Introduction

While the perception of ragtime has changed over time, the original sheet music publications of Joplin’s work remain, preserving their creator’s legacy and creative vision. Within these works of art there is more than meets the ear of a passive listener: a rich landscape of sound that provides insight into the origins of a distinctly American style of music, the context in which it was written, and the effects that ragtime would have on later styles of music.

Ragtime is the earliest widely-published style of music to have originated in the United States, and an understanding of it facilitates a better understanding of not just American music history, but American history in general (Library of Congress). It was a product of the times, born in the 1890s of a large, predominantly African-American, transient musician population in the Upper South and Midwest, with roots in the social dances of the Antebellum South. As a genre, ragtime experienced peak popularity between 1895 and 1918 (Berlin 1994: 6). 

The King of Ragtime, Scott Joplin, rose to prominence in 1899. He published 53 piano compositions, ten lyrical songs, an opera, and three revised excerpts from the opera over the next 18 years prior to his death in 1917. He is revered as the most talented ragtime composer, playing a crucial role in the popularization of the style. In The Collected Works of Scott Joplin, all but three of his known works have been compiled in their original state, including the cover designs (Brodsky Lawrence 1971: vii). Preserved as they are, the musical composition, cover designs, and copyright information enable multiple levels of analysis providing a better understanding of the period they were created in. The original publications are artifacts of their era, and interpretation contributes more than mere observation to a full appreciation of their value.

An examination of the way ragtime was received by the public during the Ragtime Era (1895-1918), during its revival in the 1970s, and today will accentuate the value of Joplin’s original compositions as artifacts which preserve their era, even as public appreciation and understanding ebbs and flows.

Origins of Ragtime

In her article, “The Riches of Ragtime,” Patricia K. Shehan states that, “an assessment of popular music is vital to an understanding of our music heritage” (Shehan 1986: 22). Popular, or vernacular music was essential in the rise of the ragtime style, and an understanding of its origin provides a case study in the process of creolization in music. Ragtime is unique in that it lies on both sides of the divide between popular and classical music. Rhythmically rooted in the social dances and vernacular music of the Antebellum South, and taking its formal structure from European classical styles such as the march and waltz (Shehan 1986: 22). For the unacquainted, clips below of the classic “Wedding March” by Felix Mendelssohn, followed by a ragtime version of the same song, will give a sense of the difference between ragtime and the march.  

Wedding March – Mendelssohn
Ragtime Wedding March

Ragtime owes its heritage to self-taught musicians, influenced by the styles of music that formed on slave plantations in the south. Blending elements of African, Caribbean, and European vernacular music, the most direct progenitor of ragtime is the “cakewalk,” a form of social dance created by slaves living on Southern plantations. Dances like the two-step and waltz were common entertainment among the plantation owners, born out of a European tradition of music. Yet the music at the dances was often played by slaves.

There is some indication that the cakewalk was a subtle act of rebellion, a parody of the formal dances they saw their masters perform. Leigh Whipple, an African American actor, related a story told to him by his nanny in 1901, “Us slaves watched white folks’ parties where the guests danced a minuet and then paraded in a grand march…Then we’d do it, too, but we used to mock em, every step. Sometimes the white folks noticed it, but they seemed to like it; I guess they thought we couldn’t dance any better” (Baldwin 1981: 208; emphasis in original).

Development of Ragtime 

In the years leading up to its publication, ragtime was performed and developed by itinerant musicians, refining styles that had originated on the plantations. In a reversal of the parody of cakewalk, minstrel shows that depicted African American as stereotypical caricatures, were heavily involved in the development and rise of ragtime after the Civil War. Performing in minstrel shows offered the marginalized freed African American population an opportunity to earn a wage. Ragtime’s association with minstrelsy would play a role in its reception both among African Americans and Americans of European descent.

Ragtime was officially acknowledged in the 1890s when the first compositions in the style were published. It was undoubtedly being performed prior to its publication, as itinerant musician practiced and played with each other, competing for status and prizes in contests that encouraged improvisation and mastery of their instruments. Ragtime first achieved a large public audience at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. While not officially part of the exposition, ragtime performed in bars, clubs and dancehalls on the fringes of the fairgrounds attracted the attention of visitors from across the world (Library of Congress). In the years following the World’s Fair ragtime would rise to a prominent position in American music, spurred on by the creative genius of Scott Joplin.

The Early Life of Scott Joplin

Portrait of Scott Joplin, King of RagtimeScott Joplin was born in the late 19th century in northeastern part of Texas. As Edward A. Berlin states in his biography of the King of Ragtime, “the authenticated facts of Scott Joplin’s life are surprisingly scant” (Berlin 1994: 5). While Berlin has gone through great lengths to fill in the gaps, some ambiguity remains. For example, Joplin’s birthdate, officially recorded as November 24, 1868, does not correlate with census data of the time. Nor does his birthplace of Texarkana make sense when you take into account that Texarkana was not established until the 1870s. While these details are not of importance in this discussion, they highlight the inaccuracies prevalent in the biography of man which was recorded, for the most part, after his death.

Joplin was fourth child of Florence Givens, a freeborn African American from Kentucky, and Giles Joplin, a former slave from North Carolina. A housekeeper and a laborer by trade, both of Joplin’s parents played music. His mother played the banjo and sang, while his father played the violin and taught his sons to do the same. Two of Scott Joplin’s brothers, Robert and William would become professional musicians, performing with Scott in their youth and later developing their own careers. The Joplins, especially Scott, placed a high value in education and self-improvement. Scott Joplin was ambitious, even as a child, and his mother was able to purchase a piano for him around 1881 or 1882 (Berlin 1994: 5-7).

Scott Joplin studied under many local music teachers, most notably a German immigrant, Julius Weiss who acknowledge Joplin’s budding talent for the arts and gave him free lessons. It becomes clear through Joplin’s later work that Weiss instilled in him an appreciation for European classical music, including opera.

Beginning a Career in Music

Inspired to make something of himself, Joplin began performing around the age of 16, and left Texarkana during his teens. As an itinerant musician, Joplin traveled the Midwest and Upper South in a period of his life which is especially opaque. What is clear is that during this time Joplin spent time in Sedalia and St. Louis in Missouri, places he would return to later in life.

He was also being exposed to, and participating in the development of a new style of music. Joplin’s classical training, desire for advanced education, and natural ability formed a dynamic stack of skills that enabled him to be at the forefront of the ragtime movement. Quiet and reserved as an individual, Joplin’s ability to write and compose music is what separated him from contemporary performers who were more skilled pianists, but did not have the education or background to compose. The period of his itinerancy becomes clearer in 1893 with reports of his appearance at the Chicago World’s Fair, leading a band and playing the cornet. At this point Scott Joplin and ragtime become intertwined until his death in 1917. Leaving Chicago, Joplin passed through St. Louis before settling in Sedalia where he began a career of composing and teaching that would bring him national acclaim in 1899 with the publication of Maple Leaf Rag.

Maple Leaf Rag was the second composition of Joplin’s that was published, but the first one that included a royalty. Receiving $0.01 for each copy sold brought meager returns at first, but eventually contributed a substantial sum to Joplin’s income as sales rose (Berlin 1994: 52-54). The income he received from royalties did not make Scott Joplin a wealthy man, but it did allow him to concentrate on composing and developing music. His life’s work consists of forty-four original rags, marches, waltzes and one tango; seven collaborative works; a ragtime ballet; and two operas (Brodsky Lawrence 1971: vii). Joplin dealt with racism and the desire of others in his community to segregate society during his life, but operated under the belief that a relentless work ethic, desire to learn, and thirst for self-improvement could overcome his background. While he never quite reached his goals, it was the ideals which he held that enabled his legacy to persist 100 years past his death.

Musical Structure of Ragtime

When the music is played, its sources are subordinated to its overall sound. The complexity of the borrowings and the rapidity of the adaptations are perhaps the clearest examples of how complicated the process of creolization can become for those in search for cultural origins and influence [Abrahams et al. 2006: 29]. 

Rhythm

Ragtime is most commonly associated with syncopation, a rhythmic technique that disturbs the regular flow, accenting the off-beat. While the classical European tradition structures rhythm in a predictable two or three-beat pattern, syncopation subverts that pattern by stressing the back-beat or a note that is off-beat. The figure below displays a standard measure of four-beats, also known as “straight” rhythm, is displayed above a syncopated rhythm (Open Music Theory 2017).

Beat-level syncopation

When played on the piano, the syncopation in ragtime can be heard in the melody (often the right hand), which contrasts the “oom-pah” (often the left hand) pattern associated with marches. Syncopation is a technique that had been utilized occasionally in classical music by the likes of Bach and Chopin, but never in the primary role that it held in ragtime (Nadeau 1973: 58). The syncopation creates a swing and a loose feeling to the music, which contributed both to ragtime’s popularity as dance music, and the critical view of ragtime as a corruptive style capable of driving people mad, “its victims, in my opinion, can only be treated successfully like the dog with rabies,” (Perry 1918: 372). We take for granted what is one of ragtime’s most pervasive contributions to American music as a whole. Syncopation is featured so heavily in popular music today that listening to ragtime hardly feels as revolutionary as it would have in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

Melody

While syncopation receives the most attention, ragtime borrowed other elements with links to the Caribbean and Africa. Other stylistic devices elemental to the structure of ragtime include direction shifts in the melody which create cross rhythms, and melodic chromaticism (Floyd Jr. and Reisser 1980: 172). The cross rhythms created by melodic direction shifts have been referred to as poly-metric, multi-metric, and polyrhythmic (Floyd Jr. and Reisser 1980: 172, and Danberg Charters 1961: 176). Another way to think of this is that the melodies of ragtime are characteristically disjunct, while European classical melodies are characteristically conjunct (Nadeau 1973: 59). Regardless of how it is described, the importance of this feature which results from variations in the rhythmic patterning of a composition has been tied to traditional music of Caribbean slave populations and of Africa, “a natural and subtle celebration of the African concept of musical time,” (Floyd Jr. and Reisser 1980: 173).

Melodic chromaticism, which utilizes a chromatic rather than diatonic scale, is as much a result of the increased popularity of the piano as it is related to African American heritage (Nadeau 1973). Whereas a diatonic scale plays only the notes of the prevailing key, a chromatic scale has more freedom. Part of this freedom comes from the structure of the piano, with all the possible notes laid out in front of the players, as opposed to a strung instrument which would require tuning to a specific key. While it is clear that rhythm played a defining role in ragtime, direction shifts in melody and melodic chromaticism may have played comparable in distinguishing the style from what came before it.

Harmony

Harmonic elements are more rigid and structured, with ragtime almost exclusively written in major keys, and using conventionally structured chords (unlike blues which would arise later). The form of a ragtime composition is also standardized, following the structure of traditional marches (Nadeau 1973: 61). A generic structure, exhibited by Joplin’s “The Strenuous Life” appears below (Floyd Jr. and Reisser 1980: 170).

Formal Structure for The Strenuous Life by Scott Joplin

Within this structural “container,” ragtime composers had a standardized framework, largely borrowed from the European classical tradition, in which they could improvise and explore using the melodic and rhythmic devices essential to what we now know as ragtime (Nadeau 1973: 170).

In his technical analysis of ragtime, Roland Nadeau notes an unbroken chain in the development of music from the African American composers of mid-19th century social dances to ragtime. However, the compositions of social dances, along with the purely vocal spirituals and blues, are not well-documented. This contributes to the significance of ragtime as a means to connect African American music styles of the mid-19th century and earlier to the development of jazz. A. R. Danberg Charters states that ragtime is, “the earliest and most complete statement of the fusion of African and American musical resources,” due to the preservation of their compositional form as published pieces of music (Danberg Charters 1961: 176).

Portrayal and Perception of Ragtime in its Era

Copyrights

Beginning with the way that ragtime was portrayed, an inspection of the cover designs and copyrights of compositions within The Collected Works of Scott Joplin will address who was profiting the most from his work, and how it was designed to attract a largely Euro-American consumer class.

The table below displays the copyright holders for each of Joplin’s compositions included in this study. During his career, Joplin managed only to obtain two of the copyrights to his own work, more commonly relying on individuals with more expendable income that could afford the up-front costs of publishing. While he quickly learned to demand a royalty on sales, Joplin’s profits were meager when compared to his publishers.

Copyright Holder Number of Compositions
Scott Joplin 2
John Stark & Sons 18
Seminary Music Publishing Co., NYC 8
Others 18
Total 46

Ragtime was created by a marginalized population, its most famous composers and performers are predominantly African-American, and they seldom benefitted enough from their creative works to prosper in a society that openly discriminated against them. Unlike the composers of the music, the publishers who enabled the spread of the genre and profited from its popularity were predominantly Euro American.

Joplin was in the minority of individuals whose income allowed some degree of financial independence. Later in life he pursued the publication of an opera, Treemonisha, an ambitious task that did not return the same financial gains as his rags, and the stigma held against him as an African American meant that he had to use his own funds to finally publish the score (Berlin 1994: 198).

Cover Designs

The cover designs of Joplin’s compositions similarly favor Euro Americans over African Americans, as seen in the table below. Note that there are some cover designs which overlap the defined thematic categories used in this analysis. This becomes apparent if you add up the totals for each category. It is also notable that many of the designs paying homage to the African American roots of ragtime depict them in a stereotypical manner, following the precedent set by minstrel shows.

Depiction Number of Compositons
African American themes 8
Euro-American themes 20
Portrait of Joplin 4
Graphic Design 14
Landscape 2
Other (Mexican- and Egyptian-themed) 3
Total 46

As these pieces were being marketed to a predominantly white middle and upper class, the biases in the designs are not shocking. Still, these biases have contributed to a lack of awareness regarding the origins of ragtime music. Outside of Original Rags, one of Joplin’s first compositions which inaccurately prints his attribution as, “Picked by: Scott Joplin and arranged by Chas N. Daniels,” Joplin did receive the credit for his work (Figure 3, Brodsky Lawrence 1971: 19). This is likely influenced by his rise to fame, and the association between his name and the best-selling Maple Leaf Rag, along with his business acumen that increased in time. 

 

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Public Perception and Critical Reception during the Ragtime Era

Despite its widespread popularity, critics of ragtime were numerous in the Ragtime Era. In newspapers and magazines they attacked the style on three fronts: the African American association with ragtime; citing moral, intellectual, and physical harm endemic to ragtime; and labeling as a fad, soon to fade away.

The racial biases are two-fold, and bleed into the moral stigma. First, some Euro Americans suggested that African Americans should revert to the folk music forms of the Antebellum Era, and cease to develop new styles of music. Intentional or not, it is indicative that many people preferred the role Africans Americans when they were held in slavery, uncomfortable with the changing roles they now had within society.

Another angle in which racial stigma influenced ragtime was among African Americans who wanted to separate themselves from the moral and intellectual stigma of the style. Commonly played in brothels, bars, and dance halls, ragtime was not viewed as proper or fine art by Americans of the time. An article within Colored American Magazine urged African Americans to pursue an interest in the opera rather than lowly ragtime, “At [Operas] the refined and cultured of our race assemble, and from them the Caucasian learns that all of the Negro race are not ragtime characters, but that a great number of us possess a discriminating and cultivated taste for the fine arts,” (Carter 1903: 597).

Joplin’s pursuit of publishing an opera may have been his attempt to achieve greater critical acclaim of a “higher” form of music. He certainly struggled with the notion of attaining legitimacy comparable to the best Euro-American and European composers contemporary to himself.

Moral, Intellectual, and Physical Harm from Ragtime

Moral, intellectual, and physical harm became associated due to the prevalence of ragtime being performed in red-light districts and bars, but it also was related to the syncopated rhythms – as is mentioned above. Similar to rock & roll, these rhythms were sure to drive children wild and frenzied. A critique of the intellectual value of ragtime printed in Arthur Weld’s 1899 article in the magazine, Etude, “The Invasion of Vulgarity in Music,” reads as follows, “There is no element of intellectuality in the enjoyment of ragtime. It savors too much of the primeval conception of music, whose basis was a rhythm that appealed to the physical rather than the mental senses,” (Weld 1899: 52).

“Its victims, in my opinion, can only be treated successfully like the dog with rabies.” – Baxter Perry, Etude 1918

Some critics preferred to declare ragtime as a passing fad, and they were not entirely incorrect. Ragtime did seemingly vanish from public opinion with the rise of swing, big band, and jazz music in the late 1910s and beyond – but the legacy of ragtime persisted in those new forms. The respect given ragtime by musicologists today would shock the authors of articles with titles such as, “Musical Impurity,” “Passing of the Coon and Degrading Dance,” “War on Rag-Time,” “Rag-Time Loses Favor,” “Must Avoid Ragtime,” “Ragtime: A Pernicious Evil and Enemy of True Art,” (Berlin 1980: 58).

Ragtime in Europe

Despite the strong opposition to ragtime achieving status as a classical form of high art in the United States, it was received well overseas in Europe. The renowned Russian-born composer, Igor Stravinsky, spoke highly of America’s music halls (which prominently featured ragtime music). In an article for the New York Tribune he states, “I know little about American music except that of the music halls, but I consider that unrivaled. It is veritable art, and I never can get enough of it to satisfy me. I am convinced of the absolute truth of utterance in that form of American art. …. God forbid that you Americans should compose symphonies and fugues.” Igor Stravinsky, 1916 New York Tribune Article (Wise 1916: 3).

“I know little about American music except that of the music halls, but I consider that unrivaled. It is veritable art, and I never can get enough of it to satisfy me. I am convinced of the absolute truth of utterance in that form of American art. …. God forbid that you Americans should compose symphonies and fugues.” Igor Stravinsky, 1916 New York Tribune Article

Antonín Dvořák, a prominent Czech composer who lived in New York City from 1892 to 1895, was very optimistic about the role that African and Native American populations could have on the development of American music as a distinct style. His composition, Humoresque Op.101-7, emulates the style of ragtime. Similarly, Claude Debussy, an influential French composer during the Ragtime Era, composed Golliwog’s Cake-walk, the title of which suggests its influences. Composer-bandmaster John Philip Sousa, of American descent, observed while in Europe that the royalty of Britain, Prussia, and Russia all admitted to enjoying ragtime (Berlin 1980: 45).

Below you can listen to segments of compositions of Debussy and Dvořák. First, Clair de Lune, a famous piece by Claude Debussy which represents common European styles of the time. Then, Debussy’s interpretation of ragtime, even borrowing the term “cakewalk” to associate it with the United States. The last piece is Dvořák’s take on ragtime, which has a decidedly classical-European feel. While they differed from the music Joplin and other Americans were composing, these works were clearly inspired by the ragtime music of the United States.

It is clear from these examples that the social and cultural elite of Europe had little trouble recognizing the quality of the contributions of ragtime to music in general. Whether this is a result of the distance between Europe and the associations of ragtime with brothels, bars and dance halls; or a result of a Europe harboring less racism towards people of African descent is unclear based on the research for this paper.

Ragtime in the Mid-20th Century and Today

As quickly as it rose to prominence in the public eye, ragtime seemingly vanished from the landscape of American music in the 1920s. Part of this was due to over-saturation of the market by the budding consortium of music publishers located along “Tin-Pan Alley” in New York City. They were able to flood the market with cheap rags, which caused musicians looking to earn a living to look elsewhere. It was not long before the Jazz Age began, and ragtime faded into the background. The role of ragtime in building the foundation upon which jazz was built, should not be overlooked.

Ragtime would remain in the background until the 1970s when the film The Sting (1973) was released. Prominently featuring the works of Scott Joplin in its soundtrack, The Sting was exceptionally popular and won seven Academy Awards, including Best Original Song Score and Adaptation. Marvin Hamlisch’s rendition of The Entertainer even reached number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 music chart in May of 1974. This spawned new interest in the genre, with many books and scholarly articles published during the following decade. This included a novel, Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow published in 1975 that would later be adapted into a hit musical production in the 1990s. A TV movie entitled, Scott Joplin (1977) also speaks to the increased interest in ragtime and its most famous composer.

This period attracted a new generation of performers and composers to revisit the style of ragtime, but the style still struggled to achieve legitimacy. Pianist Tom McDermott, a respected pianist based in New Orleans, was 13 in 1971 when Nonesuch Records released two albums of Joplin’s music that got him hooked. In article promoting his performances of Joplin’s work at the Snug Harbor Jazz Club in New Orleans, he confesses that, “for a long time, I didn’t stress my ragtime qualities because of the stigma. It’s not something I would have wanted to be tagged with in my early years in the city,” (Spera 2017).  

As a teenager, McDermott performed at Shakey’s Pizza, a national chain that employed pianists to play ragtime. This was, at least in part, to blame for a new stereotype of ragtime as hokey or old-fashioned. At this stage in his career he feels more comfortable playing the music he has long loved, he has achieved legitimacy and established himself in the community by playing other styles.

Despite critical recognition of ragtime’s contributions to music, a cursory survey of colleagues, friends, and family revealed that the general public is unaware of the rich history of ragtime and its heritage. It is commonly associated with the early 1900s, player pianos and occasionally people are aware of the African American influence on the style.

Conclusion

Since its inception, ragtime has had an image problem that it has been unable to overcome. It is remarkable that in the past century ragtime has gone from a morally, physically, and intellectually corruptive style to an old-fashioned, generally uninteresting and unimpressive style among the general public. This paper shows that returning to original compositions published during the Ragtime Era reveals far greater detail than exists in social memory. As the earliest well-documented form capturing the creolization of African and American music, the study of ragtime allows a better understanding of the foundation of American music leading into the 20th century.

Similar to artifacts excavated from the soil, preserved original compositions can inform a researcher based on their context. As with ceramics or glass, in-depth analyses of compositions reveal much more than can be readily observed. Musical compositions can be read, like texts, and their context, like artifacts, provide a wealth of knowledge about their cultural background and contemporary meaning.

This analysis can be bolstered through the use of other primary sources, in this case newspaper and magazine articles. Contemporary sources critiquing ragtime illuminate the biases Scott Joplin during his lifetime, and how those biases prevented him and his art to be viewed in the same light as high art of the time. This was due to racism, and the revolutionary sound of ragtime that was viewed as morally, intellectually and physically harmful during the Ragtime Era. In spite of this, Joplin’s creative genius was recognized by some during his lifetime, and by even more after his death.

Today, ragtime still suffers from an image problem, albeit one which views the style as hokey and old-fashioned. Popular associations and criticisms have changed over time, and returning to study the original, published prints of Joplin’s compositions allow us to appreciate his work to a greater degree than relying on public opinion would allow. When preserved in this form, musical compositions can be a plentiful source of information that has since been buried in the past.


Methods

Primary sources investigated for this paper consist of copies of Scott Joplin’s original compositions, including the original cover art and copyright information, as well as newspaper article and critical review of ragtime between 1895 and 1918. The source of the compositions was a collection of Joplin’s work edited by Vera Brodsky Lawrence entitled, The Collected Works of Scott Joplin. As a novice in music theory, the author was aided in analysis of the compositions by secondary sources on the subject, detailing the elements of African and European music synthesized by Joplin and other ragtime composers. Relevant newspaper articles were collected using the Chronicling America Historic American Newspaper archive maintained by the Library of Congress, and Elephind.com. Critical journal and magazine articles written during the Ragtime Era were identified with the help of secondary sources, which referred the author to the primary sources. A variety of secondary sources, especially, King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era by Edward A. Berlin, were consulted to provide historical context and biographical information.


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