Ragtime

Jazz is often thought of as “America’s Music”, but everything comes from someplace. If any genre of music can be thought of as the primary predecessor of jazz, it would probably be ragtime.

Ragtime arose from black music traditions of the late 19th century, mostly as a blending of American march traditions with the polyrhythmic dance traditions of black music. It’s earliest form would probably be black bands that would do their own take on marches. The thing that really caused ragtime to take off was the fact that it was the first time this music was made available as piano sheet music, which allowed people from all across the country, regardless of background, to enjoy it as well. Another strong point was the rise of the player pianos, which allowed noted ragtime composers to record and distribute their actual performances.

Ragtime is not like march time or waltz time, which had specific meter patterns that they followed. It was more stylistic. In piano ragtime, the left hand would play strong bass notes on the first and third beats of the measure, and higher-voiced chords on two and four. The right hand handled the melody for the most part, but the stressed notes would fall in-between the beats that were provided by the left hand. This actually had the effect of making the beats more pronounced, and encouraged movement and dancing to the listener.

Composer Ernest Hogan is usually credited with coining the term “ragtime”, which gets its name from the “ragged” rhythms of the syncopated melodies. His sheet music for “All Coons Look Alike to Me” is regarded as the first big hit in ragtime sheet music sales, and inspired a ragtime subgenre known as “coon music”. (Hogan later regretted using the racial slur, feeling he had betrayed his race.)

Undoubtedly the most famous ragtime composer would be Scott Joplin; his “Maple Leaf Rag” being the blueprint that most later rags followed. Extremely prolific, he explored every possibility available: slow rags like “The Easy Winners” and “Solace”, fast-paced rags like “The Entertainer” and the aforementioned “Maple Leaf Rag”, rag waltzes like “Pleasant Moments” and “Harmony Club Waltz”, and an opera about an 18 year old black girl who is taught to read and leads her community to recognizing the importance of education, called Treemonisha.

Around 1920, ragtime’s popularity began to falter, being replaced by the growing popularity of jazz. Some composers, like Jelly Roll Morton, were able to make the transition to this new genre, but many ragtime composers fell into obscurity. Joplin himself was largely forgotten until the 1970s, when a couple influential recordings and the use of his music in the movie The Sting brought him back to notoriety. However, ragtime never really died out altogether. There were other resurgences over the years. Many jazz performers would bring out an old ragtime piece from time to time. Internationally, many classical-style composers enjoyed and were influenced by ragtime, includie Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, and Igor Stravinsky.

In 1998, E. L. Doctorow‘s novel Ragtime was adapted into a Broadway musical, sparking another resurgence. There are a number of performers who today play traditional ragtime music, such as pianists Scott Kirby and Bob Milne, as well as traditional ragtime orchestras such as the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra. And of course it’s not unusual at all to hear ragtime played as accompaniment for classic silent film comedies. Ragtime has had hard times, much like the environment that initially spawned it, but like that environment it continues to survive.