Ragtime, with its syncopated composition and exhilarating beat, took America and Europe by storm between 1893 and 1917. In its infancy, Ragtime, a truly American music genre, created an air of excitement and musical looseness not found in other types of music of the time. The Ragtime fad covered a range of musical styles and became a term used to describe things non-musical as well. Its roots were founded in a range of earlier music with African-American influences.
Ragtime emerged on the publishing scene in the mid 1890s and by the early 1900s had overtaken the music publishing industry. It came primarily from the Midwestern and southern states taking its stronghold in Missouri. The East and West coasts had a handful of its own composers and performers. Ragtime got its biggest debut at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, when a reportedly 27 million people visited.
• Library of Congress: History of Ragtime
• Wnur.org: The Ragtime Story
Defining Ragtime is not easy. It is a distinctly American musical form with varying styles and compositions. Theatreorgans.com describes it as a musical composition created for the piano which “consists of a left hand bass part consisting of octaves and chords played on the beat and a right hand melody part which contains several notes which are played between the beats.”
Ragtime is not a simple music style to master, but very sophisticated requiring a great deal of skill. The style evolved with piano players challenging one another in playing energetic songs in the most ragged manner.
• PBS: Ragtime cabaret, listen to music samples
• Theatreorgans.com: Understanding Ragtime
Styles of Ragtime
Ragtime came in a number of different styles and descriptive names during its popularity and are not agreed upon from expert to expert. Some general styles that could be included in an expert’s list might be: Cakewalk, Characteristic march, the two-step, slow drag, coon song, ragtime song, folk ragtime, classic rag, fox-trot, novelty piano and stride piano.
• Ragtime Guitar: Ragtime guitar history
• Parlor Songs: The musical origins of the piano rag
A small revival of Ragtime occurred in the 1940s when jazz bands included Ragtime in their performances and even made Ragtime recordings. A significant revival happened in the 1950s when a wide range of Ragtime styles were made available on records and new Ragtime tunes were recorded. The 1970s brought back Ragtime composer and performer Scott Joplin’s work to the forefront of the music scene when Marvin Hamlisch recorded a rendering of Joplin’s The Entertainer.
• Mickey McCord: Ragtime revivals from the 70s
• Spiritus Temporis: Ragtime revivals
Unequivocally the most famous of the Ragtime composers were Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb, and James Scott. Scott Joplin lauded as “The King of Ragtime Writers” composed and published the most famous piano rag, Maple Leaf Rag, in 1899. By 1909, over half-million copies of the recording had been sold.
Joseph Lamb met Joplin while purchasing Joplin’s sheet music in NYC in 1907; Joplin was impressed with Lamb’s compositions and recommended him to his publisher, John Stark. Stark would go on to publish 13 of Lamb’s records over the next decade.
Joplin met James Scott in 1906 and introduced him to Stark as he had Lamb. Scott went on to have a successful career in music, publishing numerous rags including his first Frog Leg Rag.
• History Matters: An interview with Eubie Blake
• Ragtime Piano: Scott Joplin
• Ragtimemusic.com: James Scott midi files
• Rag Piano: Axel W. Christensen
• Doctor Jazz: George Linus Cobb
• Missouri.org: Clarence H. Woods
• Ragtimers.org: Joseph Lamb
As Jazz came on the music scene in 1917, Ragtime’s popularity began to fade, falling out of favor with the public. However, Ragtime remains a classic musical form having had many revivals over the years and remaining popular with many modern day music fans.