Where was "ragtime" born?

Where did the musical style known as ragtime begin?

I know, I know, cafe is for all things entertainment - but this should have a factual answer.

The earliest use of the word “ragtime” pertaining to music that I can find is from 1896, in an article discovered by Barry Popik and posted to the American Dialect Society Mailing List in 2003.

Wikipedia is a good place to start with this kind of question:

The Wikipedia article could use some improvement. You used the word “sonata form.” I do not think that word means what you think it means. :rolleyes:

It’s true that piano ragtime took its formal structure and bass parts from Sousa type march music. The treble part, however, is another story. That’s where the African polyrhythm comes into American music for the first time. The treble piano parts were a way to reproduce the syncopated banjo and guitar pickin’ of rural African-American dance music, especially in the Midwest and along the Mississippi River.

There were plenty of venues for African-American musicians to play in those regions in those days, for the children of freed slaves who had left the plantations and headed West to make their own way in life. There were plenty of parties, saloons, and not to leaves out WHOREHOUSES, the last named being a big part of the reason why “rag-time” was looked down upon by polite society, the other being racism. Sort of like the birth of rebetiko music in the whorehouses and hashish dens of Smyrna about the same time. It didn’t take long before ragtime was the hit all over white America, though, and was soon considered quite tame in comparison to the really wild music it helped to spawn: Jazz.

—Signora Johanna
Lady Pianista di Ragtime

Sur e- that’s why I suggested it as a starting point. And if you can improve on the article, feel free - that’s the joy of Wikipedia!

No I didn’t use that phrases, so take the rolleyes back. If an error in the article causes you such grief, go and change it.

All you ever wanted to know about ragtime.

A little burrowing into this extensive site reveals that Harney’s claim to have written the first Ragtime tune is questionable at best.

As a performing style, Ragtime significantly predates the first printed music which appeared in 1897. It’s generally accepted that the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 drew numerous itinerant ragtimers who traded ideas, and competed, with each other.

Gorilla Man, I wasn’t rolleying at you, and I didn’t mean you when I said “you,” I was apostrophizing the author of the Wikipedia article, and I hoped it would be clear enough, maybe it wasn’t, SOR-ry… One has to say “you” there because of the well-known movie quote from Inigo Montoya. Hello… :smiley:

Spectre of Pithecanthropus, you’re right on for citing the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. That was a great catalyst for blending folk and popular music styles from all over into a hot new sound.

Scott Joplin’s contributions just took the whole thing into another dimension. He had taken classical music lessons as a boy, then studied music theory at a black college as an adult, and never ceased trying to bridge the gap between African-American ragtime and European art music. He believed ragtime had the potential to transcend itself and become an innovative art form. He worked hard at integrating classical music theory with the ragtime form and rhythm while still making it sound appealing. He kept up his music theory studies after he became famous, and worked some complex, sophisticated chromaticism into his later works. Similar to how John Coltrane in the 1960s put consistent hard work into practicing complex, advanced saxphone scales and exercises, to develop the chops needed to take his art into previously unheard-of reaches.

In 1908 Joplin published “Euphonic Sounds,” which I can only call “progressive ragtime” by analogy with “progressive rock.” It remains a one-of-a-kind piece to this day. It isn’t even exactly ragtime any more, it’s a breezy, syncopated rondo fantasia released from the usual pumping bass beat to float and swirl up and down the keyboard.

The ragtime opera Treemonisha was intended as Joplin’s chef d’oevure, his final marriage of ragtime and classical music. But he couldn’t get investors and he sunk all his savings and broke his health trying to produce it himself to little notice. An American genius frustrated from achieving his goals because of racism, who finally won serious critical appreciation over 50 years after his death. Thanks to the Black Power movement, baby. Also, after Coltrane, jazz had gone as far as anyone could dream of taking it. Then it was time to look back to its roots: the blues and ragtime.

For another interesting piece, listen to Pan-Am Rag by Tom Turpin. The first section has a very definite ragtime feel to it, yet has only a few bars of the typical bass pattern. The other sections of the piece, IMO, are not so successful as a piano solo, and possibly the piece was intended for orchestration, or to accompany tap dancers. You can find it to listen to online if you just google a bit.

In the Brooklyn Daily Eagle cite from 1896 which I gave in Post #2 above, the name of Ben R. Harney was misspelled Harvey in the Eagle.

If Harney didn’t write the first rag time tune, then who did? Who’s an earlier claimant? And as far as the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 drawing itenerant ragtimers, can you give me a contemporary cite? If it’s in the Professorbill site, I missed it. I have a hard time using that site.


What is your objection to the phrase “sonata form” in this article? I would definitely say the thematic development of many ragtime pieces certainly does follow sonata form, albeit abbreviated.

“Perfesser Bill” claims that Harney’s Mississippi Rag was really a ‘cakewalk’, which was sort of a precursor to ragtime. Cakewalks, more or less, are marches that have some slight syncopation here and there. Ragtime is improvised or written around the very idea of syncopation. The melody is already syncopated. If you listen to first Mississippi Rag and then Turpin’s Harlem Rag, or Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag, you should be able to hear the difference.

The other argument against Ben Harney is that he’s white…the wrong race. With it so clearly evident that ragtime music grew up among African American musicians in the late 1800s, to suggest that Harney invented ragtime would be like saying Pat Boone invented R&B. Not that there weren’t many very gifted white ragtimers who came along later–they certainly did, and Joseph Lamb is considered the third member of the “troika” of great classic ragtime composers…Scott Joplin, James Scott, and Lamb.

I can understand the objection to the way it is phrased, that ragtime pieces “are written in sonata form”. This implies a strong European influence & tradition, which doesn’t hold up. Using sonata form as a metaphorical description of ragtime structures would be more appropriate.

Thanks for all the great info. You guys have helped me win a bet. I was at a party and a guy said: It has been noted that Heavy Metal is the only form of music invented in the US. I immediately said that Ragtime had its birth here as well. And, I suspect, other forms of music. But at least I can show that I was correct about Ragtime! :slight_smile:

Heavy Metal? He said heavy metal specifically instead of rock & roll? That’s bizarre. Whenever I hear that set-up “a form of music invented in the US” the two types of music that usually follow are jazz or rock, just in general.

Hmmmmm…hip-hop, blues, minimalism, the modern film soundtrack…the guy was clearly an idiot :wink:

I was reading it in a much more general sense, but, upon reflection, more precise terminology should be used as “sonata form” implies much more than just four themes and a recap. I guess the most obvious antecedent of ragtime’s form would be the march or the polka.

Don’t know about the polka, but the idea of the rag form coming from marches does ring true, as far as the arrangement of the sections goes. Musically and rhythmically, on the other hand, I’m not sure you can say the syncopated right hand evolved from marches.

There were also a few rags, like Euphonic Sounds mentioned above, in rondo format, AABBACCAA.

Rondo is not sonata form. Rondo goes something like ABACADAE… etc. Ragtime typically goes AABBACCDD. With the A section reappearing only once, it’s almost like rondo, but not quite. Formally, ragtime takes after Sousa-type marches, especially with two lively themes in the first half followed by a contrasting softer or darker sound for the trio (the C section, if I may be forgiven for calling it that), finished off with a rousing section. This use of the trio is not peculiar to march and ragtime, but goes way back in the European tradition of suites of dance music. Beethoven’s scherzos sometimes use a similar form. Originally, the trio was called that because of its orchestration: most of the band would take a break while only three instruments played the melody. This is how it got its softer reputation.

But whether it’s rondo, march, ragtime, minuet, schottische, scherzo, or polka, all these forms essentially consist of a sequence of discrete sections mostly the same length, and often the same tempo and similar rhythms.

Sonata form is much more complex than any of the above. Its proto form came from the simple suite sequence ABA. It became sonata form by introducing the “development” section, taking thematic material from both A and B, and combining it in original and complex ways, such as breaking the themes into smaller pieces and combining them differently, playing them in counterpoint to one another, etc. The development builds up to the restatement of the A theme (and maybe the B theme as well). It usually ends with a coda.

Sonata form is used for dramatic effect, so a dynamic dialogue takes place between the themes in play. The A and B themes contrast in character, often starting with a bold, masculine theme answered by a gentle, feminine theme. The development can build up the tension between the two of them and even fuse them into a new synthesis. To write an interesting development section in the first movement of a sonata, symphony, string quartet, or concerto was a test of a composer’s skill.

So to recapitulate:
Ragtime form goes something like

Sonata form (with repeats):
ABAB -->Development–>Restatement of A (and B)–>Coda

Quite a difference between them.

Also jazz, blues, Cajun and Zydeco, country-western and western swing, R & B / rock and roll, rap. . . You might even consider the 32-bar Tin Pan Alley standard to be a form of music invented in the U.S.