Ragtime : The Prelude to Jazz

Ragtime (1896-1920)

The beginning of the 20th century witnessed the emergence of a new syncopated instrumental music, known as ragtime. Ragtime was different from everything that preceded it. There have been many attempts to explain the term “ragtime”. “Rag” has been identified as both a noun and verb.  As a noun it refers to a particular type of music and may connect to the African American clog dancing that was called “ragging” and the dance itself called “rag”. The term “to rag” as a verb means to syncopate a tune and at the same time “ragging” meant embellishing and decorating melodies. Rhythmic effects such as syncopation, the shifting of accents, were the main characteristics of ragtime usually consists of three or four repeated distinct sixteen measure sections, in the sectional form of AABBACCDD or a variation thereof.

Ragtime is defined by its duality between written music and oral tradition. Its classified somewhere in between early jazz and classical music. Ragtime originated from the genre of folk-blues in the late 1800’s. Ragtime was developed by African-American musicians, many who weren’t skilled in writing not reading, as a playing style.  It was popularized in brothels, saloons, bars, and other places where African- Americans had opportunities to perform after the Civil War.

Ragtime was the classical music of the time. By the 1920’s, ragtime had transformed into what we know to be the jazz genre.

Social Implications:

The social implications can be shown through stereotypes created by the general marketing schemes used along with the genre.

General Market Scheme:

  • Instrumental and vocal Ragtime
  • Cake Walk
  • “coon song”

The cake walk is a parody of white behavior performed by slaves for the slave masters. The behavior included dignified walking, bowing low, waving canes, doffing hats, and a high-kicking grand promenade. The cake walk was competitive dancing where, as defined by Edward Berlin, “the slave couple performing the most attractive steps and motions would ‘take the cake.’”

The coon song was a song style that was often sung by white people in blackface during minstrel shows portraying denigrating and stereotypical lyrics sung in Negro Dialect.


Commodification of the genre is revealed through the selling of ragtime in sheet music. The sheet music was often decorated with images of black people who were shown with big lips, bulging eyes, and eating watermelons. Usually ragtime was published in small numbers snd sold on a few dozen copied.The Maple Leaf (1897) by Scott Joplin, however, was an exception and was the most sold sheet music during rag period. It sold over 1 million copies.

Important performers:

  • Eubie Blake

  • Scott Joplin

  • Ernest Hogan

Although ragtime essentially died out in 1920, the genre lives on forever through jazz and it will always be remembered for its effects on music.

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