, or group of black children playing. These and many other stereotypes where everywhere in the imagery used to sell ragtime to the white sheet music buying public.
Although the name of Scott Joplin is most often associated with the music today, he was not the first to compose or publish a “rag”. William Krell, a white bandmaster whose Mississippi Rag, which was actually a cakewalk, was published in 1897, holds’ that distinction . Nor was Joplin the first black composer to publish a rag, that honor was earned by Tom Turpin, whose Harlem Rag, a true “Rag”, followed Krell’s composition by a few months .
However, in December 1898, Joplin persuaded the Carl Hoffman Music Company in Kansas City to publish his Original Rags the following March (1899). Although the firm rejected his Maple Leaf Rag at that time, it was published later the same year by the firm of Joseph Stark in Sedalia (Mo.) and proved to be the only hit Joplin had during his lifetime.
An aspect of Ragtime that surprises many is its vastness. Far from being a few piano selections by a single composer, Ragtime was America’s first original published music . For a twenty-year period (1897-1917) it swept the nation and inundated Western Europe. The demand for ragtime compositions created and established Tin Pan Alley . Most of the large music firms of today owe their origins to the Ragtime Era.
Because music publishing was in its infancy at the time, many rags were issued by printing companies in small towns and cities throughout the country, often in lots as
small as fifty to one hundred copies. It was once estimated that as may as three thousand rags and ragtime songs were published during the two decades; but as more obscure compositions have come to light in recent years, this figure has been revised upwards.
Ragtime’s place in American musical and popular culture is firmly established. It was one of the first pop sensations to sweep our country, producing some of the first African-American superstars. Its musical heritage produced a fusion of African rhythm and European form. It remains an American original style, born out of a segregated culture, but melding the two at the same time.
Blesh, Rudi. They All Played Ragtime: the True Story of an American Music. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1950
Bolcom, William, “Ragtime”. In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Ed. Stanley Sadie, 15:537-540. 20 vols. London: MacMillon, 1980
Cohen, Norm. “Work songs”. In The New Grove Dictionary of American Music. Ed. H Wiley Hitchcock, Stanley Sadie, 4:564-567. 4 vols. London: MacMillon, 1986
Haskins, James. Scott Joplin. Garden City: Doubleday and Company, Inc. 1978
Hitchcock, H. Wiley. “Cakewalk”, In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Ed. Stanley Sadie, 3:611. 20 vols. London: MacMillon, 1980
Jablonski, Edward. The Encyclopedia of American Music. Garden City: Doubleday and Company, Inc. 1981
Jasen, David A. Rags and Ragtime: A Musical History. New York: Th Seabury Press. 1978
Oliver, Paul. “Spiritual”, In The New Grove Dictionary of American Music. Ed. H Wiley Hitchcock, Stanley Sadie, 4:286-289. 4 vols. London: MacMillon, 1986
Schafer, William J. “Ragtime”, In The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. Ed. Barry Kurnfield, 2:345-346. 2 vols. London: MacMillon, 1988
Waldo, Terry. This is Ragtime. New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc. 1976