What is Ragtime and Where Did It Come From?
Ragtime has many definitions. Some may say Ragtime is ” rhythm in which the accompaniment is strict two-four time and the melody, with improvised embellishments, is in steady syncopation,” or even “a style of American music having rhythm, popular from about 1890 to 1915.” Some might even say that Ragtime is “music characterized by a syncopated melodic line and regularly accented accompaniment, evolved by black American musicians in the 1890s and played especially on the piano.” But regardless of the various definitions and ideas about its derivatives, we do know that Ragtime is a performance style with African American musical roots. Ragtime can also be defined according to its duality between written music and oral tradition, between early jazz and classical, and between European American music and African American music. It’s primarily a 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.”
Ragtime: A Social Gathering Requirement, or Not?
Many have heard Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag and The Entertainer compositions and one could probably assume that back in the day, these were the songs to feature at any social gathering worth attending, but was ragtime always popular? Despite vast popularity in later times, it actually wasn’t always as well received by the public. Many saw it as just something that would come and go, a fad if you will, and it often was made racist mockeries out of. These mockeries were primarily consisted of Coon Songs and Cake walks. The white population of this time simply couldn’t grasp the complexities or the syncopation of the rhythms; you couldn’t just be taught how to play. Those who did play most definitely had the ear for the art form which made it especially intriguing to a younger populations of musicians. At the 1901 convention of the American Federation of Musicians in Denver, it was said that, “Resolutions were adopted characterizing ‘ragtime’ as ‘unmusical rot.’ In effort to demolish the growing art form, members were highly encouraged to ‘make every effort to suppress and [to] discourage the playing and the publishing of such musical trash.”
So Who Were The Big Shots?
Glad you asked! Here are some of the more popular Ragtime composers.
Scott Joplin aka ( The “King of Ragtime”)
Jelly Roll Morton
So How’d They Make Money?
Another great question! Eventually, people became more and more attracted to simplified versions the art form. It was easier to play, so its ability to sell skyrocketed. By this time, ragtime was everywhere. There were arrangements for it in orchestras and wind bands and theaters. There was sheet music, and there were even publishing houses that turned out piano rags and ragtime songs at higher rates then ever. During this time it was also difficult for African Americans to read and write still due to racial injustices and inequality, so the White population essentially took over which contributes to the reason as to why things became so simplified. White people, since they had the ability, transcribed the music. It was from their transcriptions that sheet music became a commercially successful branch of publishing music.
How Ragtime Turned Into Other Genres
Ragtime set the standard for what would eventually become Jazz, and many musical attributes of Rag have been revived in modern day jazz. Characteristics that makeup ragtime music such as call and response and rhythmical styles would go on to influence blues, rock and roll, and other future genres.
I wonder what Rag would’ve become if the African American community had the chance to really take off with this genre and continue to build it instead of the mediocrity of whiteness taking over…
Imagine if we had more pieces from black artists like these world famous compositions.