What's so belittling (racially) about the term "ragtime'"?

In The Collected Piano Works" of Scott Joplin, the second intro (by Rudi Blesh) states:

“As for serious acceptance, ragtime fared better in Europe than at home where its **very name **was an epithet, a scornful belittling term with strong racial overtones.” (My bolding.)

Specifically, what in hell is/was the epithet?

Wikipedia suggests

“Another thought is that this type of music was used in saloon bars where prostitutes were not available, as they were ‘on the rag’.”

But that strikes me as terribly weak, maybe even too convoluted, especially that Ragtime seemed to have become popular, first in whorehouses where there were always some babes ready and able.

Most other sites, such as reference.com tie the term to the musical time such as

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.

No epithet in that context, I think.

Any suggestions?

The word doesn’t have to form or originate from a racial epithet to become one.

If the genre was looked down upon and associated with black people, it’s easy to see how “ragtime” would become a racially-loaded slur, regardless of the actual origins or definitions of the word.

Some people have the same issues with rap music.

Phew, what a stink, no wonder they call them skunks!

Yaknow, less than an hour ago I watched the Scott Joplin biopic with Billy Dee Williams as the title character. Apparently the music establishment here declared ragtime “common” and described it as “coon music”. Joplin composed the opera Treemonisha as an appeal to the establishment.

There’s probably some musical overlap with ragtime, but “coon songs” were a genre of their own.

I have just read every goddam book ever written on ragtime, for a book I’m working on, and Rudi Blesh is full of it. Both black and white performers used the term “ragtime” as far back at the mid-1890s, also “ragging,” and there was never any bad racial connotation to those words. The music, on the other hand . . .

Now, some people hated ragtime then as much as some people hated jazz, swing, rock and rap later. There certainly was a racial element involved in that, and anti-semitism, too (“second-wave” rag, in the early 1910s, was heavily influenced by Jewish klezmer music from Eastern Europe).

As Case Sensitive correctly notes, coon songs were not necessarily ragtime; they were more pop and novelty numbers; they were written and sung by blacks as well as whites (which doesn’t make them any less offensive, of course). The very popular song “All Coons Look Alike to Me” was written by a black musician.

Thanks Eve! I’m sure you’re right.

After my Blesh quote in the OP “As for serious acceptance, ragtime fared better in Europe than at home where its very name was an epithet, a scornful belittling term with strong racial overtones.”, Blesh goes on to say, "Conscious of this, Joplin himself called the appeleation “scurrilous.”

That’s probably crap, too.

BTW, if you want the 2 intros of my music book, say the word and I’ll **TRY **to scan and send them to you. (The xword puzzles I used to send to another Doper often came out GIGANTIC at her end - even though the copy in my Sent file was normal.

Do you play rags?

Thanks, but I got 'em. When I said “every book on ragtime,” I wasn’t kidding–even the ones from the 1890s-1910s in the Smithsonian collection. It’s for a bio I’m working on for Vernon and Irene Castle, the ragtime dancers of the early 1910s.

That’s not the really tough part: Vernon died in WWI and participated in the Battle of the Somme, and if I get one tiny little detail wrong, the “World War One-ies” will be all over me . . .

Scott Joplin thought of himself as a classical composer and performer; he grew to hate the term ragtime and the “bastardized” music it came to represent by 1910 or so.

The curious thing (well one of them, anyway) is that Mozart and Joplin are properly played “portato”. That is, in an unconnected manner, as opposed to legato, but not as short as staccato. (I think portato is the correct musical term.)

If you listen to Josh Rifkin’s CD of Joplin Rags…


,and Alfred Brendel’s CDs of Mozart: The Great Piano Concerts…

you’ll hear that magical detached quality.

I hope your book is a huge success, Eve. I’ll buy a copy if you’ll let me know when Amazon has it. Honest.

Thanks–I’ll settle for “makes my investment back.” We’re looking at '07 publication (summer or fall, I’m guessing). Gotta finish the darned thing first!

(By the way, my favorite ragtime band is James Reese Europe’s . . .)

According to the Wikipedia entry for Ragtime:

That entry is yet another reason not to trust Wikipedia . . .The “coon” song remained quite popular up till about 1920 (I have many examples on 78s from the 1910s), and ragtime first became popular around 1896, remaining so till jazz took up the baton around 1917.

I’m not even going to click on the rest of the link, my head would probably as-plode if I read the whole entry.

I had no idea there were racial overtones to the word “ragtime.”

You learn something new every day.

But that’s Eve’s point - aren’t.

And, Eve, I just popped over to


and caught some tunes by your favorite Ragtime band James Reese Europe’s 369th U.S. Infantry “Hell Fighters” Band .

They’re…uh…quite exuberant. Their music is fresh, spontaneous, and not over rehearsed. l:)

Thanks for the tip.

What does the “rag” in ragtime mean, then? If I was asked to guess, I’d probably guess it had to do with rag curls since they were long popular, but I doubt that’s it. rags=poor?

I’d trust the nice people - and they are nice people, spendidly helpful with questions - over at Parlorsongs {see my earlier link} to know their stuff better than Wiki. Fantastic site, too: wander in to check a quick reference and emerge three hours later dazed and reeling at the sheer amount of work that’s gone into it, presumably for free.

He was in the Somme? I thought he flew and died in a training exercise here in the states. :confused:

He did die in a training flight, in Texas. But before he was “invalided out,” Vernon spent more than a year at the front lines as a pilot, including providing (ultimately useless) air bombardment at the beginning of the battle of the Somme. He was shot down several times during his months at the front (early 1916 through spring 1917) and won the Croix de Guerre for two “kills”–then he was sent back to the US to work as a flight instructor after being shot down again and injuring his leg.

As far as the origin of the word rag, I’m not going to pretend I know! None of the writers on ragtime really knew the origin. That probably was racial, though it might have to do with the “rags” the poor people who first played it wore, be they black or white (early ragtime composer and players were black, white, male, female).

Wow, thanks for the information. I’m probably a bit of one of those people you’d call a “World War Oneie” in that I’m fascinated by that period in time, that particular war and the way it shaped the entire 20th century. I own way more books about the Great War than is probably healthy, my wife and family tease me about it.