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Ragtime, as a Form and a Fad
Ragtime is a musical composition for the piano comprising three or four sections containing sixteen measures each which combines a syncopated melody accompanied by an even, steady duple rhythm. If there is one incontestable statement which can be made about ragtime, it is that ragtime is a paradoxical art form with a perplexing history. In an age of rigid racial divisions, ragtime appeared as a racially ambiguous commodity whose earliest composers had no common racial identity, nor the desire to promote their music under an ethnic banner.
Though ragtime constitutes a concrete musical idiom with more tangible structural features than jazz, its distinguishing musical characteristics were lost upon its early promoters and contemporary listening audience, and, thanks to a long tradition of erroneous commentary on the subject, remain muddled to this day. Although ragtime's compositional history must be discerned mostly through musty sheet music scores, it began as a performance medium. Early ragtime leaders viewed such scores as a point of musical departure, if they were able to read them at all. While ragtime's commercial history is inseparable from mainstream American popular music, where it played a prominent role between 1906 and the First World War, the composer who developed ragtime into a profitable commodity —Scott Joplin—seemed curiously innocent of crass commercial impulses, and remote from ragtime's lively tradition as a performing art.
By all rights, ragtime should have enjoyed little popularity, for it was far more complex than the competing pop music of its day and demanded rhythmic techniques that lay beyond the grasp of the amateur pianist for whom sheet music was tailored. Yet it not only became a staple of Tin Pan Alley (the clannish New York publishing houses that monopolized the music industry between 1890 and 1930), but proved so popular that the very word ragtime quickly became an indiscriminate label that was used to confer commerciality upon just about any music. But this is yet another paradox, for the original meaning of the word ragtime itself remains undiscoverable.
So, too, are ragtime's pre-sheet music origins, which were lost in an undocumented lower-class tradition of saloon and whorehouse piano-playing, a tradition comprised of talented free-lance itinerants. Because the nineteenth-century saloon was invariably equipped with a piano, it offered ready employment to any roving pianist who could entertain the all-male saloon audiences of the times. Hence, the saloon became ragtime's earliest performance setting. The typical saloon pianist was hired to provide a pleasant, nondescript background diversion, and was expected to honor requests. It is inconceivable that any of these musicians were restricted to a ragtime repertoire; this would have invited professional suicide. In reality, such now-celebrated "ragtime pianists" as Eubie Blake were all-purpose entertainers. They are not remembered as such now, not because ragtime was their only performing vehicle, but because their other period pieces are less interesting to modern listeners. By the same token, few early composers worked strictly within a ragtime format.
Although early ragtime's detractors made much of its lowly social origins, and even used its presumed racial origins as a means of dismissing the music as an art form, a ragtime that had emerged as a polite parlor pastime would have enjoyed little more prestige. Both its chilly academic reception and the lack of data about ragtime's historical beginnings followed from the fact that it grew in an age when only classical music was considered worthy of serious scrutiny. Most of the written commentary ragtime inspired before its demise as popular music turned solely on the question of ragtime's musical legitimacy, expressing either the writer's individual distaste or, in some instances, enthusiasm for the form.
Ironically, the pompous prejudices that once rejected ragtime largely because it was a pleasurable form of popular entertainment are now responsible for ragtime's current reception as a hallowed art form; the music is now solemnly embraced by classicists precisely because it is construed as something more exalted and serious than mere entertainment. Yet of all ragtime composers, only Scott Joplin had any classical pretensions, and even Joplin was primarily concerned with achieving what he termed a "weird and intoxicating effect" upon the listener.
It was ragtime's relentless syncopation that made the music so striking and unsettling to a public accustomed to a sentimental musical diet of dreary ballads and buffoonish depictions of "darkies." So completely did ragtime mesmerize its turn-of-the-century audience that the word ragtime soon acquired a figurative meaning, synonymous with merry or lively.
As well as creating a new sense of euphoria in American popular music, ragtime represented an unprecedented compositional format. As a musical entity ragtime was, and is, an instrumental work in 2/4 time composed for the piano that combines a syncopated series of melodies accompanied by an even, steady rhythm. Despite the fact that ragtime proved to be a popular recording vehicle for both brass bands and banjos during the first decade of the century, it was seldom conceived for non-piano presentations and was generally ill-suited for it. The most sophisticated solo banjo rendition of a ragtime composition could produce only a one-dimensional melodic rhythm instead of the contrasting melodic and accompaniment rhythms made by the piano. By virtue of the fact that ragtime's melodies are too abstract and pianistic to be vocalized or even hummed, and its syncopations too elaborate to lend themselves to dancing, ragtime renounces these two basic components of American pop music and black folk music. The customary view of ragtime as a kind of musical hybrid created by someone with a Caucasian cortex and an African central nervous system shortchanges the significance of this renunciation, which Tin Pan Alley sought to obscure by labeling ragtime as dance music.
A ragtime composition typically contains three or four distinct sections, each consisting of sixteen measures, and each a self-contained entity. In its serial presentation of melody, ragtime resembles the waltz or march rather than classical or jazz music, which give freer play to thematic development and variations. Structurally, the rag most resembles the march, which likewise consists of three or four sections. A march-like rhythm is produced by the left hand of the ragtime pianist, which accents the first and third notes of a measure in contrast with the syncopated right hand. This march-like flavor was undoubtedly a self-conscious device on the part of the earliest ragtime pianists, probably reflecting the fact that marches, such as Sousa's famous Washington Post of 1889, were often published for piano, and formed a basic part of the nineteenth-century popular piano repertoire.
The syncopation for which ragtime was chiefly noted, on the other hand, cannot be attributed to any one source. As a musical device, syncopation had an age-old association with black music and had long since been appropriated by minstrel banjoists by the time the first ragtime composition was published in 1897. But the syncopated patterns appearing in most subsequent ragtime were of a non-banjoistic character, which is not surprising, considering the fact that the piano had no place within the minstrel show. Moreover, ragtime presented a unique approach to syncopation that was found nowhere in the realm of previously published music, or even in the black folk music that was belatedly recorded in the 1920s. It was not a syncopated treatment of a straight-laced song, but a music whose melodies were conceived as fully syncopated. The distinction between ragtime and other styles of music containing syncopated elements was thus qualitative, not quantitative.
The now familiar ordering of ragtime's strains was copied from Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag of 1899. In 1906, when Maple Leaf Rag had sold nearly a half-million copies, the publication of Charles Leslie Johnson's Dill Pickles—A New Rag was destined to inspire the pattern for the hundreds of popular Tin Pan Alley rags. The "new" qualities were a shortened format from four to three sections and the use of the "three-over-four" pattern of syncopation.
The carefully-wrought framework of Maple Leaf Rag was new for its time and brought a measure of stability and precision to a form that had been previously marked by capricious key changes and an unschematic presentation of different sections. It amounted to five parts, with all but the third consisting of a sixteen-measure melody repeated once: AA BB A CC DD. Each part (except the third) was thus given the thirty-two measure value of the typical pop song chorus. The return to the initial strain (A) in the third part derived from familiar dance forms like the polka and the Schottische. This subdominant section (cc) which became a basic ragtime harmonic ingredient, is commonly termed the "trio," after march vocabulary.
Under the homogenizing influence of Tin Pan Alley, ragtime was not only given a predictable format but was invariably simplified, particularly in the left hand, to make it accessible to amateur pianists. Had ragtime been a purely compositional medium, its Tin Pan Alley presentation would have had a blighting effect on the form. But only the mediocre ragtime performer, who lacked the capacity to create his own individual flourishes, was ever limited by ragtime sheet music. Even Joplin, who took a strict view of ragtime as an unalterable written form, was willing to add bass embellishments to the seven rags he produced as piano rolls and thus leave his own performance signature for posterity. His protégé S. Brun Campbell would recall turn-of-the-century ragtime pianists thus: "None of the original pianists played ragtime the way it was written. They played their own style ... if you knew the player and heard him a block away, you could name him by his ragtime style." A similar observation was offered by Axel Christensen, a Chicagoan who began teaching ragtime to amateurs in 1903 and would author a series of best-selling instruction books on the subject: "In 1902 and 1903 there was no accepted method or system of playing ragtime ... no two pianists ever played syncopated numbers alike."
Unfortunately for the music historian, this emphasis on individuality makes it impossible for modern-day ragtime musicians to convincingly re-create the lost styles of legendary ragtime figures; when an artist like Jelly Roll Morton offers pianistic impressions of his idol Tony Jackson, he scarcely suppresses his own distinct musical personality in the process. Because commercial record companies ignored piano ragtime (preferring band and banjo renditions), the true diversity of the form can no longer be fully appreciated.
If Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths and arrangers ultimately converted ragtime into a cut-and-dried formula and obliterated much of its performing intricacy, it was nevertheless Tin Pan Alley's very promotion of the form that proved decisive in keeping it before the public. As a continuing vogue, ragtime was almost single-handedly fostered by the largest Tin Pan Alley publishing house, Jerome H. Remick and Company, which issued more ragtime compositions than its next ten competitors combined. The pivotal figure behind this commercial commitment to ragtime was Remick's manager, Charles N. Daniels, a highly successful songwriter whose sponsorship of the form actually preceded its emergence as pop music. While managing the Kansas City publishing firm of Carl Hoffman, Daniels had accepted Scott Joplin's early ragtime manuscript, Original Rags, in December of 1898. Upon becoming the head of Remick's predecessor, Whitney-Warner of Detroit, he arranged for the company's acquisition of both Original Rags and another previously-published Hoffman rag, the 1901 hit Peaceful Henry by E. Harry Kelly. After transferring to Remick, Daniels acquired Dill Pickles from Hoffman. Thereupon he seems to have indiscriminately accepted nearly every ragtime composition submitted to him before leaving the company in 1912, and his successor at Remick, Mose Gumble, would follow the same policy over the next five or six years, until ragtime went the way of all fads. Remick issued some five hundred rags, or roughly a sixth of the entire published ragtime output.
Tin Pan Alley's largest output was vocal music, so it was inevitable that rag songs would appear once instrumental ragtime assumed fad-like proportions. The so-called "ragtime song" was a genre whose very name was a contradiction in terms. Like the bona fide ragtime it pretended and was popularly taken to be, the ragtime song enjoyed huge popularity, resulting in such successes as Ted Snyder's Wild Cherries Rag of 1908 (which had originally sold nearly a million copies in instrumental form), Percy Wenrich's Red Rose Rag (a 1911 composition that could have passed muster as a three-theme ragtime instrumental had it not been vocalized), and such Irving Berlin favorites as That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune (a syncopated treatment of Mendelssohn's Spring Song appearing in 1909), The Grizzly Bear (another work of instrumental origin, co-authored with George Botsford in 1910), Ragtime Violin (1911), and That Mysterious Rag (1911). Some two thousand such songs were published, two-thirds the number of authentic piano rags. The hack-like, "hokum" nature of the typical ragtime song was not lost upon the composers themselves, as the lyrics of Louis A. Hirsch's The Bacchanal Rag (1912) indicate:
Take some music,
start to fake some music in a lag time
Then you have some ragtime.
Steal from the masters any classic you see
Rag it a little bit with his melody
Don't try at all to hide
Call it the Gaby Glide
No matter what it may be
Other writers will give brother writers inspiration
Handy op'ra will be dandy just for syncopation.
Indeed, it was the oversimplified view of ragtime as a musical synonym of syncopation that gave rise to the ragtime song itself and inspired the popular game of "ragging" the classics. Yet the notion that ragtime could be created merely by giving a syncopated bounce to any pre-existent melody had been used as an arranging gimmick by Tin Pan Alley even before the first published ragtime composition appeared in 1897. In 1896 Max Hoffman, an orchestrator for the firm of Witmark and Sons, had furnished the company with what he termed "rag accompaniment" sections for choruses of various then-popular "coon" songs, including Ernest Hogan's All Coons Look Alike To Me and W. T. Jefferson's My Coal Black Lady. The following year Witmark would issue a Hoffman-arranged Rag Medley comprised of six such song choruses and a complete version of Ben Harney's Mister Johnson, Turn Me Loose, all rendered as syncopated instrumentals designed for the amateur pianist. A similar Hoffman compilation containing nine songs, Ragtown Rags, appeared in 1898. Ben Harney's Ragtime Instructor, which Sol Bloom of Chicago published in 1897, would carry this notion of syncopated transformations even further by converting a semi-classical tune (Annie Laurie), a hymn (Come Thou Fount), and a show tune (The Man That Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo) into "ragtime."
Excerpted from Rags and Ragtime by David A. Jasen, Trebor Jay Tichenor. Copyright © 1978 David A. Jasen. Excerpted by permission of DOVER PUBLICATION, INC..
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