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Ragtime Music: Definition, Composers & History

Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

Learn about ragtime music, from its plantation roots to World War I. Meet some of the many composers and become acquainted with some of the music they wrote and then test your knowledge with a quiz!

Introduction

Mention ragtime music and most people think of Scott Joplin thanks to his music being used in the soundtrack of a 1973 film called The Sting. This is somewhat ironic as the story on which that movie is based takes place in 1936 when ragtime was no longer popular. It's likely that Joplin, along with thousands of visitors, first heard ragtime at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (later called the 'Chicago World's Fair'). Even though Joplin eventually became known as the 'King of Ragtime,' it was a musical style he rejected at first. He didn't publish his first rag until 1899.

Scott Joplin
Scott Joplin

Simply defined, ragtime is syncopated melody over a march-like bass line. Another name for syncopation was 'ragged rhythm' or 'ragged time.' The march-like bass line likely came from marches and dances that were called 'two-steps.' It's easy to see why ragtime was popular. The syncopated rhythm of the melodies made for catchy tunes and the strong march-like bass line set people's feet tapping.

Plantation Roots

Have you ever heard the phrase 'that takes the cake'? It comes from southern plantations in the early 1800's. Slaves would exaggerate the ballroom dances they observed by arching their backs and strutting in what were called 'cakewalking' contests. The dances would be performed with banjo accompaniment and bones (real animal bones) played as rhythmic percussion. One instrument would play straight rhythm; the other in syncopation. The grand prize was a cake, hence the familiar phrase.

Since slaves lacked freedom of movement, it was white performers who initially capitalized on this cakewalk dance music. They would blacken their faces and play this music in minstrel shows, touring all over the United States and Europe. These dances were quickly arranged for piano and new ones were being written. Since bars usually had a piano, they became places where ragtime players could meet and perform for one another. While most people think of ragtime as a piano-based form, there were instrumental ensembles known as 'syncopated orchestras' that were popular from about 1910 until the early 1920's. Some composers also wrote ragtime songs.

Early Ragtime

One of the earliest examples of piano ragtime is 'Harlem Rag' composed in 1892 by Tom Turpin. He also owned a saloon in St. Louis called The Rosebud Bar. Another early example is 'Dream Rag' by Jesse Pickett and was possibly introduced at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. It wasn't published, but was recorded in 1896 by Eubie Blake, who claims to have learned it from Pickett. Benjamin Harney (a white American) published the ragtime song 'You've Been a Good Old Wagon but You Done Broke Down' in 1895 and another one called 'Mr. Johnson, Turn Me Loose' the following year. Harney also published a book in 1897 called Ben Harney's Rag Time Instructor which explained how to turn well-known melodies into rags.

Benjamin Harney
Benjamin Harney image

Scott Joplin was trained as a classical musician, so his early works include marches and waltzes. As mentioned earlier, he avoided composing in the ragtime style at first. Scholars believe that when Joplin tried his hand at writing rags, his classical formation helped elevate them to a whole new level. It's likely he also went back to some of his earlier works and 'ragged' them. Joplin's most popular rag (until The Sting) was 'Maple Leaf Rag' (1899). Thanks to its use in the film score, 'The Entertainer' rag of 1902 has since become better known.

Early Twentieth Century Composers

Another famous ragtime composer named James Scott was descended from slaves and moved to St. Louis in 1906 where he met Joplin. Joplin helped Scott get his works published beginning with the hit 'Frog Legs Rag.' Joseph Lamb, a composer of Irish descent was in New York when he met his idol, Scott Joplin. Joplin was impressed with Lamb's compositions and also helped him get published. Lamb's first success was 'Sensation Rag' of 1908 and went on to publish several popular rags through 1919.

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