Episode 5: Ragtime


History of Jazz, Episode 5: Ragtime, the syncopated rhythm

Ragtime, a uniquely American, syncopated musical phenomenon, has been a strong presence in musical composition, entertainment, and scholarship for over a century. It emerged in its published form during the mid-1890s and quickly spread across the continent via published compositions. By the early 1900s ragtime flooded the music publishing industry. The popularity and demand for ragtime also boosted sale of pianos and greatly swelled the ranks of the recording industry. Ragtime seemed to emanate primarily from the southern and midwestern states with the majority of activity occurring in Missouri — although the East and West coasts also had their share of composers and performers. Ragtime’s popularity promptly spread to Europe and there, as in America, soon became a fad.

It is not easy to define ragtime. Like jazz, another distinctly American musical art form, ragtime’s composers, practitioners, and admirers each see its boundaries differently. However, these groups are distinguished by subgroups of purists who generally agree on, and stand by, a precise definition:

Ragtime — A genre of musical composition for the piano, generally in duple meter and containing a highly syncopated treble lead over a rhythmically steady bass. A ragtime composition is usually composed three or four contrasting sections or strains, each one being 16 or 32 measures in length.

This definition describes much of the music of the itinerant pianists who traversed the South and Midwest and eventually congregated in Missouri to produce an oeuvre of core ragtime compositions. These roving composers include Scott Joplin, Charles Hunter, Thomas Turpin, Louis Chauvin, Charles L. Johnson, and many others.

Ragtime, the word, probably began life as a description of musical meter and certainly preceded the advent of the music of Joplin, Scott, and others. It was part of the late 19th century-lexicon to use “-time” as a suffix to describe a kind of music by the characteristics of its rhythm. For instance, waltzes were referred to as being “in waltz-time.” “March-time” and “jig-time” also described the meter, basic rhythm, and function of style. Almost certainly, however, the term is a contraction for “ragged time,” denoting a style of playing piano or banjo where the melody is “broken up” into short, syncopated rhythms while a steady overall beat is either played (piano) or implied (banjo). Taking a simple, conventional, and unsyncopated melody and breaking up the rhythm was known as “ragging,” therefore, the resulting music was said to be in “ragged time.”

Americans were first exposed to ragtime, en masse, at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. It is reported that some 27 million people passed through the Fair gates between May and October of that year. In 1896 “rag” and “rag time” were used to describe some newly published “coon songs,” complete with outrageous parodies of black culture and speech. Among them was “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” composed by black entertainer, Ernest Hogan. The second chorus offered a syncopated accompaniment, composed by Max Hoffman, along with the caption “Choice Chorus with Negro ‘Rag’ Accompaniment.” Also during 1896, the cover of Ben Harney’s song “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon but You Done Broke Down” featured a banner proclaiming “Original Introducer to the stage of the new popular ‘Rag Time.'” The following year saw the first published piano rags beginning with W. H. Krell’s “Mississippi Rag.”

Syncopation — The “Misplaced” Beat

Ragtime was both exciting and threatening to America’s youth and staid polite society, respectively. The excitement came from syncopation–the displacing of the beat from its regular and assumed course of meter. Syncopation caused an individual to feel a propulsion, swing, and if played correctly, a musical looseness generally unknown to the public at large. The threat came from the very same displaced beat that evoked a strong connotation to the “low-class” Negro music found in brothels and saloons. The Midwest, particularly postbellum Missouri, was rife with saloons, brothels, and cabarets–all places where a pianist with a decent repertoire could earn a decent living.

The syncopated motif:

Example of syncopation

when counted in 2/4-time yields a feel of “short – long – short,” (with a fourth sound added for definition), is the most common syncope found in ragtime. It comes from the cakewalk, a high-stepping dance popularized on the minstrel stage and which often served as the show’s finale. Syncopations in the genre of piano ragtime are varied and intricate as well as simple.

This motif and more complex syncopations were commonly heard in “head” music (music played totally by ear) performed in the Caribbean, the southern states, and the Georgia Sea Islands. However, they are rarely found in published American music prior to the mid-1880s.

The complexities of non-written or “head syncopations” heard in rhythms of black slaves are addressed by music historian H. Wiley Hitchcock. He explains that the “…emphatic use of syncopation by American Negroes, partly derived from African drumming, partly derived from Afro-Caribbean dance rhythms.” He then quotes from an 1835 letter to Edgar Allan Poe in which a friend describes a musical performance of some slaves in a practice known as “clapping Juba” (“Juba” is thought to refer to the English dance-name “jig.”) The text is a remarkable testimony to the survival of syncopated elements in African drumming:

“There is no attempt to keep time to all the notes, but then it comes so pat & so distinct that the cadence is never lost. . . Such irregularities are like rests and grace notes. They must be so managed as neither to hasten or retard the beat. The time of the bar must be the same, no matter how many notes are in it.” (Music in the United States, 120)


Much of what became the key ingredients of ragtime came from self-taught and largely uneducated musicians: slaves; hill folk of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and the Carolinas; and minstrel-troupe musicians. The popularity and portability of the banjo, guitar, mandolin, and violin made these the instruments of choice for these itinerant musicians.

The Heart of Ragtime

Missouri, located in the center of America, was the heartland of ragtime. As noted by popular music historians David Jasen and Gene Jones, “There were more rags–and more good rags–from Missouri than anywhere else.” (That American Rag, 1) Perhaps it was the robust pioneer spirit that thrived in Missouri that created the environment for music like ragtime to flourish.

“…Missouri was destined by its location to be an area of commercial, social, and cultural change. Since the early nineteenth century, St. Louis has served as midpoint and stopover for north-south traffic on our largest river, and when going west was a national imperative, the city was the ‘Gateway to the West.'” (TAR, 1)

During the 1880s, black entrepreneurs prospered in the sporting district of St. Louis, known as Chestnut Valley. John L. Turpin, a black businessman from Savannah, Georgia, made St. Louis his home in 1887 and opened a saloon called the Silver Dollar.

Turpin’s teenage son, Tom, followed closely in his father’s footsteps and by 1897 had opened his first saloon. That same year, young Turpin, also a self-taught pianist, had his composition “Harlem Rag” published by a local lawyer. “Harlem Rag” was a defining piece of piano ragtime and a model for its composers.

By 1900 Tom Turpin had acquired sufficient capital to open a new saloon and brothel, the Rosebud. His two young protégés, Joe Jordan and Louis Chauvin, frequented the establishment. With the constant rollicking, buoyant sound of ragtime, Turpin, Jordan, Chauvin, and many other enthusiastic proponents of the new music, made the Rosebud and St. Louis the capital of ragtime.

The regular flow of traffic through St. Louis and the rest of the state created a demand for accommodations and amenities for travelers. “As Missouri gentrified it became a state where a piano player could make a good living.” (TAR, 2) As their salaries usually were nominal, the nomadic pianists made their best money from tips provided by the patrons of the many saloons and brothels that employed them.

It should be noted that when their music was eventually published, however, their royalties, although welcomed, were insignificant. About a dozen brave publishers risked putting some of this engaging, new music on sale to the public.


The most influential and memorable publisher was John Stark, a Civil War veteran and peripatetic ice cream salesman who loved music. He settled in Sedalia in 1886, opened a music store, and eventually turned to publishing. Stark met Scott Joplin in 1899 when the latter came into Stark’s store to demonstrate his still unpublished “Maple Leaf Rag.” Although Stark was impressed by the musicality of the piece, the technical difficulty of the piece led him to question its salability.

After some encouragement from his son, John Stark agreed to publish “Maple Leaf Rag” thus beginning a profitable business relationship for himself and Joplin and insuring immortality for ragtime. By 1914 “Maple Leaf Rag” had sold 1 million copies and Stark had amassed over 50 rags in his catalog.

In addition to Joplin, Stark’s stable of ragtime composers included James Scott, Joseph Lamb, Artie Mathews, J. Russell Robinson, and others. Stark’s original assessment and question about ragtime became a reality–it was delightful to the ear and heart although difficult to perform. He came to refer to the rag selections in his catalog as “classic rags.” Composed by musicians of very high standards, they required a refined pianistic ability to perform them correctly. As a result, most of the “classic rags” were not bestsellers.

Missouri was also home to composer Arthur Pryor, who was born in St. Joseph in or around 1870. Pryor grew up playing in his father’s band. Best known as a trombonist, Pryor wrote some of the most successful ragtime selections of the era. Some of his better-known rag titles are: “A Coon Band Contest,” “Razzazza Mazzazza,” “That Flying Rag,” and “Frozen Bill.” Although these compositions were published as piano solos, they achieved greater fame as band selections.

As assistant conductor and solo trombonist for the famous band of John Philip Sousa, Arthur Pryor helped spread the ragtime craze to Europe when the Sousa band toured there in 1900. Not only did he compose most of the band’s ragtime material, but he also taught the Sousa musicians how to play the syncopations in a relaxed, unhurried way–the way that he heard it back in Missouri.

The Sound of Ragtime

By the early 1890s Americans had become infatuated with the multi-strained “March and two-step,” which was basically the same as a march. Always in 2/4 or 6/8 meter, there was something stirring and optimistic about these pieces. Both meters yield a “two feel,” but 6/8 has its intrinsic triple feel that creates a far-reaching swing. In fact, 6/8 two-steps were often referred to as “swings” as were the steps danced to them.


The ragtime compositions by Joplin and his circle were solely in duple meter and had a different sort of swing to them. A 6/8 two-step encouraged a more aerobic style of dance due to its broad swing. Ragtime’s syncopations within the measure (and often over the measure), however, led to smaller and more gyrating dance steps, resulting in a series of popular “animal” dances such as the grizzly bear, bunny hug, turkey trot, and others.

Syncopation in ragtime was varied and more complex than the simple cakewalk. The syncopated rhythms found in the best rags were meant to evoke a looseness, natural flow, and drive recreated by reading and performing the music exactly as written. If performed correctly, the effect of the syncopation against the steady duple meter bass created an air of excitement and spontaneity not inherently found in most published music of the time.

— original source: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ —

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