Ragtime composers: Arthur Marshall

Arthur Marshall.

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.

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.

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.

A toast to … Huckleberry Finn

For about the third or fourth time in as many years, I’m picking up Adventures of Huckleberry Finn again, finding that it appeals, as all great satires do, as a comment on conscience, conformity, and corruption: the integrity of and respect for the individual conscience, conformity to community values, and the corruption of the human spirit, especially as it expressed itself through the institution of slavery in the United States. And all this in the 300 pages or so of the Penguin Classics edition.

Ordinarily such a book wouldn’t stand up to re-reading as frequent as that, but it’s an extraordinarily rich novel and seems, with every year, to become richer. Certainly the Western liberal idea of the integrity of the individual is, in 2020, under attack around the world, even in the West; there’s increased social, political, and military pressure to walk in lockstep with puritanical and exclusionary ideas about the ideal community and ideal behavior; and, finally, systemic racism in America is perhaps for the first time under profound investigation. The problematic final third of Huckleberry Finn becomes less problematic if one reads it as Twain’s commentary on the Redeemer movement in the South, which started about ten years before the book’s publication in 1888 — a movement which, if nothing else, proved that racism and slavery did not end in 1865 with the close of the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederacy. (The book, set in the 1830s or so, exemplifies the “double vision” of most satiric literature: a criticism of the present through a story set in the past.) Though theoretically “free,” Jim becomes a pawn in Tom Sawyer’s cruel game, and he continues through the end of the book to be regarded as less than human by the Phelpses and their neighbors, even though he’s demonstrated great empathy and courage (more, perhaps, than anybody in the book with the possible exception of Huck Finn himself).

Not to mention that much of the book is extraordinarily funny and in terrible, horribly bad taste, especially when it’s at its subversive best.

Only eleven years after Twain put the final touches on Huck Finn, and only 160 miles to the southwest from Twain’s home town of Hannibal, MO, Scott Joplin published “Maple Leaf Rag” through John Stark’s music publishing company in Sedalia, and from then on ragtime and Twain flourished through 1910, the year of Twain’s death. Twain was perhaps the most celebrated and recognized figure in America through those years, and ragtime the nation’s most popular and celebrated music. The enthusiasm for ragtime faded about the time the First World War began, and indeed both Twain and ragtime were in cultural eclipse until after the Second World War, when Twain’s work began to be reluctantly admitted to the academic canon and a few ragtime aficionados tried to keep the form alive and recognized as a distinctly American music.

If we can’t actually live sanely, we can at least read sane books and listen to sane music until — and if — the current storm of insanity passes. Which is why I’ll be raising a glass to Huckleberry Finn at Cafe Katja this afternoon, safely distancing and all the rest of it. Prost!

Tuesday music: Wall Street Rag

About “Wall Street Rag” (1909), from Edward A. Berlin’s King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era (Oxford University Press; second edition, 2016):

“Wall Street Rag” [is] a piece that refers to the Wall Street Panic of 1907, and may reflect on employment he reportedly had at the time. … Joplin may have personally observed the distress of Wall Street workers as, according to unconfirmed, but plausible, information, he had been playing piano in a restaurant in New York’s financial district, possibly Fraunces Tavern, at 54 Pearl Street, the historic site where George Washington made his farewell address to his officers. …

“Wall Street Rag” is a highly unusual work. First, it has a programmatic narrative that assigns a different mood to each of the four strains:

A–Panic in Wall Street, Brokers feeling melancholy
B–Good times coming
C–Good times have come
D–Listening to the strains of genuine negro ragtime, brokers forget their cares

Modest as this narrative is, it reveals several points about Joplin’s perception of ragtime: not all ragtime is “genuine”; only the African American creation is authentic; and genuine ragtime is a happy music, endowed with the power to alter moods.

The program indicates that the piece should begin in a melancholy mood. The obvious musical device to suggest melancholy is the minor mode, but Joplin avoids the obvious. Instead, while in the usually “happy” key of C major, he introduces modal ambiguities and dissonances. Over a C pedal point he presents tonal vagueness with diminished chords, a prominent repetition of the dissonant and tonally ambiguous tritone interval of C–F-sharp, and a suggestion of the minor mode with a flatted sixth degree of A-flat. The final strain is dominated by unprecedented dissonances. These are off-beat discordances — at times, actually tone clusters — placed in a high register. The programmatic intent is probably to suggest the twanging sound of ragtime banjo strumming.

Below, William Appling performs “Wall Street Rag,” from this important collection.