Ragtime’s soundworld

Cover of the second issue of The Ragtime Ephemeralist by Chris Ware, 1999.

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.

More to come.

Categorized as Music

Ragtime break: “The Ragtime Nightingale” by Joseph Lamb

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.

Joseph Lamb, in about 1915.

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.

In the 1978 Rags & Ragtime: A Musical History, David Jasen and Trebor Tichenor compare and contrast Joplin’s compositional style with Lamb’s:

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.

Tonight: Some perfect truths

Tonight at 8:00 Eastern time, Jeffrey Swann and my lovely wife Marilyn Nonken will team up for “Perfect Truths,” a concert that is part of the NYU Steinhardt Beethoven the Contemporary festival. Jeffrey will sit down in the university’s Black Box Theater to perform Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 106 (the “Hammerklavier”); then he’ll abandon the bench to make room for Marilyn’s performance of the landmark American sonata by Charles Ives, the Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860.” Beethoven’s 1818 sonata is considered one of the most technically demanding of the composer’s solo piano compositions, and Ives’ 1915 composition (published in a revised version in 1947), a veritable though highly idiosyncratic catalogue of American musical forms, is no less complex; so complex, in fact, that Ives himself “introduced” the work with the book-length Essays Before a Sonata in 1920.

The concert will be available beginning at 8:00 p.m. at this page and will be available for re-streaming following its debut. It’s free.

Goin’ down to the river some day

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here, if only because there hasn’t been much to report. We are careening into the new year with light at the end of the tunnel but, if the virus experts are right, with the tunnel buckling just as we’re getting to the exit. We’re somewhere near the bottom tier of those expected to get the vaccine over the next six months, so the winter will be … well, whatever the common clich√© is. It has rendered me even more taciturn than usual; my three regular readers have been patient, so thank you.

On the other hand, there are ways to get through the night. As a part of my readers’ reward for their patience, I note that the latest issue (#39) of Mineshaft magazine was released earlier this fall, and I suggest you get a copy now. I also know that a few Mineshaft contributors may wish to join me in revisiting the fine Hoagy Carmichael song “Washboard Blues,” originally recorded by RCA Victor in 1927 with Paul Whiteman and His Concert Orchestra,¬† Carmichael soloing on vocals and piano. Carmichael was then 28 and at the start of a long career (perhaps he is best known as “Cricket” in Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not), during which Carmichael contributed several songs to the American popular music pantheon, not least “Stardust” (which Carmichael recorded just before “Washboard Blues”), “Georgia on My Mind,” “Rocking Chair” (a personal favorite), “Two Sleepy People,” and “I Get Along Without You Very Well.”

“Washboard Blues” is a characteristic Carmichael composition: eccentric and vernacular. An anonymous Wikipedian wrote, “Though the verse, chorus, and bridge pattern is present, the effect of the song is of one long, cohesive melodic line with a dramatic shifting of tempo. The cohesiveness of the long melody perfectly matches the lyrical description of the crushing fatigue resulting from the repetitious work of washing clothes under primitive conditions.” One must, at this late date, overlook the dialect in which the lyrics were written by Fred B. Callaghan, but catch the midwestern air of Carmichael’s half-mumbled half-wailing high-baritone-almost-tenor lament. The below is not the Whiteman recording, but a solo recording released some years later, and more haunting for all that. If you haven’t heard it before, you’re in for a treat. Enjoy this; and I’ll hope to be back soon.

Last days of summer

The final days of summer — a long summer — are upon us, and glancing over the past few months, I find they’ve been not been spent poorly. My own corona malaise therapy has consisted of Mark Twain (I just finished The Prince and the Pauper, a fine tale for children of all ages), Scott Joplin (my wife has taken up my encouragement to study a few of his compositions to offer on a possible program or recording), and my children (guiding them through what has been a difficult season for all of us; so far, so good). In New York, we look forward with some trepidation to the fall: a few days of school a week at most, and I continue to work from home. I admit this has not been a productive time, an admission to which the lack of new posts on this blog should be adequate testimony. But onward, ever onward, if not often upward.

In the meantime, a little news from the usual suspects that I’d like to share. Tomorrow night Christoph Mueller, who’s been a frequent subject of these posts, will celebrate the opening of Matters of Mind, a retrospective of his work at the Ludwig Forum in his home town of Aachen, Germany. Alas, I will be unable to attend this feast of original artwork and painstakingly constructed miniatures of Sassafras County’s Green Valley in the early 20th century (a town reminiscent, perhaps, of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio), but anyone on the continent who finds themselves on the westernmost edge of Germany through January 10 of next year, when the exhibition closes, may wish to drop in. More information on the exhibition can be found here; he is also contributing the cover art to the next issue of the fine Mineshaft magazine, due in the next month or two.

Another Mineshaft contributor, R. Crumb, may be looking forward to the publication of Crumb’s World in January 2021, a catalogue that documents the fine exhibition of the artist’s work at the David Zwirner Gallery last year. (I originally wrote about it for this blog, but alas the short essay has gone rambling off.) Curator Robert Storr provides essays about Crumb’s career, setting much of this sometimes difficult work in the context of the culture in which Crumb found himself. Speaking of which, Crumb’s opinion of the current GOP candidate can be found here.

Mr. Crumb plays a mean ukelele, which itself can be heard on Live at the Brooklyn Folk Festival, Vol. 1 from Eden and John’s East River String Band. Just out on both CD and vinyl, this brand new release features the best of their live performances at the Jalopy Theater over the past decade; Crumb, Eden, and John are joined by a variety of other excellent musicians, such as Ernesto Gomez, Pat Conte, Dom Flemons, Eli Smith, Walker Shepard, Geoff Wiley, and Jackson Lynch. The vinyl goes for about 24 smackeroos, the CD for about half that. I’ll be ordering this when the next paycheck comes in, but in the meantime I can keep up with John Heneghan through his highly recommendable John’s Old Time Radio Show. I first wrote about the ERSB here.