Rag or Rot?

Songs of ragtime obtained vast popularity within audiences of White people around the 1880s, being the holdover from the early nineteenth century racist minstrel shows. There were few politer ballads that would feature imagery of “proper” or “genuine” relationships and sweet love. Examples of this include “Love You Truly” “Come with Thy Sweet Voice Again” or The new variant of song satirized the dialect and culture of African Americans, and most times would incorporate lyrics about gambling, violence, drunkenness, and promiscuous behavior. Examples of this include “Gimme Ma Money” “Carve Dat Possum” and “The Bully Song”. In spite of the insultingly racist character of the lyrics, these songs were most times went along with rhythms of syncopations of early ragtimes, while the results of that became a national craze in the 1890s. 

This simplistic “ragged” rhythm that went along with the cakewalk was initially purposed for dancing, and typically performed by small banjo-led combos á la the minstrel bands. Eventually, it ended up becoming more advanced and developing its own life separate from the dance. The less advanced, however memorable, syncopated short-long-short rhythm and 2/4 time signature made the musical form appealing to various audiences. The piano started replacing the banjo, while more advanced rhythms began to develop, and with that, ragtime made an appearance. 

Although it was very popular, ragtime was not very pleasing to others with its encroaching rhythm. Instead of following the habits of “refined” culture of the Europeans, ragtime was focusing on the primal syncopation rhythms that were distinctly inherited from the roots of Africa. In today’s time, someone might think it’s weird that something so apparently minor as a beat that’s misplaced in popular music would create such chaos, but it did. The adversaries of ragtime damned the form from every aspect because of its “primitive” structure of music, “lowlife appeal”, and racists content. Ministers would often preach against it and its “evil influence on tastes and morals”, and teachers of dance worried that it would “destory all the beauty and grace that should represent terpsichorean art.” Others– oddly enough– warned people that it had the possibility of leading to mass suicide if it was played outwardly during the parades of war verterans. 

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