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Max Morath : Ragtime Music
Max Morath I think it's possible to say that the music that became known as ragtime was the first true upheaval which had moral and economic consequences, other than musical consequences, in American popular culture. Ragtime, without question, came from what we now call the "underground", underclass young itinerant black male musicians, beginning in the Middle West probably very soon after emancipation, playing pianos where they had been limited before to playing more primitive instruments, the most sophisticated being the banjo, which had a great influence on ragtime. So that you have these very talented young black musicians who are now absorbing all of the music that's around them in the Mississippi Valley, which is wonderful. It couldn't have happened anywhere but the United States of America, because they heard French quadrilles, they heard the Spanish habanera, they heard Baptist hymns, they heard all of this. Plus they heard the European masters. They heard Chopin, they heard Mendelssohn. It all coalesced on the keyboard in a music that took the form of the march, which is a three-part form or a four-part form in two. And the difference was that they interlarded highly sophisticated syncopations. Ragtime is not an unsophisticated music. Rhythmically it's complex because -- and as a piano music now -- the left hand keeps the constant beat, the left hand is the drum or the base section or something. The right hand is constantly interloping. It's constantly going off that beat. And when it does that continuously, it creates -- there's no question about it, it creates an elation. Now we're into something very subjective here, but it creates an excitement. It's impelling. I can't explain why that is, but in the hands of someone that knows how to do it, it's exciting. And, therefore, in the first place, because it came from the black world and young people and was totally new and had dances beginning to be associated with it, which were considered immoral, the whole thing was considered at the time, except by the people who loved it, as gross, an intrusion, bad, whatever you want to say. "This is not good for the American psyche. Ragtime is insidious." Now meanwhile you have all of these wonderful musicians, mostly black, but a few whites who are now doing exactly the same thing, in the same style, beginning to publish.

Eighteen-ninety-nine, late in the year, Scott Joplin's first successful rag "The Maple Leaf Rag" is published out in Sedalia, Missouri. Prior to that, by the way, he had had another rag published in Kansas City. We're talking 1899. Now the underground is finally beginning to surface, to simplify it, and to begin its takeover of popular music, which will take some time. Joplin's rags were not the first rags and it's only fair to say that as much as we, I, love the music of Scott Joplin, who has emerged as "the" master and certainly with good cause, was only one of thousands who were doing this. He happens to have been the best, but to say that Joplin himself, with his emergence in 1899, started the whole thing is nonsense. It would be like saying there was only one rock group in Liverpool in 1962. I mean Joplin was one of many.

Nineteen hundred sees "The Maple Leaf Rag" emerging and becoming known. It wasn't composed. It was copyrighted in 1899. It took it a while to get there. It was published in the little town of Sedalia, Missouri. The publisher then moved it to St. Louis. It snowballed and during the teen years it sold and sold and sold. This is probably the best-selling rag of all time.

Ragtime songs are out there. There is the beginning of syncopation in lyrics of songs. There is the beginning of syncopation in marches and in instrumental pieces, but ragtime as a full development, as "the" thing, as the one that the critics are now saying, "Wow, what's going on here," had not happened yet. It's simmering. It's going to take some time for the pianists, not to mention the ears of Americans, to say, "What is that? Wow, I like that. What are they playing, Harriet? I mean it's exciting. What do they call that? Oh, they call it rag time," two words in those days, they hyphenated, then one word. A phenomenon. Again, we don't know about a lot of this.

The first published rags were in 1897. There were two rags published in 1897 called "rags". Then there were two quiet years when a handful of things were created. Nineteen hundred has a couple of rags published. We have to look back and say it took some time for people to realize that something was going on in music. I don't think we have to look very far to find parallels to this, where the Establishment, for lack of a better term, the critics, the people who can't believe that music can be fun or exciting or change or come from the underground, that it can't come from black people, they are the ones that are saying, "This is garbage. This is trash. This is immoral. It's insidious." I'm not exaggerating. You read a lot of the criticism of the period and it's the end of culture in America for this to happen. That doesn't mean that the People, with a capital "P", didn't love it! It took 'em a while. It took those pianists, mostly women, to figure out, "Oh. Oh, I see. Wow, this is not easy, but is this fun." It took a while.

One of the misconceptions of ragtime is that it was strictly a piano music. Ragtime was everything. By the time we get to 1900 and on, for 15 years ragtime is this, ragtime is theatre, ragtime is in orchestration. It's -- it becomes a term that, frankly, it becomes rather useless because everything was called ragtime, as, for instance, everything in the '60s is called rock. Well, we know that's not true. Every kind of popular music began to be called ragtime and, by the way, when you read in the trade journals and the few serious musical magazines of the time that had anything to say about it, when they talk about ragtime they're talking about songs. They're referring to "Waitin' for the Robert E. Lee". They're referring to "The Dark Town Strutters' Ball". They're not talking about piano rags. Ragtime became a generic term for popular music. Not in 1900, but it began in 1900 and moved forward into the teen years that way. So, yes, I have been saying for years that ragtime's importance was in the liberation of the lyrics of songs. And, again, in 1900 this is happening. This is a pivot.

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