Ragtime music emerged in African American communities in the late 19th century. These songs had heavy usage of the piano as well as whistling. However, the element of ragtime music that truly distinguishes it from other genres is the syncopated rhythms played throughout. Around the time that Ragtime music was becoming popular, marches written by John Philip Sousa were already popular. His marches, “The Stars and Stripes Forever”, “Semper Fidelis”, and many others inspired inspired the form of ragtime songs. Both marches and ragtime songs have a repetitive structure composed of several different sections. After both the A and B sections are repeated, there is a repeated trio, followed by an ending that contains elements from both the A and B sections. But as previously stated, it is the syncopation that distinguishes ragtime music from every other genre present at this period in time.
When they first emerged, ragtime songs were sold as sheet music because more and more people were purchasing pianos for their homes. Cakewalks and coon songs were also popular ways for people to be exposed to ragtime music. In a cakewalk, African Americans would dress as slave masters and mimic the behavior of affluent Whites. Coon songs were songs that depicted negative stereotypes of the way African Americans acted and spoke.
One of ragtime’s most profound performers and composers was Scott Joplin. A man by the name of John Stark published Joplin’s music however this was not done through Tin Pan Alley, which at the time was the sheet music publishing hub. Stark believed that ragtime should be regarded the same way that classical music was and since he felt that publishers in Tin Pan Alley did not share that belief, he started his own publishing company. This company, called “The House of Classic Rags” held ragtime music to the same standard as classical music. In an effort to sell more sheet music, Stark moved away from picturing African Americans on the front of the sheet music to make it universally appealing, with the hope that all groups of people would purchase the music. Other prominent performers include James Scott, Tom Turpin, and Adaline Shepherd.
The commercialization of the piano and its presence in numerous homes across the nation really helped to move ragtime music along. It became popular because people heard the music and began playing these same songs in their homes for entertainment. However, it is sad to think that the relationship between ragtime music and entertainment began with the exploitation of black bodies and talent so that Whites could have something to occupy their time at social gatherings. This same trend still exists today as African Americans in music, television, and film are not portrayed in the most truthful or positive ways but it is all so someone can make a quick dime. Despite all this, I think that we tend to forget how influential ragtime was not just to other genres (early jazz) and other musicians. The above title is actually a quote from Hoagy Carmichael, an American composer and pianist. I think that at the time that ragtime music became popular, many people could attest to how much it meant to them and in some cases how it shaped their lives.