“Let’s Play A Rag”

During the slowing down of the Jubilee Quartet era came the transition into Ragtime. It is known that before it had a specific name Ragtime “was already in existence.” (African American Music 97) In the 1890’s it was used to describe a style of performance and was commonly defined as having “African American roots.”(African American Music 97) The official definition of Ragtime  is “rhythm characterized by strong syncopation in the melody with a regularly accented accompaniment in stride-piano style.” (Webster Dictionary) The style spanned successfully from 1896 through the 1920’s , however in the public eye it was most associated with “cakewalk and coon songs” which were often performed by whites in blackface.

Ragtime was originated as a playing style by African Americans made popular by being played in brothels, bars, and saloons. It was usually derived from songs by white Americans  sang accompanied by a banjo and when it was performed by African Americans it was “ragged”.  However its audience shifted when in 1895 the first piece of ragtime was published by Ben Harney called “Been a Good Old Wagon but You’ve Done Broke Down.” Subsequently a slew of white artists performed songs in a “rag style” and called it “rag”, but what made the black artists different was that for them “rag” was a style of writing as well. The first rag written and composed by an African American was “Harlem Rag” by Tom Turpin.

It is known that Ragtime made its transition from oral tradition to written and printed sheet music. However a lot was lost in this transition as music often “could not be written how it was originally played”. And this was definitely an issue because it was often “whites who transcribed what blacks played”. (African American Music 103) But then came the publication of Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag which gave birth to “classic ragtime”. Also because of his success Joplin helped other artists “publish their own music” which was at one point extremely difficult and now black artists could make money off of their own music. (African American Music 104)

Ragtime as a performance was based on the art of “improvisation”, however Scott Joplin warned against “careless playing”.  (African American Music 107) Usually playing rag was very animated and you’d often see composers like Turpin jumping up off of their piano stools showing extreme excitement. However for example Scott Joplin was more of a classical player of the genre where he noticed that the country was ready for music without “boundaries”. (African American Music 108) Although the genre died down my the end of the “first decade of the twentieth century”, there have been a few revivals in the 40’s, 50’s, and 70’s. (African American Music 115) Each revival saw to a resurgence in the art with re recordings of classic hits, clubs who still play the music, and festivals that are dedicated to showing off ragtime.



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