Origin/Characteristics of Ragtime

Ragtime gained popularity in the late 1890s to the 1920s, especially in the South. The sound derived from Folk music since it was secular music. Ragtime was known for its highly syncopated rhythm that was not heard in the past. African Americans naturally incorporated the beats on 2 and 4 instead of 1 and 3, and ragtime is mainly instrumental and played on the piano.  The sounds made on the piano mimic sounds from a fiddle or banjo which is why it has such a unique sound. Ragtime has been associated with the “cakewalk” and “coon songs” in the public mind. Black musicians would play ragtime in low reputation venues like bars or brothels. This limited their audience to the people that worked and spent time in these areas , like prostitutes and white men.
Ben Harney was one of the first musicians to translate ragtime from oral to written score and publish a ragtime composition. The songs that followed more resembled the cakewalk instead of “rag” music with a more complicated syncopated rhythm. For the most part African Americans made good money in the bars and saloons due to tips and trying to get the music printed was often more tiresome. Due to this they did not get the acknowledgement they deserved in creating ragtime. But as ragtime shifted to written tradition their began to be different interpretations of what ragtime sounded like depending on the background of the musicians or composers interacting with the music.

Key Figures in Ragtime

  • Scott Joplin, composer and pianist

  • Tom Turpin, African American composer

  • James Scott, rag-time composer and pianist

An example of the commodification of ragtime is with the publication of Scott Joplin’s ” Maple Leaf Rag.” The publisher John Stark received a penny per copy in royalties. By 1909 half a million copies were sold. Through the music being scored allowed for composers and musicians to make money off of their music. They also did performances, although they were demeaning to African Americans since it usually showed them in a stereotypical way.

In its entirety ragtime has influenced the genres to come. Its highly syncopated rhythm has set the tone for African American music being more lively and upbeat. Ragtime is such a unique sound and it’s very hard to duplicate. Although many composers and performers have tried to replicate authentic ragtime there is always something missing in the delivery. African American people have the soul to play the music to the best of their ability that others fall short of.
Vashti Jones

Vashti Jones

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