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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