Hello everyone! Won’t you join me for a Music Monday here on Museworthy? Today we pay tribute to the uniquely American musical genre known as “ragtime”. In our imaginations, we associate rags with the lively, danceable piano music played at the turn-of-the-century in saloons, music halls, cabarets, even the seedier honky-tonks and bordellos in the red light districts. While the genteel classes were still enjoying their waltzes, the other half of America was falling in love with ragtime and its syncopated rhythms.
Rags are really quite sophisticated compositions, especially those written by the great and gifted Scott Joplin who sought to elevate the genre from its bordello reputation. The son of a former slave father and freeborn mother, Joplin hailed from a region of Texas known as “Texarkana”. Throughout his childhood Joplin played piano after school in the homes of neighbors and family friends. He soon caught of the attention of Julius Weiss, a music professor who emigrated from Germany. Weiss gave Joplin lessons for five years and introduced him to other forms of music like opera and classical. Joplin ended up in Sedalia, Missouri where he performed around town in dance halls, accompanied bands and orchestras, gave piano lessons, and continued his studies in harmony and composition.
Scott Joplin’s signature piece, “Maple Leaf Rag”, was published in 1899 and became a huge success. It is considered singularly responsible for the popularity of ragtime music. Scott Joplin received a 1% royalty on every piece of sheet music sold, which afforded him a steady income for the rest of his life.
Ragtime is a hybrid that brings together elements of black musical styles combined with polkas, jigs, waltzes, and marches. While the earliest rags were crude, the compositions became more refined as the style matured, thanks to Joplin of course. Structurally, rags are written in either 2/4 or 4/4 time. Their most distinct musical quality is “syncopation”, with the notes of the melody falling in between the rhythms and the bass notes and chords bouncing between odd and even numbered beats. A pianist must have excellent right/left hand coordination to play a rag well. Listening to a rag superficially, it could sound like the melody and bass line are at war with each other. But alas, they are not. That’s the beauty of ragtime.
This YouTube video features Scott Joplin himself performing his Maple Leaf Rag recorded on piano roll which was the primary music storage device at the time. No, there was no MIDI in those days! But this is an absolute delight to listen to. Enjoy!
See a complete list of Scott Joplin’s compositions here.