Brief History of Ragtime

Ragtime was around but the name came along much later. The name was given to the style of music towards the end of the 1890’s. This style of music consisted of both written music and oral tradition with being known for its “ragged” rhythm. Ragtime can be described as an in between of classical music and early jazz which incorporated both African American and European music styles. As the genre progressed “cakewalk” and “coon songs” came about which were popular ragtime performances that were performed by white people for white people’s enjoyment.

Cakewalk and Coon Songs

Cakewalk was a dance parodied White upper-class behavior, performed by African American slaves. This dance gained the name “cakewalk” because the best performer would win a prize, which was usually a cake! The Cakewalk dance consisted of dignified walking, bowing low, waving canes and a high-kicking grand promenade.

Coon songs were popular all between the late 1800s and the early 1900s. The style of these songs were meant to mock and tease African Americans and were often performed by White people, for white people. The performers would dress up in Black face where they degraded Black people and spoke in African American dialect. The performers would also portray African Americans as lazy, dishonest, greedy, violent, thieves and watermelon eaters…which are still stereotypes African Americans continue to face today.

Origin of Jim Crow

The character of Jim Crow first came about around 1830 by Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice, an itinerant white actor. Performing in the play “Kentucky Rifle” he danced while singing Jump Jim Crow. Rice fed on, heightened, and popularized stereotypes placed on African Americans while his performance reflected white people’s (continuous) fascination with Black culture. 

Breakout Star of Ragtime: Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin has been deemed the King of Ragtime, over the span of career he wrote over 100 original ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet, and two operas. Scott composed songs such as “The Entertainer,” “Solace,” and “The Maple Leaf Rag,” which is the best-selling ragtime song in HISTORY. Even after death, Scott was still bringing ragtime success. His opera “Treemonisha” went on broadway and eventually his music was apart of the Academy award winning score for the film The Sting. There is an annual Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival hosted in Sedalia, Missouri. 

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