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Ragtime: The History of the Genre

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A unique musical phenomenon, ragtime is generally known to composers and musicians as being more than simply a genre of music. Real Ragtime (booklet 4), a collection of ragtime recordings with booklets containing descriptions and notes stated, “….ragtime created an attitude and defined an era that reached beyond the music.” Although, before exploring the comprehensive history surrounding ragtime, it is critical to understand what ragtime itself is. To numerous significant figures involved in the development of ragtime, it was thought of as a musical art form with no specific definition but rather piano music with diverse defining characteristics such as constant syncopation, melodic accent between beats, and sectional with 16 measure strains. While ragtime was almost always played on piano, brass bands or banjo were sometimes incorporated. An exact definition of ragtime is difficult to create due to its variable nature, however, the Library of Congress (par. 3) states that ragtime purists generally agree on the concise definition of ragtime being, “a genre of musical composition for the piano, generally in duple meter and containing a highly syncopated treble lead over a rhythmically steady bass….usually composed three or four contrasting sections or strains, each one being 16 or 32 measures in length.” While all the various characteristics stated contribute to ragtime, the most crucial of them all is syncopation, which is simply an interruption or disturbance of the regular flow of rhythm. As a predominant feature of ragtime, syncopation influenced why the particular music style was named “ragtime.” The name “ragtime” originated from a common naming scheme of the late 1800s, where the suffix “-time” would be attached to a descriptor of the rhythm being played. Ragtime was likely shortened from “ragged time,” which describes how the rhythm of the music was broken up and experienced constant syncopations. The unique nature of ragtime was also accompanied by a unique environment in which it thrived.

The environment that cultivated ragtime can be rooted back to black communities in St. Louis, Missouri, and New Orleans, Louisiana. Flourishing in the 1890s, ragtime was a popular dance music in these black communities. While ragtime dispersed throughout various cities across America, Missouri is credited as the origin point of ragtime due to its location in the middle of the country, which allowed it to act as a hub for visitors and an effective point for the style to spread. While the accessible location of St. Louis allowed ragtime to successfully spread, it also opened a route for other styles to find their way to this hub and have an impact on the style of ragtime. A combination of numerous sources influenced ragtime, including but not limited to: march style, minstrel show songs, banjo music, cakewalk, and European music (Encyclopaedia Britannica 2016, par. 1). Each of these styles contributed towards a specific characteristic of ragtime; for example, cakewalk, a march-like syncopated style with African American slaves satirizing the behavior of their white owners, influenced the syncopated nature of ragtime (University of California, Santa Barbara 2005, par. 1). Similarly, banjo music also uses a semi-repetitive syncopated grouping of notes, further contributing to the unique syncopated style of ragtime. Lastly, the syncopated melody of ragtime was usually accompanied by a steady pattern of bass-chord alterations, which can be identified as being derived from popular march style (Stewart 2016, par. 3).

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In addition to St. Louis, New Orleans was also seen as a center for ragtime because of its distinct geographical advantages, colonial heritage, and districts such as Storyville; in fact, New Orleans was thought of as being the cradle of jazz. The location of early New Orleans propelled it to thrive in colonial America, as it was an active port with access to the Mississippi river, allowing transportation of resources and slaves. In regards to the early 19th century, New Orleans was a hotspot for a mix of different cultures, all of which contributed to the development of early jazz. Next, the colonial heritage was different from the rest of the United States; New Orleans oscillated between Spanish and French control, both allowing slaves more liberties than an English controlled colony. Between 1769 and 1840, New Orleans had a market area named Congo Square where slaves were given the freedom to trade and sell, as well as congregate and play music, allowing African Americans to develop earlier styles of music that would eventually go on to influence ragtime. While colonial aspects influenced early New Orleans, districts such as Storyville are more recent characteristics that contributed to the flourishing of ragtime. Storyville was a district of New Orleans where prostitution was legalized between 1897 and 1917, which allowed bars and brothels to thrive. While the direct effect of the legislation caused sex trade to become prominent, Storyville also became a location where social, business, and political contacts were frequently made, resulting in the increased employment of many jazz and ragtime musicians in the bars and brothels. The distinct history and conditions of New Orleans allowed it to serve as a breeding ground for ragtime in conjunction with St. Louis.

A variety of influences propagated ragtime into popular music and mainstream culture.

One of the most important events of the late 19th century was the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, where everything that was considered advanced for the time was showcased; a plethora of categories were presented at the event such as art, science, music, and more. Amongst the exhibition of music, Scott Joplin, an icon of ragtime, fronted a band that played, which brought ragtime into national fame in 1893. In addition, Ben Harney, an early ragtime composer, created one of the first widely known ragtime hits “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon but You Done Broke Down” in 1895. The growing popularity of ragtime led to an interest from Tin Pan Alley publishers, who invested in and promoted the music through varying means such as sheet music or records. To add, Scott Joplin released “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1899, which further boosted the popularity of ragtime music and influenced future ragtime compositions over the next decade. By the early 1900s, ragtime was extremely prevalent amongst mainstream culture and could be heard at most establishments at the time.

In regards to major artists, it is commonly known that the “Big Three” influenced ragtime the most; the “Big Three” included Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb, and James Scott. Undisputedly known as the most important figure in ragtime, Scott Joplin greatly influenced the development of ragtime with his compositions. Joplin was born in the 1860s, in the border town Texarkana between Texas and Arkansas. With a mother who sang and played the banjo, and a father who played the violin, Joplin was exposed to music at an early age. After first learning to play the guitar, he later learned to play piano and the cornet, enabling him to become a traveling musician as a teenager. While Scott Joplin shined ragtime into the national spotlight when he played at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, he also increased his exposure as a reputable ragtime player and composer. After composing and publishing “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1899 with publisher John Stark, Scott Joplin exponentially rose in fame; “Maple Leaf Rag” stood as the leading example of ragtime, influencing the works of other ragtime composers. “Maple Leaf Rag” is categorized as classic rag, as it can be organized into a particular structure of 16 measure sections that are repeated and slightly modified, a structure that other ragtime composers adopted and altered. In addition to fame, “Maple Leaf Rag” also brought Scott Joplin wealth as his deal with John Stark was to receive one cent for every copy of the song sold, which ended up being over one million copies. Later on, Joplin strived to gain more respect for the genre and as a composer, which pushed him to publish “The School of Ragtime: Six Exercises for Piano” and longer-form compositions such as ballets and operas. Unfortunately, Joplin’s longer works did not receive much attention until almost fifty years after his death, with the first complete performance of “Treemonisha,” one of his ragtime operas, in 1972 gaining critical acclaim. Scott Joplin’s compositions set the standard for all other ragtime compositions, earning him the reputation as “king of ragtime.”

While not as prominent as Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb held a spot as one of the “Big Three” in ragtime and was uniquely not African American compared to Scott Joplin and James Scott. After being introduced to Scott Joplin’s music at an early age, he ended up meeting Joplin in New York, who endorsed him to his publisher, John Stark; Joseph Lamb ended up publishing ragtime with Stark for the next decade. His most famous composition, “Ragtime Nightingale” in 1914, was an attempt to create a piece similar to “Ragtime Oriole” by James Scott and is considered one of his finest compositions. While this piece is considered classic rag due to the separation of the music into strains, an identifying characteristic of his work is the incorporation of bird calls in the introduction of the last strain. The composition was acclaimed for “show[ing] a powerful consistency of lyrical and rhythmic invention (Schafer and Reidel 1973, 85).

The last of the “Big Three” was James Scott, and similarly to Joseph Lamb had Joplin hear his music and introduce him to his publisher, John Stark. Scott became John Stark’s second best-selling ragtime composer, behind Scott Joplin, with his most renowned work being “Ragtime Oriole.” “Ragtime Oriole” is a variation of Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” displayed by the separation of the music into four strains. “Ragtime Oriole” incorporates birth calls into the music, which “Ragtime Nightingale” borrowed from, and Scott also integrates the quality of Lamb’s compositions to delve into more diverse melodies and harmonies into his piece. The “Big Three” are credited with advancing and shaping ragtime into the style that became a stepping stone for modern jazz.

While the marvel of ragtime brought a unique style and various defining artists, its greatest accomplishment was not its ability to be a genre, but to be a form of musical art that propagated jazz as a form of expression.

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