Ragtime: The Music That Gave Birth To Jazz

Ragtime was a relatively brief-lived musical form, its popularity lasting for about twenty years, but it was an essential link between earlier forms of “Negro music,” European (“classical”) music, and jazz. It was defined at the time by its then-revolutionary use of syncopation.   As Eubie Blake put it, “Anything that is syncopated is basically ragtime. I don’t care whether it’s Liszt’s ‘Hungarian Rhapsody’ or Tchaikovsky (my favorite composer) in his ‘Waltz of the Flowers.’”

Syncopation – loosely defined as placing musical and rhythmical accents where they are not expected and removing them from where they are expected – was not generally popular in the greater music world in the 1800s.   The Italian word for syncopation was alla zoppa, or “limping.” And Italian was the language of musical annotation. On the other hand, the English colloquial term for syncopation was “driving notes,” indicating the potential for greater acceptance.

Ragtime began in an undocumented period prior to the 1890s when black musicians began shaping and creating it in bars and on stages. Ragtime had evolved out of other earlier forms of black music, including the Cakewalk (the best promenaders “took the cake” with their showy walks) and “’Coon songs,” which involved whoops and hollers. These began as entertainment created by black people for black people and only gradually percolated into the white world. None of this early music was recorded, even on piano rolls, and none was published as sheet music, each musician jealously guarding his own music as uniquely his. Even when music publishers began, grudgingly, to publish the “rags” of the day, many composers refused to sell their work.

By the early 1890s the music was becoming widespread, and ragtime players converged on Chicago in 1893 for the Chicago World’s Fair.

There is a mild controversy over the first published rag. One source claims that “the first published composition in the traditional rag format seems to have been ‘Louisiana Rag’ by Theodore H. Northrup in October, 1897, but cakewalks had been published as ‘rags’ before then (dating back to January the same year with W. H. Krell’s ‘Mississippi   Rag’) and coon song composer Ben Harney already had been calling himself ‘The Originator of Rag-Time’ even though his compositions weren’t rags in the specific definition.” 

On the other hand, another source states that “In 1895 Ben Harney published his ragtime song, ‘You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon,’ in Louisville. This was the man who, a year later, brought ragtime to popularity in New York City.   The first instrumental ragtime [published] was William Krell’s ‘Mississippi Rag’ in January, 1897. It was not until the end of 1897, however, that Negro instrumental ragtime made its way to the publishers’ presses with Tom Turpin’s ‘Harlem Rag.’   Having already published marches and waltzes, Scott Joplin finally published Original Rags in 1899.”

And Scott Joplin is where ragtime begins and ends for many people. Known as “The King of Ragtime,” Joplin was born in Texarkana, Texas, in 1868, to a musical family.   When he was 11 he so impressed a local German piano teacher that the man gave Joplin free lessons, including music theory, introducing him to the works of the European composers, from Bach to Gottschalk, and to opera.

This background gave Joplin the tools to develop ragtime into an art music and one which came to be respected as equal to the European-style works of Strauss and Sousa.   It was Joplin who gave the ragtime style a formal structure, within which could be created classic piano ragtime.   The form was made up of four 16-bar sections patterned AA BB A CC DD, which combined a syncopated melody with a steady, even duple-rhythm accompaniment (known as “boom-chick” rhythm).   (By this definition Krell’s ‘Mississippi Rag’ was not ragtime, following as it did a more common form for contemporary band music. Thus, the arguments over which was “first.”)

Ragtime was definitely established by the end of the 19th Century. And its popularity was both established and recorded through the sales of ragtime sheet music. In the days when every parlor had either an upright piano or a harmonium (a pump-organ), and usually at least one member of the family could play this instrument, family entertainment often consisted of playing (and singing) the popular songs of the day from their published sheet music. The record player was in its infancy (Joplin never recorded), radio had not yet moved beyond telegraphic dots and dashes, and sheet music was the way to disseminate popular music. The sheet-music publishing industry was in its heyday in the first decades of the 20th Century.

Joplin died in 1917, still relatively young at 49. And ragtime was evolving into jazz, which offered much greater latitude for improvisation (classic ragtime was meant to be played as written). Jelly Roll Morton (who called himself the creator of jazz) took ragtime into “stomp” piano, leading the way to James P. Johnson and Harlem Stride piano and ultimately Duke Ellington and Art Tatum. Charles (Cow-Cow) Davenport was trained in ragtime but pioneered boogie-woogie, which led to rhythm and blues.   Ragtime’s moment in the sun disappeared, but ragtime never died. The 1973 movie, The Sting, which used Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” created a brief ragtime renaissance and revived the career of an elderly but still spry Eubie Blake.

The major ragtime artists and composers included Joplin, James Scott, Joseph Lamb, Tom Turpin, Otis Saunders, Arthur Marshall, Louis Chauvin, Scott Hayden, John W. “blind” Boone, and a large number of others.

Because sheet music was published in such quantities between 1890 and 1920, it is not hard to find, even today. In addition to publishers who are selling new editions of this sheet music, collectors can find hundreds of copies of original sheet music on sites like eBay, for prices which range from a very sensible $3.00 to $5.00 to signed sheet music for less than $20.00. Websites exist with information on available ragtime sheet music and sites like Music Mart sell new ragtime sheet music.

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