king of ragtime

Almost every scene of a busy saloon in western movies features a piano player banging away at a dusty keyboard. Most tin-eared listeners, however, don’t recognize the ragtime music style he (hardly ever she) is playing. The iconic piano player is also an integral part of modern flics such as “The Sting,” whose soundtrack was a famous ragtime tune called “The Entertainer.” The late nineteenth century musical style was actually a forerunner of both blues and jazz music.

What, exactly, was this oddly named music then? Ragtime was a syncopated (placing rhythms where they would not normally be, i.e. a “ragged” technique) musical style. In a word, it was the predominant style of American popular music from about 1899 to 1917. As Wikipedia puts it: “Ragtime evolved in the playing of honky-tonk pianists along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers in the last decades of the 19th century.”

As with most musical styles, a single performer steps up to improve it so much that he or she becomes known as the “king” or “queen.” In ragtime, that performer came from northeast Texas. “In the early 1880s, a young African American boy in Texarkana named Scott Joplin was trained in the fundamentals of classical music and opera by his German-born teacher. Born near Linden [Texas], Joplin was the son of a former slave — and a budding musical talent. By his early twenties, he left home to become an itinerant musician. While living in St. Louis, Joplin encountered a kind of music that juxtaposed a steady, bouncing bass with a syncopated treble: ‘ragged time,’ or ‘ragtime.’ The music was played in saloons and brothels, and in Joplin’s hands, it became high art, states the online blog houstonpublicmedia.org.

Ragtime composer Scott Joplin (1868–1917) became famous after publishing the “Maple Leaf Rag” (1899), “The Entertainer” (1902), the lesser-known “Pineapple Rag” (1908) and many others. However, Joplin was later forgotten by all but a small, dedicated community of ragtime aficionados until the major ragtime revival in the early 1970s. But for at least 12 years after its publication, “Maple Leaf Rag” heavily influenced subsequent ragtime composers with its melody lines, chord progressions or metric patterns, points out americanhistoryusa.com.

Perhaps the most unforgettable ragtime song was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,”(1911) composed and performed by a young Jewish-Russian immigrant named Irving Berlin, who later became a great American composer whose music (e.g. “Blue Skies” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business”) counts for a great portion of the Great American Songbook. Also an intuitive businessman, Irving Berlin was a co-founder of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers). 

Ragtime piano tunes were so catchy that they inspired a new ragtime two-stop, two step dance, especially after the 1902 publication of Joplin’s “The Ragtime Dance” tune. “The sparkling and intoxicating rhythms of ragtime, with music by composers such as Scott Joplin, ushered in an era of expressive ballroom dancing, with dances that did not need formal training but which encouraged individualism,” explains the Library of Congress website. Part of lyrics for “The Ragtime Dance” go like this:

“Let me see you do the ‘ragtime dance’

Turn left and do the cake walk prance

Turn the other way and do the ‘slow drag’

Now take your lady to the world’s fair

And do the ‘ragtime dance’.”

The cakewalk, a strutting dance of African-American origins, was not performed in classy (white) ballrooms until Scott Joplin’s music came along. The slow drag featured the dragging of the left foot on certain beats and the right foot on others. Neither dance worked well with fast music. “Take your lady to the world’s fair” was a reference to the 1893 Columbian Expo in Chicago where Middle Eastern belly dancing was first introduced publicly.

But the speed of such dancing was not the main point. It had more to do with a break away from the strict moral code of Victorian behavior of the 19th century in favor of a dance that came from the “wrong side of the tracks.” As writer Douglas Thompson puts it in his 2014 book Shall We Dance?, “The dance floor is turning into a barnyard…these dances with their shoulder shaking, slouching and tight embrace are stomping and wiggling their way from rowdy west coast honky tonks, bordellos and lower class dance halls to every ballroom across the nation.”

Many people in those days considered the new dance styles vulgar and “paths to hell” that would lead young, impressionable girls to their ruin. Scott Joplin himself, less concerned with a breakdown of morals, cautioned against playing ragtime fast. “Don’t play this piece fast. It is never right to play ragtime fast. When I’m dead twenty-five years, people are going to begin to recognize me,” Joplin once said. How prophetic!

Music afficionados still know who Scott Joplin was. Just look on Youtube.

“The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin: