Whenever I think of ragtime music, I think it should be played with a sort of “swing” concept, where certain notes have more of an emphasis. Although this is true this style of ragtime didnt come about until decades after its origin. I did not know Ragtime music had such a historical and racist context. Whenever I heard Ragtime music it seemed to be fun, but I have quickly learned that just like muh of our history it is deeply rooted in slavery.
Ragtime (given this name in the 1890’s) is a mixture of written music and oral tradition, early jazz and classical music, and african american and european music. Ragtime was created by African American musicians. These musicians first used ragtime as just a playing style, performing them in brothels, saloons, and bars. Many of which were places that blacks were [allowed] to perform after the Civil War. Ben Harney was the first musician to publish a ragtime composition, he even went on to call himself the inventor of ragtime. Under the category of Ragtime, cakewalk and coon songs originated. Coon songs were performed by whites in blackface, and Blacks in minstrel shows. These songs portrayed sterotypes directed towards African Americans in the late nintenth and early twentieth century. These sterotypes included laziness, dishonesty, violence, greediness, promiscuity, thieves, and watermelon lovers. The cakewalk derived from slave masters. It’s thought to be white upperclass behavior; involving dignified walking, bowing low, waving canes, doffing hates, and high-kicking grand promenade. The slave couple that performed the best routine would win the cake (reason its called the cake walk) . The cake walk became the most popular dance in the United States and Europe, being performed in places like the World Fair in Chicago and competitions at Madison Square Garden. One popular Cake Walk song was William Krell’s “Mississippi Rag”.
One important word used during the ragtime era is “rag”. Rag was sometimes used as a synonym for handkerchief, when dances would faunt their handkerchief while dancing. If rag is used as a verb (“To rag”) it means to syncopate a tune. The main characteristics of “ragging a tune” were syncopation or shifting accents. Songs, hymns, and marches could all be played during ragtime. Ragging became a technique applied to classical music. Examples of this work are Aubrey Stauffers “That Lovin’ Traumerei”, George L. Cobbs “Russian Rag” and Julian Lenzbergs “Hungarian Rag”.
After learning about these origins of ragtime I’ve come to realized that it was used as both embarassment of our culture and also praise of it. An embarassement because whites used it as a form of mockery and for the most part entertainment. And a praise of our culture because from this birth of mockery Blacks took this genre of music with such negative connotation and turned it into a way to celebrate their history. Ragtime created and gave the world great musicians such as Tom Turpin who gave us ‘Harlem Rag”. So although ragtime came from a place of negativity it evolved into something great.