The style of ragtime emerged in the late nineteenth century as popular song and dance music. It is characterized by its syncopation, or ‘ragged’ rhythm, and regular accompaniment by the piano. Syncopation is a rhythm where more stress is placed on the weak notes than the strong notes. Ragtime was created by African American musicians as a playing style which was performed in bars, where the primary audience consisted of other musicians, and white visitors. Different styles include the Cake Walk, which is a parody of slave masters’s lifestyle. This entailed a competition of which couple had the best parody ‘cake walk’ dance , and the best couple was rewarded with a cake. Coon songs incorporated the syncopation of ragtime music, and involved the denigration, or mocking of blacks.
Right before the turn of the century, the earliest ragtime compositions began to be published, such as “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon but You’ve Done broke down by Ben Harney, and “Mississippi rag” by William Krell. Ragtime began to be turned into sheet music mainly by whites, who transcribed while black played. The dissemination of ragtime sheet music increased its popularity. John Stark published ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ by Scott Joplin in 1899, and over time, this became the best selling rag ever. The success of ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ led to the publishing of more and more rags by white composers and the height of Ragtime’s popularity.
Scott Joplin is by far the most famous ragtime composers, and was one of the most important contributors to the ‘classic rag’ subgenre. His compositions besides ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ include ‘Elite Syncopations’ and ‘Treemonisha’. Tom Turpin, one of the first major African American composers of rag became especially well known in the late nineteenth century, as he played piano at varying venues. He eventually owned his own bar, where he even set up contests for young players waiting for their chance to make it big time. ‘Cutting Contests’ such as these, were informal competitions between musicians to see who had the most skill. Turpin’s most famous composition is ‘Harlem Rag’ (1899)
With the publication of ragtime music, came its popularity internationally. The Cake Walk was an especially popular performance in Europe, performed by African American musicians and performance who traveled there, though ragtime music generally wasn’t widely performed because of cultural restrictions. European composers eventually created their own versions of ragtime, and many American ragtime compositions were translated from English.
Though ragtime’s popularity declined soon after it’s birth, it resurfaced in the early 1940’s as new recordings, more sheet music, journals, books, live performances, and research. Many clubs have worked in the past and to this day, to ensure that ragtime is recognized for it’s past popularity and isn’t forgotten or lost in today’s more popular genres.
Ragtime is essentially an African American musical genre which, though its origins may reach farther back than recorded, did not reach the peak of its popularity until it began to be published. Ragtime even loans some of its characteristics to jazz music. Fortunately, black composers/performers took it upon themselves to appreciate the true artistry of Ragtime, and its legacy has been preserved to this day.