"Keep on, yes my word is bond"A Brief History of Ragtime," by Dr. Mark Birnbaum
Speakin' that knowledge like Farrakhan
Cause it's ragtime."
- Sadat X
Every day at approximately 5 pm, there's a taco truck that parks on my street and
plays a tinny, carousel-ish song over and over. Repeatedly. Like,
overandoverandover. I'm hearing it as I type this, matter 'fact. It's not an
unpleasant tune; it's just annoying to a degree that I cannot describe because it infiltrates
my brain and I hear it when I'm trying to go to sleep, when I'm at the grocery store, when
I'm at work in front of my computer, when I'm brushing my teeth, and when I'm drinking
tea and reading the newspaper and wearing kneesocks.
I went to my parents' house a couple weekends ago, and I was mindlessly humming the
tune when my dad tells me that it's the "Maple Leaf Rag" and that "ragtime" comes
from the term "ragged time" due to its complicated rhythmic patterns (you don't know
nothing about my pop's 1-2 punch of nerdiness and musical knowledge. Step back,
young'n.). Being my father's daughter, I embark on a quest for information regarding
this piece of music and discover that it's actually "The Entertainer," but pops gets
points anyway because both are Scott Joplin songs. Turns out Scott Joplin was
African-American (I was surprised to learn this but then I remembered that a black
composer not getting his due in American history when he should be a household name
is really something so non-surprising that I should've assumed it to be the case).
I will no longer refer to it as "ice cream truck"/"taco truck" music because that discounts
the history behind it. So now when I hear it I think of not only carne asada, but of
whorehouses and sheet music and Missouri and syncopation. Kids on my sidewalk and me
in my apartment above, we all hear the music and it's an amazing thing to know how it came
to be blasting from the taco truck's speakers. But I'm corny like that. Also, I apologize for the
quotes below including the c-word.
One hundred years ago, ragtime was king. Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana were the cradle of ragtime civilization. America bounced and danced to it. It put a smile on everyone's face. (like me!)
Overseas, ragtime was better respected than in the USA. Paris, London, Vienna - they went wild! Here, ragtime could never quite shake its "whorehouse" association. And yes, it was played in whorehouses, saloons (as opposed to European salons), and eventually concert halls. Also, a "rag" was slang for a dance (a jig or a shuffle). And a "ragtime girl" was a babe (or a whore).
Yet, ragtime was so good, it was irresistible. Only snobs and prudes from high society disliked it, as it came from a mixed "black" and "white" background. In short, the rhythm is black (African), the harmony/melody is white (European), and the result is American.*
One man is chiefly responsible for ragtime's popularity and survival: Scott Joplin (1868-1917). He codified it, wrote it down, made it into an art form.
It is amazing this controversial music became popular so quickly - it has never been easy to play. Ragtime is a solo piano affair. The left hand provides the basic rhythm and harmony, the right hand sings the melody (which has its own rhythm). Yet, it was easy to listen to; it still is.
Ragtime didn't exist in a vacuum. Ragtimers were required to play folk, blues, popular tunes of the day. Yet, ragtime piano was unique. The melodies were captivating - but the rhythm was infectious.
Syncopation! Two rhythms at once - a steady beat in the left hand and something happening off the beat in the right hand. The tension between the two gives ragtime its special kick. Ragtime's syncopation grew into the foundations of Jazz, Swing and Rock n' Roll. Whether a rag is fast (like the "Maple Leaf Rag") or slow ("The Entertainer"), you feel the syncopation.
In 1899, the "Maple Leaf Rag" put Scott Joplin on the map. Although Joplin was not a technically great pianist, with his unique compositions he quickly established himself as the king of ragtime composers.
Shortly after the wild success of the Maple Leaf Rag, Tin Pan Alley quickly published hundreds of mostly third-rate song that overshadowed superior works by Scott Joplin, Eubie Blake, Jelly Roll Morton and Co. Yes, Irving Berlin ("Alexander's Ragtime Band") and Zez Confrey ("Kitten on the Keys") wrote first-rate ragtime stuff, but they were the exceptions in a sea of mediocrity.
By 1917, things were changing. Europe was enmeshed in the Great War, Scott Joplin was ill, and ragtime's stepchild, "jass," was coming into its own. As American entered World War I, Scott Joplin died. Yet ragtime never really went away. And the next generation of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Co. were weaned on it.
Random Wikipedia notes:
The defining characteristic of ragtime music is a specific type of syncopation in which melodic accents occur between metrical beats. This results in a melody that seems to be avoiding some metrical beats of the accompaniment by emphasizing notes that either anticipate or follow the beat. The ultimate (and intended) effect on the listener is actually to accentuate the beat, thereby inducing the listener to move to the music. Scott Joplin, the composer/pianist known as the "King of Ragtime", called the effect "weird and intoxicating" (like me!). He also used the term "swing" in describing how to play ragtime music: "Play slowly until you catch the swing...". The name swing later came to be applied to an early genre of jazz that developed from ragtime. Converting a non-ragtime piece of music into ragtime by changing the time values of melody notes is known as "ragging" the piece.
According to the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz the musical form was originally called "ragged time" which later became corrupted to "ragtime". Ragtime originated in African-American musical communities in the late 19th century, and descended from the jigs and marches played by all-black bands common in all Northern cities with black populations. *A distinctly American musical style, ragime may be considered a synthesis of African-American syncopation and European classical music, though this description is oversimplified (shocking).
Some early piano rags are entitled marches, and "jig" and "rag" were used interchangeably in the mid-1890s and ragtime was also preceded by its close relative the cakewalk. In 1895, Black entertainer Ernest Hogan published two of the earliest sheet music rags, one of which ("All Coons Look Alike to Me") eventually sold a million copies. As fellow Black musician Tom Fletcher said, Hogan was the "first to put on paper the kind of rhythm that was being played by non-reading musicians."While the song's success helped introduce the country to ragtime rhythms, its use of racial slurs created a number of derogatory imitation tunes, known as "coon songs" because of their use of extremely racist and stereotypical images of blacks. In Hogan's later years he admitted shame and a sense of "race betrayal" for the song while also expressing pride in helping bring ragtime to a larger audience.
The heyday of ragtime predated the widespread availability of sound recording. Like classical music, and unlike jazz, classical ragtime was and is primarily a written tradition, being distributed in sheet music rather than through recordings or by imitation of live performances. Ragtime music was also distributed via piano rolls for player pianos. A folk ragtime tradition also existed before and during the period of classical ragtime (a designation largely created by Scott Joplin's publisher publisher John Stark) (not John Starks--that was the dude who played for the Knicks), manifesting itself mostly through string bands, banjo and mandolin clubs (which experienced a burst of popularity during the early 20th Century), and the like.