“Perfessor” Bill Edwards wrote this exclusive writing about his passion, Ragtime! It’s a personal and entertaining article as well as enlightening.
So Manuel finds me and he asks me to contribute something here in my field of expertise. “Write something about ragtime,” which is passion and profession. Really? Kewl. Although it’s a double-edged situation, since I’m trying to convey that passion and some history, the good part, in a few words to a rather wide audience, the tricky part.
I have to start with what ragtime is and is not, and why it’s important. That will be today’s topic, and will hopefully lead to more.
What ragtime is NOT is hokey music played on out-of-tune pianos in smoky bars full of drunks singing off key. It is also not silent movie background music. Sure, it has been used in these contexts, but it is much different and much more. It is the beginning of popular music in the world as we know it today. Picture a musical funnel, if you will. On the upper end are Western classical music forms of the 18th and 19th centuries, including sonatas, gavottes, waltzes, even some symphony and opera. Coming from Eastern Europe you have marches and mazurkas. From Spain and South America come the Latin-tinged influences, many of which actually correspond directly to African rhythms, including the famous habañera. To spice things up throw in the Negro call and response spirituals of the American south, and the European-based folk songs of the Eastern US.
All of these forms mix into the mouth of this funnel to create a hybrid – the march form with the classical development and Afro/Latin-rhythms with folk melodies that are syncopated. That was the basic origin of ragtime in the 1890s. It was the first music truly indigenous to the United States. By 1905, at least in the US, almost all music written here had something to do with ragtime. Even the intermezzos and waltzes were syncopated to a degree.
Now picture a string next to the funnel. That is a form that co-developed with ragtime and mixed in with it, yet remained on its own. The name of this form is the blues, a unique 12-bar development (sometimes 8 or 16) that permeated ragtime, and even the verses of many ragtime songs. Frankie and Johnnie, although it is ragtime, is also a blues number.
Spewing out of this funnel you have forms that comprise most popular music in the Western world today. Ragtime is the direct ancestor of … [deep breath]
Country music and bluegrass (ragtime guitar picking), jazz (improvised ragtime and blues), popular song (syncopated pieces that started in the early 1900s), swing (blues again), rock and roll (again blues with syncopation), and rap.
“RAP” you cry? Yes. A black colleague of mine has come to the same conclusion. Rap is an asymmetric form of lyrical poetry that is highly syncopated and urban. Many of the lyrics of the so-called “coon” songs of the ragtime era, as unfortunate as some of them are, can readily be recited as rap and pass in today’s pop world with little modification. Even lyrics written to Scott Joplin’s famous Maple Leaf Rag talk about razor blades and fights and attitude: “Oh go way man, I can hypnotize dis nation, I can shake de earth’s foundation wid de Maple Leaf Rag! Oh go ‘way man just hold you breath a minit, For there’s not a stunt thats in it wid de Maple Leaf Rag.” I also have a rap soundtrack I use for this song during school presentations, so it remains current and relevant.
What is ragtime? Any music that is syncopated over a steady beat. In the North America and most of Europe and Australia, that’s almost ANYTHING.
Being a historian is a bit like what the CSI people do. You have a result or a conclusion, but you want to find out how that result or conclusion was reached. Some people ask “where did I come from?” I do the same for music as an advocate. Before ragtime the pieces that were popular were mostly actually kind of tragic. Think of how many songs you can write about orphaned children, shamed women, sinking ships, death, despair, etc. Those were the big hits of the 1890s. The music was somewhat tepid too, with reiterations of waltzes, marches, galops, etc. that did not resonate with many in the public. Then ragtime appears, and it’s the original Rock and Roll. Really.
Let me prove this, and keep in mind trends in our lifetime, be they Stray Cats, Nirvana, The Who, Elvis or Chuck Berry:
It was largely a music developed in the black community.
Kids loved it and parents hated it – “Turn that damn piano down”
It was more urban and less genteel, causing people to move their bodies in shocking manners.
It was banned by the musician’s union in 1902, and vilified by religious establishments.
Not convinced? OK. Most music written to that time in the US could be played on piano, organ, guitar, etc., and was generic in performance. Ragtime was the first US-based music specifically composed for piano. A typical upright piano is around 350 pounds. Of that, perhaps 190 is the cast iron plate. Add in another 50 for metal strings, 10 for tuning pins, and 20 for assorted screws, connectors, weights, etc. and you have only 80 pounds of wood and over 270 of metal. Therefore, ragtime was America’s first Heavy Metal Music.
That’s fact, and you can’t have opinions about fact, right?