Ragtime is an American musical genre, enjoying its peak popularity around the years 1900 to 1918. Ragtime is a dance form written in 2/4 or 4/4 time, with bass notes played on the odd-numbered beats and chords played on the even-numbered beats. Many ragtime pieces contain four distinct themes. Ragtime music is syncopated, with rhythmic accents on the weak beats.
The etymology of the word ragtime is not known with certainty. One theory is that the "ragged time" associated with the walking bass set against the melodic line gives the genre its name.
Ragtime originated in African-American musical communities, in the late 19th century, and descended from the jigs and marches played by all-black bands common in all Northern cities with black populations (van der Merwe 1989, p.63). By the start of the 20th century it became widely popular throughout North America and was listened and danced to, performed, and written by people of many different subcultures. A distinctly American musical style, ragtime may be considered a synthesis of African-American syncopation and European classical music, though this description is oversimplified.
Some early piano rags are entitled marches, and "jig" and "rag" were used interchangeably in the mid 1890s (ibid.) and ragtime was also preceded by its close relative the Cakewalk. However, the emergence of mature ragtime is usually dated to 1897, the year in which several important early rags were published. In 1899 Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag was published, which became a great hit and demonstrated more depth and sophistication than earlier ragtime. Ragtime was one of the main influences on the early development of jazz (along with the blues). Some artists, like Jelly Roll Morton, were present and performed both ragtime and jazz styles during the period the two genres overlapped. Jazz largely surpassed ragtime in mainstream popularity in the early 1920s, although ragtime compositions continue to be written up to the present, and periodic revivals of popular interest in ragtime occurred in the 1950s and the 1970s.
Some authorities consider ragtime to be a form of classical music. The heyday of ragtime predated the widespread availability of sound recording. Like classical music, and unlike jazz, classical ragtime was and is primarily a written tradition, being distributed in sheet music rather than through recordings or by imitation of live performances. Ragtime music was also distributed via piano rolls for player pianos. A folk ragtime tradition also existed before and during the period of classical ragtime (a designation largely created by Scott Joplin's publisher John Stark), manifesting itself mostly through string bands, banjo and mandolin clubs (which experienced a burst of popularity during the early 20th Century), and the like.
A form known as novelty piano (or novelty ragtime) emerged as the traditional rag was fading in popularity. Where traditional ragtime depended on amateur pianists and sheet music sales, the novelty rag took advantage of new advances in piano-roll technology and the phonograph record to permit a more complex, pyrotechnic, performance-oriented style of rag to be heard. Chief among the novelty rag composers is Zez Confrey, whose "Kitten on the Keys" popularized the style in 1921.
Ragtime also served as the roots for stride piano, a more improvisational piano style popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Elements of ragtime found their way into much of the American popular music of the early 20th century.
Although most ragtime was composed for piano, transcriptions for other instruments and ensembles are common, notably including Gunther Schuller's arrangements of Joplin's rags. Occasionally ragtime was originally scored for ensembles (particlularly dance bands and brass bands), or as songs. Joplin had long-standing ambitions for a synthesis of the worlds of ragtime and opera, to which end the ragtime opera Treemonisha was written; it is still performed today. An earlier opera by Joplin, A Guest of Honor, has been lost.
Styles of ragtime
Ragtime pieces came in a number of different styles during the years of its popularity and appeared under a number of different descriptive names. It is related to several earlier styles of music, has close ties with later styles of music, and was associated with a few musical "fads" of the period such as the foxtrot. Many of the terms associated with ragtime have inexact definitions, and are defined differently by different experts; the definitions are muddled further by the fact that publishers often labelled pieces for the fad of the moment rather than the true style of the composition. There is even disagreement about the term "ragtime" itself; experts such as David Jasen and Trebor Tichenor choose to exclude ragtime songs from the definition but include novelty piano and stride piano (a modern perspective), while Edward A. Berlin includes ragtime songs and excludes the later styles (which is closer to how ragtime was viewed originally). The terms below should not be considered exact, but merely an attempt to pin down the general meaning of the concept.
- Cakewalk - A pre-ragtime dance form popular until about 1904. The music is intended to be representative of an African-American dance contest in which the prize is a cake. Many early rags are cakewalks.
- Characteristic March - A pre-ragtime dance form popular until about 1908. A march incorporating idiomatic touches (such as syncopation) supposedly characteristic of the race of their subject, which is usually African-Americans. Many early rags are characteristic marches.
- Two-Step - A pre-ragtime dance form popular until about 1911. A large number of rags are two-steps.
- Slow Drag - Another dance form associated with early ragtime. A modest number of rags are slow drags.
- Coon Song - A pre-ragtime vocal form popular until about 1901. A song with crude, racist lyrics often sung by white performers in blackface. Gradually died out in favor of the ragtime song. Strongly associated with ragtime in its day, it is one of the things that gave ragtime a bad name.
- Ragtime Song - The vocal form of ragtime, more generic in theme than the coon song. Though this was the form of music most commonly considered "ragtime" in its day, many people today prefer to put it in the "popular music" category. Irving Berlin was a famous composer and Gene Greene was a famous singer in this style.
- Folk Rag - A name often used to describe ragtime that originated from small towns or assembled from folk strains, or at least sounded as if they did. Folk rags often have unusual chromatic features typical of composers with non-standard training.
- Classic Rag - A name used to describe the Missouri-style ragtime popularized by Scott Joplin, Tom Turpin, and others.
- Fox-Trot - A dance fad which began in 1913. Fox-trots contain a dotted-note rhythm different from that of ragtime, but which nonetheless was incorporated into many late rags.
- Novelty Piano - A piano composition emphasizing speed and complexity which emerged after World War I. It is almost exclusively the domain of white composers.
- Stride Piano - A style of piano which emerged after World War I, developed by and dominated by black East coast pianists. Together with novelty piano, it may be considered a successor to ragtime, but is not considered by all to be "genuine" ragtime.
In the early 1940s many jazz bands began to include ragtime in their repertoire and put out ragtime recordings on 78 RPM records. Old numbers written for piano were rescored for jazz instruments by jazz musicians, which gave the old style a new sound. The most famous recording of this period is Pee Wee Hunt's version of Euday L. Bowman's Twelfth Street Rag.
A more significant revival occurred in the 1950s. A wider variety of ragtime styles of the past were made available on records, and new rags were composed, published, and recorded. Much of the ragtime recorded in this period is presented in a light-hearted novelty style, looked to with nostalgia as the product of a supposedly more innocent time. A number of popular recordings featured "prepared pianos," playing rags on pianos with tacks on the keys and the instrument deliberately somewhat out of tune, supposedly to simulate the sound of a piano in an old honky tonk.
Three events brought forward a different kind of ragtime revival in the 1970s. First, pianist Joshua Rifkin brought out a compilation of Scott Joplin's work on Nonesuch records, winning a Grammy in the classical music category. This reintroduced Joplin's music to the public in the manner the composer had intended, not as a nostalgic stereotype but as serious, respectable music. Second, the New York Public Library released a two-volume set of "The Collected Works of Scott Joplin," which renewed interest in Joplin among musicians and prompted new stagings of Joplin's opera Treemonisha. Finally, with the release of the motion picture The Sting in 1974, which had a Marvin Hamlisch soundtrack of Joplin tunes, ragtime was brought to a wide audience. Hamlisch's rendering of Joplin's 1902 rag The Entertainer was a top 40 hit in 1974.
The most famous ragtime composer was Scott Joplin [pictured above]. Joseph Lamb and James Scott are, together with Joplin, acknowledged as the three most sophisticated ragtime composers. Some rank Artie Matthews as belonging with this distinguished company. Other notable ragtime composers included May Aufderheide, Eubie Blake, George Botsford, Zez Confrey, Ben Harney, Charles L. Johnson, Luckey Roberts, Paul Sarebresole, Wilber Sweatman, and Tom Turpin. Modern ragtime composers include William Bolcom, David Thomas Roberts, Frank French, Trebor Tichenor and Mark Birnbaum. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)
"The “E-C#7-F#7-B7” Ragtime Progression was popular in the early 1900s. The Ragtime Progression follows the Circle of Fifths movement and is similar to the Standard Changes except the “C#m” and “F#m” chords are substituted for their respective Dominant 7th Chord Qualities to create a harder bouncier sounding progression. Bruce Channel’s 1962 hit Hey! Baby, the Rooftop Singers’ 1963 Walk Right In, and Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 Alice’s Restaurant employed this turn of the century chord sequence.....The "E-G#7-C#7-F#7-B7" Five Chord Ragtime Progression, which follows the Circle of Fifths through four changes, was used primarily in the 1920s. Where Blues Progressions tend to be twelve bars, in Ragtime Progressions various sequence lengths are popular. The most popular examples of Five Chord Ragtime are the 1923 Charleston and the 1925 Five Foot Two, Eyes Of Blue." (Excerpt from Money Chords - A Songwriter's Sourcebook of Popular Chord Progressions © 2000 by Richard J. Scott.