Arthur Marshall (1881-1968) was about thirteen years old when Scott Joplin joined the Marshall family in Sedalia, MO, as a boarder in 1894, and had already had some training in classical piano. Recognizing the young man’s talent, Joplin encouraged Marshall’s musical studies and took Marshall on as a protégé along with Scott Hayden, Marshall’s classmate at the segregated Lincoln High School. Marshall and Joplin enrolled together at Sedalia’s George R. Smith College, where Marshall studied music theory and education and eventually earned a teaching license from Teacher’s College. For some years, Marshall made a living as a performer and ragtime composer, retiring from music in about 1917 after his second wife’s death and several health problems. He held a variety of odd jobs in St. Louis and elsewhere until 1950, when he came out of retirement to perform in ragtime festivals during ragtime’s first revival after the Second World War. He died in Kansas City, MO, at the age of 87; he had been married a total of four times.
Marshall is of course best known for his two collaborations with Joplin, “Swipesy Cakewalk” and “The Lily Queen.” Below, Scott Kirby performs one of Marshall’s solo compositions, “The Pippin,” from 1908. Bill Edwards has a fuller biography of Marshall here.
A definition of the term “ragtime” seems to be as hard to pin down and as sinuous as the music itself; we might think that, like Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of obscenity, we know it when we hear it, but history and truth aren’t on our side here. “Ragtime” itself meant many different things to those who composed, performed, and heard it in the early years of the 20th century. To novelist E.L. Doctorow and fans of the 1973 film The Sting, “ragtime” meant solo piano compositions, occasionally orchestrated for the small instrumental ensemble. But these compositions emerged — like the vocal ragtime song, like the semi-improvised “ragging” of European piano music, like the music of banjo and guitar players and string and jug bands of the period — from a particular social and musical culture which all of these ragtime forms shared. In discussing ragtime, one is often forced to winnow the definition down to only one or two of these various forms, a process ultimately unfair to the others which have just as much call on the definition as solo piano music.
What seems certain is that ragtime originated in the secular dance and musical forms that arose in the American Black community of the Reconstruction and Redemption Eras in the south. African Juba dances, domesticated and Americanized by Blacks (free and enslaved) and their children, were marked by the rhythmic syncopations that are a defining feature of ragtime music; similarly, the vocal music created by Blacks on slave plantations and elsewhere bore some resemblance to African forms, but these too were affected by both the secular and religious music they heard that originated from white communities. As Blacks emigrated from the rural south to more cosmopolitan midwestern and eastern small towns and cities, these dances evolved through minstrelsy and other performances into the cakewalk, the immediate predecessor to ragtime dance music; the songs and music, too, followed this emigration, absorbing both popular songs as well as the classical music influences to which early ragtime composers were exposed in these cities and towns, ultimately leading to the establishment of Tin Pan Alley in New York in the early 20th century.
This thumbnail history is necessarily as crude and simple as two paragraphs can make it, but nonetheless it points to a few characteristics of ragtime that are shared across all of its forms. The first characteristic, as I mentioned, was an emphasis on syncopation, but there’s more than that. Another important feature is the new chromatic colorations and sonorities that resulted from the secular Black community’s use of African and other indigenous musical vocabularies: frequent alternations between melancholy and joyful strains in the same brief work, too, rendered it distinct from European and white American music of the period.
A more problematic question, of course, is the extent to which any kind of music could be called “American,” any more than music composed by French or German or other composers somehow possesses an essentialist quality of a particular nation’s culture. We might say that Wagner’s music is particularly German, or Debussy’s is particularly French. But what does this mean? Can one musicologically define what is particularly French or Polish in a Chopin waltz, or, for that matter, American in Joplin or a song by Irving Berlin? This may not have been particularly problematic a few decades ago, but today the question is particularly thorny.
Prior to the Civil War, America’s most accomplished composer may have been Louis Moreau Gottschalk, himself of a multicultural background (born in New Orleans of a Jewish father and French Creole mother), whose music reflected what he heard in his Louisiana youth. What is without question is that, from its Black origins, ragtime in the early 20th century became popular in white America as well, perhaps the first genuinely popular multicultural musical form in modern times (Gottschalk’s music was largely performed in what we might call “classical” venues like concert halls, rather than the theatres, barrooms, and domestic salons in which ragtime could most commonly be heard). But both musics were the product of what Albert Murray would much later call a “mongrel culture”:
American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite. It is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations of those who would have it otherwise, incontestably mulatto . . . Indeed, for all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and so-called white people in the United States resemble nobody else in the world as they resemble each other.
Albert Murray, The Omni-Americans
This cultural background is relevant to ragtime’s history, but of course it doesn’t come close to describing or defining ragtime’s soundworld itself, a soundworld which all of ragtime’s forms create: perhaps not nostalgic, but certainly melancholic, alternating as I said earlier with great joy: a soundworld that somehow touches on individual memory; a harmonics that seem to encourage an elevation from the domestic to the otherworldly and back again, simultaneously bucolic and urban in its pastoral and more — well, more emotionally ragged expressions. It’s this soundworld which has appealed to ragtime enthusiasts from the early 20th century to the present, a soundworld kept alive by ragtime pianists like Max Morath and William Appling as well as ensembles like the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra and the East River String Band, to name only four of a great number of practitioners dedicated to the preservation and reinterpretation of this surprisingly rich music. A secular form, ragtime is music for all of us, and welcomes multiple perspectives.
It’s very dangerous to challenge a system unless you’re completely at peace with the thought that you’re not going to miss it when it collapses.
Alfred, in Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders
Feiffer’s comedy about the human cost of alienation, mistrust, and arbitrary violence in American cities, Little Murders, opened at Broadway’s Booth Theatre on April 25, 1967, and closed four days later; its cast included Elliott Gould, David Steinberg, Barbara Cook, and Heywood Hale Broun. Two years later, it opened off-Broadway for a rather more successful 400-performance run, this time directed by Alan Arkin and featuring a cast that included Fred Willard, Linda Lavin, and Vincent Gardenia. It is a chillingly dark comedy, and I would recommend that you search the 1971 film version out, but it’s exceedingly hard to come by, unavailable for streaming or DVD purchase in the U.S. despite a limited-edition 2018 U.K. restoration. Arkin directed the film, which gathered the best performances from both the Broadway and off-Broadway casts, and Arkin himself contributed a cameo performance as a police lieutenant, originally portrayed on Broadway by the great character actor Phil Leeds. Also appearing in the below clip (which contains Arkin’s full performance) are Elliott Gould as Alfred, Vincent Gardenia as Carol Newquist, and Elizabeth Wilson as Marge Newquist.
Joseph Lamb’s “The Ragtime Nightingale” (originally published by John Stark in 1915 as “Nightingale Rag”) is among the most popular of this classic ragtime composer’s works, its lilting birdlike sonorities a light but exemplary example of the form. Lamb, along with Joplin and James Scott, is considered one of the masters of piano ragtime composers, but he was in some ways an outlier, hailing from the East Coast rather than from the Midwest (he was born in Montclair, NJ, in 1887 and died in Brooklyn in 1960; of Irish descent, he was one of the few white composers of classic ragtime). He remained in obscurity from the decline of ragtime in the 1910s until the 1950s, when he was rediscovered; the Folkways album Joseph Lamb: A Study in Classic Ragtime features the composer playing his own work and discussing his career.
Despite his location and background, Lamb was entranced by the work of Scott Joplin and in 1907 travelled to St. Louis to meet the composer. Joplin himself was impressed by Lamb’s music and encouraged John Stark, his own publisher, to issue Lamb’s rags; Stark did so, and published most of Lamb’s output through the following ten years. Joplin also generously suggested an “arranged by” credit on Stark’s first publication of a Lamb rag, “Sensation,” believing that his own name on the sheet music cover would increase sales of the piece.
The strength of Joplin’s ideas in ragtime is best exemplified by the rags of Joe Lamb. Rags written before 1907 (which is to say before he became aware of the Joplin rags) … show a rather mediocre attempt at composing rags, using all of the overworked devices of the cakewalk, Popular rag and song. From the twelve works published between 1908 and 1919, we find that his rags are more predictable, as he synthesized the Joplinesque legato melody style with Scott’s expansive keyboard work. Then, Lamb replaced Joplin’s phrase structure, making the first half of a section contrasting rather than parallel. He also avoided the short, motivic phrasing of James Scott, but used Scott’s echo effect and rhythmic exuberance. Among Lamb’s greatest original stylistic features are his use of sequences for developmental purposes and his diversity of texture, not only from light to heavy rags, but from section to section and even phrase to phrase. …
Ted Tjaden looks more deeply into Lamb’s career here. Along with the Folkways album above, there have been a few other significant recordings of Lamb’s music. I highly recommend Guido Nielsen’s 1998 recordings of The Complete Stark Rags; below, Joshua Rifkin performs “The Ragtime Nightingale,” from the Decca album Rags & Tangos, issued in 1991.
While the roots of the literary genre of “black humor” lie in a variety of places (certainly many of Mark Twain’s novels, stories, and essays exhibit the dark, hallucinatory qualities associated with the genre; Jonathan Swift, Nathanael West, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline qualify for the label, and André Breton’s Anthology of Black Humor, gathering more than 40 mostly French specimens, was published in 1940), it wasn’t until 1945 and the post-WWII era that it truly blossomed in the United States. Perhaps it was the development of the atomic bomb that led to a deeper sense of nihilism and pessimism; perhaps it was the increasingly consumerist nature of American culture and entertainment; perhaps it was the yawning gap between American ideals and American reality, becoming ever more obvious after the war, that inspired the writers who placed the absurd lengths to which hypocrisy could extend under their microscopes. Instead of subjecting this hypocrisy to handwringing sorrow, though, the genre subjected it to ridicule. If WWII was supposed to be a war that made the world safe for peace, love, and understanding, it was also a war that generated the weaponry that could destroy the entire human race, and the world it infested, in the space of just a few hours; in the meantime, the corruptions of the culture wormed their way into the hypocritical corruptions of Americans themselves, generating an almost desperate denial of the condition into which the race had contorted itself. The black humorists decided the only sane response was to laugh, especially at themselves, as guilty as the rest of the species.
As I noted yesterday, I blame myself for the corruption of my daughters, budding black humorists themselves; I blame my parents for my own corruption. Among my earliest memories is the night that my parents, wanting to save a few dollars on a babysitter, put my brother and I in the back seat of the car, then drove to a local drive-in theater to see Dr. Strangelove, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb. Of course, they wanted to see the movie themselves (Bambi was a more acceptable children’s film), and I can’t vouch for the validity of this, but something must have rubbed off, even at that young age. Within a few years I was subscribing to Mad magazine; by the time I was in my teens I’d moved on to National Lampoon, Paul Krassner’s briefly revived The Realist, and R. Crumb, but I was also turning to more literary exemplars of black humor: Joseph Heller (my father owned a well-thumbed paperback copy of Catch-22), Terry Southern, and William Gaddis, as well as their ancestors Swift, Twain, West, and Céline.
Lucky I was to live in that time, because the values which this work instilled in me have stood me in good stead: a rejection of blind, moralizing authority; a healthy disrespect for pretension and arrogance; a preference for difficult and ugly truths over comforting and self-satisfying lies; and the bravery and courage to confront hypocritical authority, pretension, arrogance, and lies with creative, subversive, comic ridicule, preferably accompanied by a good stiff drink. Good lessons, I think, for me to pass along to my daughters, and it’s a joy to revisit these works again in the company of my own children. As Twain himself — speaking through Satan — wrote at the end of his life, more in hope than with evidence:
Will a day come when the race will detect the funniness of these juvenilities and laugh at them — and by laughing at them destroy them? For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon — laughter. Power, Money, Persuasion, Supplication, Persecution — these can lift at a colossal humbug, — push it a little — crowd it a little — weaken it a little, century by century: but only Laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.