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.

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