Ragtime: Happy Music with a Dark Past

By AnnaLiza Carey

The origins of ragtime extend far beyond the ice cream truck theme song which has continued to popularize its sound for generations to come. In the 1600s, secular instrumental music produced by African Americans began to circulate in the form of syncopated dance music. By the 1890s this new sound evolved into what is now celebrated as the genre ragtime. Ragtime originated in the southern US during the late 18th century and was influenced by cakewalking in African American communities and proved as an evolution of the less intricate styles of classical, European musical compositions. Ragtime is characterized by its “ragged time” of rhythmically broken up melodies most-widely consumed as dance music at its origin.

Widespread circulation and profit of the genre came as a result of recordings and sheet music which dramatically increased the genre’s accessibility, however, African Americans were not necessarily at the forefront of the receiving end of sheet music profit which is where a lot of the money was made; thus virtually robbing originators of ownership and distribution. People around the world also began to compose and perform ragtime styles of songs which let to another pocket of displaced profit.

(There are many videos of ragtime “covers” to songs. The fact that this genre is still inspiring and producing content is amazing, but again, would not have been getting credit or compensation.)

In ragtime, the term “Big Three” was given to the three large composers of ragtime: Joseph Lamb, James Scott, and Scott Joplin. Ragtime is seen as the predecessor of Jazz music where it spread throughout the south and ultimately the world by inspiring syncopated brass bands, then New Orleans-style jazz, and finally early jazz.

Image result for the big three ragtime

During the cakewalk, slaves would perform for their White masters and their company mocking the way that the White people danced (unbeknownst to their audience). Minstrel shows became a commonly consumed form of entertainment of Black people performing, but also White people in Black face. Ragtime is such a beautiful genre that still brings joy to many people, but its origin is rooted in the ugly practice of abusing the African American community as entertainment in a way that undermined our value and our worth. At the same time as celebrating a truly unique musical creation, it became the soundtrack of further mocking and belittlement…. doesn’t that just take the cake.

Image result for ragtime genreImage result for black face minstrel shows

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