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Article History of Ragtime

Image: ragtime-nightmare
The Ragtime Nightmare by Tom Turpin (St. Louis, MO: Robt. DeYoung & Co., 1900). Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.

Ragtime, a uniquely American, syncopated musical phenomenon, has been a strong presence in musical composition, entertainment, and scholarship for over a century. It emerged in its published form during the mid-1890s and quickly spread across the continent via published compositions. By the early 1900s ragtime flooded the music publishing industry. The popularity and demand for ragtime also boosted sale of pianos and greatly swelled the ranks of the recording industry. Ragtime seemed to emanate primarily from the southern and midwestern states with the majority of activity occurring in Missouri -- although the East and West coasts also had their share of composers and performers. Ragtime's popularity promptly spread to Europe and there, as in America, soon became a fad.

It is not easy to define ragtime. Like jazz, another distinctly American musical art form, ragtime's composers, practitioners, and admirers each see its boundaries differently. However, these groups are distinguished by subgroups of purists who generally agree on, and stand by, a precise definition:

Ragtime -- A genre of musical composition for the piano, generally in duple meter and containing a highly syncopated treble lead over a rhythmically steady bass. A ragtime composition is usually composed three or four contrasting sections or strains, each one being 16 or 32 measures in length.

This definition describes much of the music of the itinerant pianists who traversed the South and Midwest and eventually congregated in Missouri to produce an oeuvre of core ragtime compositions. These roving composers include Scott Joplin, Charles Hunter, Thomas Turpin, Louis Chauvin, Charles L. Johnson, and many others.

Some ragtime scholars point out that ragtime is composed chiefly for an audience -- a pianistic work not meant for dancing. It is a genre distinct from other types of syncopated musical compositions from about the same period -- for example, "coon songs" and cakewalks -- the latter especially composed for dancing.

But our definition cannot be cut-and-dried, for "ragtime" once described the peppy, syncopated treatment of almost any type of music -- that is how it was known to the public at large. Ragtime became a very real fad that covered a wide range of styles and even grew to describe things non-musical. Much like rock 'n' roll, heavy metal, jazz, and other popular genres of music, ragtime invited "the curiosity and even devotion of the young at the same time it disquiets the staid and established ... ragtime created an attitude and defined an era that reached beyond the music." (Real Ragtime booklet, 4)

Ragtime, the word, probably began life as a description of musical meter and certainly preceded the advent of the music of Joplin, Scott, and others. It was part of the late 19th century-lexicon to use "-time" as a suffix to describe a kind of music by the characteristics of its rhythm. For instance, waltzes were referred to as being "in waltz-time." "March-time" and "jig-time" also described the meter, basic rhythm, and function of style. Almost certainly, however, the term is a contraction for "ragged time," denoting a style of playing piano or banjo where the melody is "broken up" into short, syncopated rhythms while a steady overall beat is either played (piano) or implied (banjo). Taking a simple, conventional, and unsyncopated melody and breaking up the rhythm was known as "ragging," therefore, the resulting music was said to be in "ragged time."

Americans were first exposed to ragtime, en masse, at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. It is reported that some 27 million people passed through the Fair gates between May and October of that year. In 1896 "rag" and "rag time" were used to describe some newly published "coon songs," complete with outrageous parodies of black culture and speech. Among them was "All Coons Look Alike to Me," composed by black entertainer, Ernest Hogan. The second chorus offered a syncopated accompaniment, composed by Max Hoffman, along with the caption "Choice Chorus with Negro 'Rag' Accompaniment." Also during 1896, the cover of Ben Harney's song "You've Been a Good Old Wagon but You Done Broke Down" featured a banner proclaiming "Original Introducer to the stage of the new popular 'Rag Time.'" The following year saw the first published piano rags beginning with W. H. Krell's "Mississippi Rag."

Syncopation -- The "Misplaced" Beat

Ragtime was both exciting and threatening to America's youth and staid polite society, respectively. The excitement came from syncopation--the displacing of the beat from its regular and assumed course of meter. Syncopation caused an individual to feel a propulsion, swing, and if played correctly, a musical looseness generally unknown to the public at large. The threat came from the very same displaced beat that evoked a strong connotation to the "low-class" Negro music found in brothels and saloons. The Midwest, particularly postbellum Missouri, was rife with saloons, brothels, and cabarets--all places where a pianist with a decent repertoire could earn a decent living.

The syncopated motif:

Example of syncopation

when counted in 2/4-time yields a feel of "short - long - short," (with a fourth sound added for definition), is the most common syncope found in ragtime. It comes from the cakewalk, a high-stepping dance popularized on the minstrel stage and which often served as the show's finale. Syncopations in the genre of piano ragtime are varied and intricate as well as simple.

This motif and more complex syncopations were commonly heard in "head" music (music played totally by ear) performed in the Caribbean, the southern states, and the Georgia Sea Islands. However, they are rarely found in published American music prior to the mid-1880s.

The complexities of non-written or "head syncopations" heard in rhythms of black slaves are addressed by music historian H. Wiley Hitchcock. He explains that the "...emphatic use of syncopation by American Negroes, partly derived from African drumming, partly derived from Afro-Caribbean dance rhythms." He then quotes from an 1835 letter to Edgar Allan Poe in which a friend describes a musical performance of some slaves in a practice known as "clapping Juba" ("Juba" is thought to refer to the English dance-name "jig.") The text is a remarkable testimony to the survival of syncopated elements in African drumming:

"There is no attempt to keep time to all the notes, but then it comes so pat & so distinct that the cadence is never lost. . . Such irregularities are like rests and grace notes. They must be so managed as neither to hasten or retard the beat. The time of the bar must be the same, no matter how many notes are in it." (Music in the United States, 120)

Much of what became the key ingredients of ragtime came from self-taught and largely uneducated musicians: slaves; hill folk of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and the Carolinas; and minstrel-troupe musicians. The popularity and portability of the banjo, guitar, mandolin, and violin made these the instruments of choice for these itinerant musicians.

Banjo and Fiddle

It is not easy to tell when and where this lively, rhythmically propulsive music began, but it is possible to point to some very specific roots and to see it bear fruit. Though the evidence is not negligible, few contemporary writings chronicle the role that the banjo played in the development of ragtime. In a noteworthy comment made in 1881, the essayist Lafcadio Hearn wrote, "Did you ever hear negroes play the piano by ear?... They use the piano exactly like a banjo. It is good banjo-playing but no piano-playing." (Ragtime: Its History, Composers, and Music, 54, 58) In 1899 the music critic Rupert Hughes used the term "banjo figurations" to describe the piano ragtime that he had heard.

These peculiar rhythms and melodies had another source -- the fiddle music that British Isles immigrants played to folk dances such as the jig and reel. "Turkey in the Straw," also known as "Old Zip Coon," for example, is thought to be of Scottish origin. This string music reveals the origin of a commonly used rhythmic device in ragtime, known as "secondary rag" -- a simple, repeated, three-note motif that gives the listener a temporary off-center feeling by imposing an even pulse of three over a series of duple measures.

Image depicting pulse of three over series of duple measures

By the mid-1850s these ragged rhythms were finding their way into published banjo solos and methods. Much of this earlier published material came from the minstrel stage and was given an "Ethiopic" theme meant to evoke the plantation and the South. Not all Ethiopic themed music contained syncopation--quite a bit of it consisted of sentimental songs that evoked the themes of fondness for the South, the plantation, "Massa," and other aspects of slavery. But, syncopation rarely found its' way onto the printed page--a nod perhaps to the notion that it was difficult music to play unless you had an innate feeling for it.

The Heart of Ragtime

Missouri, located in the center of America, was the heartland of ragtime. As noted by popular music historians David Jasen and Gene Jones, "There were more rags--and more good rags--from Missouri than anywhere else." (That American Rag, 1) Perhaps it was the robust pioneer spirit that thrived in Missouri that created the environment for music like ragtime to flourish.

"...Missouri was destined by its location to be an area of commercial, social, and cultural change. Since the early nineteenth century, St. Louis has served as midpoint and stopover for north-south traffic on our largest river, and when going west was a national imperative, the city was the 'Gateway to the West.'" (TAR, 1)

During the 1880s, black entrepreneurs prospered in the sporting district of St. Louis, known as Chestnut Valley. John L. Turpin, a black businessman from Savannah, Georgia, made St. Louis his home in 1887 and opened a saloon called the Silver Dollar.

Turpin's teenage son, Tom, followed closely in his father's footsteps and by 1897 had opened his first saloon. That same year, young Turpin, also a self-taught pianist, had his composition "Harlem Rag" published by a local lawyer. "Harlem Rag" was a defining piece of piano ragtime and a model for its composers.

By 1900 Tom Turpin had acquired sufficient capital to open a new saloon and brothel, the Rosebud. His two young protégés, Joe Jordan and Louis Chauvin, frequented the establishment. With the constant rollicking, buoyant sound of ragtime, Turpin, Jordan, Chauvin, and many other enthusiastic proponents of the new music, made the Rosebud and St. Louis the capital of ragtime.

The regular flow of traffic through St. Louis and the rest of the state created a demand for accommodations and amenities for travelers. "As Missouri gentrified it became a state where a piano player could make a good living." (TAR, 2) As their salaries usually were nominal, the nomadic pianists made their best money from tips provided by the patrons of the many saloons and brothels that employed them.

It should be noted that when their music was eventually published, however, their royalties, although welcomed, were insignificant. About a dozen brave publishers risked putting some of this engaging, new music on sale to the public.

The most influential and memorable publisher was John Stark, a Civil War veteran and peripatetic ice cream salesman who loved music. He settled in Sedalia in 1886, opened a music store, and eventually turned to publishing. Stark met Scott Joplin in 1899 when the latter came into Stark's store to demonstrate his still unpublished "Maple Leaf Rag." Although Stark was impressed by the musicality of the piece, the technical difficulty of the piece led him to question its salability.

After some encouragement from his son, John Stark agreed to publish "Maple Leaf Rag" thus beginning a profitable business relationship for himself and Joplin and insuring immortality for ragtime. By 1914 "Maple Leaf Rag" had sold 1 million copies and Stark had amassed over 50 rags in his catalog.

In addition to Joplin, Stark's stable of ragtime composers included James Scott, Joseph Lamb, Artie Mathews, J. Russell Robinson, and others. Stark's original assessment and question about ragtime became a reality--it was delightful to the ear and heart although difficult to perform. He came to refer to the rag selections in his catalog as "classic rags." Composed by musicians of very high standards, they required a refined pianistic ability to perform them correctly. As a result, most of the "classic rags" were not bestsellers.

Missouri was also home to composer Arthur Pryor, who was born in St. Joseph in or around 1870. Pryor grew up playing in his father's band. Best known as a trombonist, Pryor wrote some of the most successful ragtime selections of the era. Some of his better-known rag titles are: "A Coon Band Contest," "Razzazza Mazzazza," "That Flying Rag," and "Frozen Bill." Although these compositions were published as piano solos, they achieved greater fame as band selections.

As assistant conductor and solo trombonist for the famous band of John Philip Sousa, Arthur Pryor helped spread the ragtime craze to Europe when the Sousa band toured there in 1900. Not only did he compose most of the band's ragtime material, but he also taught the Sousa musicians how to play the syncopations in a relaxed, unhurried way--the way that he heard it back in Missouri.

The Sound of Ragtime

By the early 1890s Americans had become infatuated with the multi-strained "March and two-step," which was basically the same as a march. Always in 2/4 or 6/8 meter, there was something stirring and optimistic about these pieces. Both meters yield a "two feel," but 6/8 has its intrinsic triple feel that creates a far-reaching swing. In fact, 6/8 two-steps were often referred to as "swings" as were the steps danced to them.

The ragtime compositions by Joplin and his circle were solely in duple meter and had a different sort of swing to them. A 6/8 two-step encouraged a more aerobic style of dance due to its broad swing. Ragtime's syncopations within the measure (and often over the measure), however, led to smaller and more gyrating dance steps, resulting in a series of popular "animal" dances such as the grizzly bear, bunny hug, turkey trot, and others.

Syncopation in ragtime was varied and more complex than the simple cakewalk. The syncopated rhythms found in the best rags were meant to evoke a looseness, natural flow, and drive recreated by reading and performing the music exactly as written. If performed correctly, the effect of the syncopation against the steady duple meter bass created an air of excitement and spontaneity not inherently found in most published music of the time.

The Fad

Ragtime was everywhere by the early 1900s--in sheet music, piano rolls, phonograph records, and ragtime piano playing contests, as well as in music boxes, vaudeville theaters, and bordellos. Publishing houses churned out piano rags and ragtime songs at a furious pace. Ragtime also appeared in arrangements for orchestras and wind bands. The majority of this music was the popular sort of ragtime that was cranked out mostly by Tin Pan Alley hacks. As with all types of music, there is always a bigger market for a less subtle, more digestible version of the original, more complicated, form.

The overabundance and popularity of ragtime was not always met with enthusiasm. For example, at the 1901 convention of the American Federation of Musicians in Denver, "Resolutions were adopted characterizing 'ragtime' as 'unmusical rot.' Members were encouraged to 'make every effort to suppress and [to] discourage the playing and the publishing of such musical trash." (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 5/14/01, 1)

Similarly, at a 1902 meeting of the Lincoln Women's Relief Corps, a motion was made by the Grand Army Encampment of Music chairman E. B. Hay, that the bands in the Corps' "great parade be allowed to play 'Ragtime,' to break up the monotony of patriotic and martial airs..." The motion was met with great indignation, noting it "sacrilege to require Civil War veterans to march along Pennsylvania Avenue to 'ragtime' strains." (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 8/11/02, 11)

The press overreacted about ragtime eroding mores. In January 1900 the music monthly The Etude, in a piece entitled "Musical Impurity" noted: "The counters of the music stores are loaded with this virulent poison which in the form of a malarious epidemic, is finding its way into the homes and brains of the youth to such an extent as to arouse one's suspicions of their sanity." It went on to describe the melodic rhythm of ragtime as "double-jointed jumping jack airs that fairly twist the ears of an educated musician from their anchorage."

The Fad Fades

"Ragtime" as a catchall name for syncopated popular music remained popular through the 1910s. Ragtime's popularity faded around 1917 with the rise of another catchall term--"jazz"--used to describe peppy, noisy, popular music. Note that musicians active in New Orleans during the early 1900s who were later recognized as "jazz musicians" frequently, if not always, referred to the hot music they played as "ragtime."

It can be stated categorically, however, that the ragtime music of Joplin, Joseph Lamb, James Scott, and others had become nearly forgotten by 1920. Joseph Lamb's own daughter did not find out that her father was a well-known composer of ragtime until the dawn of his comeback during the 1950s. Ragtime did not disappear, nor was it "replaced" by jazz. However, it seems to have been supplanted by the novelty piano style that was ironically based on many of the traits found in ragtime--traits that had become anachronistic by 1920.

Novelty and Stride Piano

The technical demands of playing the works of Joplin, et al., are not inconsiderable. Their music demanded technique as a means to expression. What remained in the public's ear by 1920 were the virtuosic, technical aspects of piano ragtime. The genre was known as "novelty piano" -- often referred to today as "novelty ragtime."

Ragtime scholar Ed Berlin points out that "novelty piano" is a latter-day term that was never used by its composers. (Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History, 162) Nonetheless, it sprang out of a parody on the sound of ragtime played perhaps too fast--replete with wrong notes, humorous harmonic effects, the already clichéd secondary rag, and even the sound of a player piano slightly out of adjustment.

Novelty piano is not a disrespectful or nonmusical art. On the contrary, it incorporates both technique as a means to itself and the harmonic devices found in older classical piano music. The first hit of this genre, "Kitten on the Keys," appeared in July 1921. Composed by Elzear "Zez" Confrey (1895-1971), the piece was filled with tricky syncopations, unusual harmonic devices (such as strings of augmented chords, whole tone runs, parallel fourths) that somehow gave the listener the impression of humorously played wrong notes, and sudden shifts of key. Despite being difficult to play, "Kitten on the Keys" sold 1 million copies during its first year of publication. (Rags and Ragtime: A Musical History, 215)

Similarly, stride piano, which developed in and around Harlem, New York, during the 1910s by primarily black pianists, was never referred to as ragtime. Nonetheless, its composers and performers--such as James P. Johnson, Thomas "Fats" Waller, C. Luckyeth "Lucky" Roberts, and others were certainly well acquainted with ragtime and used its components as a point of departure.

The strong kinship among stride, novelty, and ragtime was the fact that all three were usually composed as multi-strained pieces. They were also pianistically conceived and were not meant for dancing. Both novelty and stride piano are typically performed at ragtime festivals today.

Ragtime Returns

Although ragtime was not a big attraction during the 1930s and 1940s, it was still played, and not just by pianists. Oftentimes a dance band recorded an up-to-date swing version of "Maple Leaf Rag." But more often than not, ragtime, when offered, would be played as quaint nostalgia with its characteristics parodied.

But ragtime also had advocates--its composers, practitioners, and admirers. Of latter, Rudi Blesh was greatly responsible for re-popularizing ragtime. Blesh, a student of art, architecture, and early jazz, came to New York from Berkeley, California, in 1945, while writing a book about the history of jazz. He and his colleague and companion, Harriet Janis, began Circle Records shortly thereafter.

Circle was the first record label to issue recordings from Jelly Roll Morton's 1938 recordings made at the Library of Congress. These recordings prompted much enthusiasm about early jazz styles and ragtime. Circle Records also issued a 3-disc album by jazz clarinetist Tony Parenti and his "Ragtimers," an ad-hoc jazz band playing ragtime based loosely on old stock arrangements. The album included Joplin's "Swipesy Cake Walk" and James Scott's "Grace and Beauty." The combination of these jazzmen's sensibilities combined with the formality of the old written arrangements yielded outstanding results.

Blesh and Janis set about researching ragtime in earnest. Their monumental book They All Played Ragtime was published in 1950.

During the 1950s ragtime was the theme of many record albums, but usually was treated as a caricature. Ragtime was frequently played on pianos especially rigged to sound out of tune or perhaps with thumbtacks in the hammers to evoke the sound of old-time saloon pianos. Despite such comical treatments, ragtime began to be heard with more frequency and respect than it had been in three decades. In 1959 and 1960 Max Morath, a talented pianist and entertainer who had some experience directing in television, produced a successful 12-part program entitled "The Ragtime Years" for National Educational Television. Since then, Max Morath and ragtime have become inextricably linked in the public's mind.

The 1968 Columbia Records release of "The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake" was another milestone in the comeback of ragtime. Blake, a skilled composer and pianist was also one of the creators of the 1921 show "Shuffle Along" an important and ground breaking all-black music revue. As a child Blake studied piano formally at home in Baltimore. But he used to sneak out at night to hear the pianists in the low-down saloons nearby.

Blake's wide range of musical endeavors (including an ever-growing classical technique) led him to become familiar, even expert in ragtime. He ultimately composed a number of fine rags himself. As his 1968 recording shows, he was a vastly entertaining, vital performer--dexterous of hand and quick-witted.

Blake swiftly found a new career--traveling the world and appearing on the concert stage. He also was a frequent guest on late-night television talk shows, where he was always introduced to the millions viewers as a ragtime pianist.

In 1970 ragtime experienced a huge renaissance. Nonesuch Records was the first classical label to issue an album of ragtime; "Piano Rags by Scott Joplin," performed by composer, conductor, and musicologist Joshua Rifkin, created a sensation and quickly became a bestseller. Rifkin's approach was that of a classical pianist. At the same time he was respectful of the low-down element as well without resorting to any type of caricature. His playing of Joplin exhibited an understanding of the inherent swing and looseness that these pieces were meant to evoke. The first album was a remarkable success and was quickly followed by two more volumes.

The 1974 motion picture "The Sting" introduced the widest audience yet to the music of Scott Joplin. Although the choice of Joplin's music for a story set in the 1930s was historically inaccurate, the music underscored and supported the action on the screen perfectly. As a result, Joplin's "The Entertainer" went to the top of the pop record charts.

In 1972, Scott Joplin's ragtime-infused opera, Treemonisha, was revived. Joplin spent the last years of his life struggling to find a producer for his opera. He managed only to have it twice performed, once staged, and once done as a read-through. Joplin died in 1917, broken by the struggle. However, Treemonisha was later accorded its due--in 1976, it earned a special Pulitzer Prize and in 1983, a postage stamp was issued bearing Joplin's likeness.

Since the 1970s and the renaissance of ragtime there has been a great deal of activity in the areas of live performance, festivals, and scholarship in the field. Public radio has featured several series devoted to ragtime such as Terry Waldo's "This is Ragtime" and Galen Wilke's "It's Rag Time!" Talented composers such as Trebor Tichenor, David Thomas Roberts, Scott Kirby, and many others have made lasting contributions to the ragtime repertoire. There are ragtime organizations throughout the nation such as The Classic Ragtime Society of Indiana, The Northern Virginia Ragtime Society, The Sacramento Ragtime Society, and many others. There is even a ragtime-influenced fusion style called "terre verde" for which some contemporary ragtimers are actively composing and performing.

There have also been great advances in ragtime scholarship. Many fine books about ragtime have been published and there have been numerous theses and dissertations written on the subject.

Ragtime, like any other music, must be heard and really cannot be defined by words--just as words cannot be defined by music. But through more than 100 years, ragtime has had no trouble making its presence known and its composers, performers, and admirers all look forward to its future.



Berlin, Ed. Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980.

Berlin, Ed. Reflections and Research on Ragtime. New York: Institute for Studies in American Music, Brooklyn College, 1987.

Jasen, David, and Gene Jones. That American Rag: The Story of Ragtime from Coast to Coast. New York: Schirmer, 2000.

Jasen, David A., and Trebor Jay Tichenor. Rags and Ragtime: A Musical History. New York: The Seabury Press, 1978.

Hitchcock, H. Wiley. Music in the United States: A Historical Introduction. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1969.

Hasse, John Edward, ed. Ragtime: Its History, Composers, and Music. New York: Schirmer, 1985.

Periodicals and Newspapers:

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. May 14, 1901:1.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. August 11, 1902:11.

"Musical Impurity." Etude 18 (January 1900): 16.

Recordings: Compact Discs:

"Real Ragtime: Disc Recordings from its Heyday" (Booklet notes by Richard Martin and David Sager). Archeophone Records, Arch. 1001A.

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  • History of Ragtime


  • -  Ragtime music -- History and criticism
  • -  Popular Songs of the Day
  • -  Songs and Music
  • -  Progressive Era to New Era (1900-1929)
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