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What is a Rag?

The Musical Origins of The Piano Rag

When most of us hear the term "rag" or "ragtime", the musical image of a Scott Joplin work comes to mind. Though it is true that Joplin was among a small group of talented musicians who engineered the most lasting ragtime pattern, there are many songs that qualify as rags that do not sound like a Joplin style rag. Several of the songs published on our site seem to follow the "Joplin model" (called The Missouri style) such as the Russian Rag,(midi), Dynamite Rag, (midi) Frog Legs (Scorch) and Good Gravy (Scorch). Yet others sound different, not exactly like what we are accustomed to, for example The Frisco Rag, The Ragtime Engineer, and The Louisiana Rag. These rags may belong to the "Eastern Ragtime" style or may not even be rags in the classical sense. Even one of the most famous songs with a "ragtime" title, Alexander's Ragtime Band, is not a true rag. (To see the issues with these and other titles either visit our June, 1999 issue on ragtime or our June, 2001 issue available to view after June 1, 2001.)

So what makes a rag a rag? Ragtime is a musical form or style that is defined as a syncopated melody (usually in 2/4 time) over a regular, march tempo bass line. Improvisation was common but little of that aspect has been preserved. The most authentic evidence that may exist are the precious few piano roll recordings of rags being played by those who created the music. Ragtime is most commonly thought of as exclusively a piano form that reached its greatest popularity between 1897 and World War I. However, at the time, the ragtime label was also attached to other instrumental music, songs and dance music. The best instrumental ragtime works required a great deal of musical skill and reflected a high level of compositional sophistication. "Ragtime" songs on the other hand, were less focused on the musical correctness of the form but were more designed to appeal to the masses and popular trend.

According to the New Grove Dictionary of American Music (see our recourcespage), virtually all "classic" rags followed the formal structures established by earlier 2/4 and 4/4 meter dances. The march, two-step, polka and schottische dances were constructed with three or more separate 16 bar themes arranges in repeats and reprise patterns. As you listen to a Ragtime work, you can clearly see this pattern. Therefore, the most common patterns are AABBACC, AABBCCDD or AABBCCA. Usually the first two strains were in the tonic and the additional ones were in the subdominant. Other characteristics include a sub structure of four bar strains repeated, four bar introductions to certain sections, an interlude between trio themes and a usual major key orientation. As you listen to some of the works we have presented or on other sites, listen for these conventional structures, you'll find them almost without exception in all "classic" piano rags. Rhythmically, the construction of rags were less rigid but maintained the most important element of syncopation which is the distinguishing feature that separates it from other contemporary music.

That syncopation is generally recognized as a trait of Afro-American music. Ragtime's roots are in minstrel-show plantation songs, cakewalks, banjo playing, and black folk music; it also drew on, and recast in fresh ways, the chromatic harmonies of 19th century European music. Created by itinerant professional performers in saloons and honky-tonks, ragtime was ultimately disseminated by piano rolls and printed music. The exact date ragtime emerged is debatable as there are distinct elements of ragtime in the music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, especially in his work La Bamboula published in 1847. After 1885, march-patrols were appearing in minstrel shows that carried syncopated, raggy rhythms and minstrels around the country were syncopating songs. What many point to as the watershed event in the spread of ragtime was the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Attended by over 20 million people, the Exposition exposed a large population to ragtime style music from the likes of Scott Joplin, Ben Harney, Shep Edmonds (1876-1957, often referred to as the "father of ragtime") and Jesse Pickett. Pickett's The Dream, is credited as the only rag specifically associated with the exposition and the earliest known classic rag. It was never published, however was recorded in 1896 by Eubie Blake who learned it directly from Pickett.

The first print reference in sheet music to "ragtime" was in the coon song, All Coons Look Alike To Me in 1896. The song had an optional arrangement called a "choice chorus" with "Negro rag accompaniment". Click the cover to see the score and hear the song in Scorch format, click here for the midi only. Be sure to listen all the way through as the "rag" chorus comes after the "regular" chorus. After the release of that popular song, it was only a matter of weeks before other similar songs began appearing with rag descriptors, the first of which was The Mississippi Rag published in 1897 by William H. Krell. Despite the emergence of these works, the predominant style that dominated the late 1890's was the Cakewalk. Cakewalks were derived from dances performed by plantation slaves and became popular as a theatrical presentation and ballroom dance. The music was usually un-syncopated but by 1897 began to assume syncopation associated with classic ragtime. A large number of cakewalks were published before 1900 and many were published as "ragtime cakewalks". These works were added to the repertoire of many popular bands of the time, including John Philip Sousa's and their influence even migrated to Europe. At least one major European composer published a cakewalk that is still a popular work. Claude Debussy's Golliwog's Cakewalk is a syncopated work in the cakewalk tradition and is still played and recorded today. Though the cakewalk was technically not a rag in the classic sense, it evolved to become included and is considered a ragtime style work now.

During this same period, a style of music began to emerge that was more pianistic and made more use of syncopation with a more rhythmic construction. In 1897, Tom Turpin published the Harlem Rag as one of the first examples of this style. Turpin was the first black composer to publish instrumental ragtime. His saloon, The Rosebud Bar in St. Louis became a gathering place for ragtime players. The composers who congregated here and developed his style (including Joplin, James Scott and Joseph Lamb) are considered the classic or Missouri school of ragtime. Their music is considered a superior form of the style. The term "classic ragtime" actually was coined by the publisher John Stark who in the first decade of the 20th century began publishing works by Joplin, Lamb, Scot and others and billed them as "classic rags" and compared their quality to European art songs. As a result, classic rags are generally referred to as those published by Stark, Joplin and another composer, May Aufderheide who referred to her own Joplin inspired works as "classic" rags. Interestingly, during the heyday of ragtime, recognition of ragtime and the term was limited. It was only through later revivals of ragtime in the 1940's, 1960's and then the huge revival in the 1970's following the movie, The Sting, that ragtime became entrenched as a popularly recognized style.

At the same time as the Missouri rags and cakewalks were being composed, another style of Rag emerged, called "Eastern Ragtime". These rags emerged from composers in New York, Baltimore and New Orleans. These rags, though technically defined as rags (syncopation over a regular bass line), do not have the same feel and sound as the Missouri school rags. The tendency of this style rag was to produce a fast brilliant style and were somewhat simplified in style. These works were more slanted towards popular appeal and in many cases, were far removed from what we now consider to be the ragtime sound. Ragtime songs had their origins in coon songs and as they gradually lost their racial character, any song of a strong rhythmic style began to be referred to as a ragtime song. Here is an example of a "rag" song from 1912 that is questionable as to it's pedigree as a true rag. Listen to it yourself and decide. Is it a rag or not? If you think so (or even not) send me an e-mail telling me why (or why not), I'll e-mail you back a PDF copy of the score for the song so you can play it yourself. (Your mail service must be able to accept attachments.) Even if it isn't a rag, it has a great musical quote from Listen To The Mocking Bird in the chorus. Click the cover for the Scorch version, click here for the midi. Interestingly, the song that is considered to be the "greatest ragtime hit", Alexander's Ragtime band is neither syncopated nor carries any of the musical attributes of a classic rag.. As blues developed, even they often were indiscriminately labeled as rags and over time, the line between what was a rag and what was not became completely obscured. This continued until sometime after or around WW I when a new musical catchword emerged known as jazz. And that, as they say, is another story.

 


Scott Joplin (1868-1917), an American composer and pianist, was one of the most important developers of ragtime music. Some regard him as as the originator, however musical history clearly shows that the elements of Ragtime were in place well before Joplin entered the scene. Most can agree that Joplin's role in developing the style is preeminent. Where he was born is in doubt but The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, says either near Marshall, Texas or Shreveport, La.. The son of a former slave and freeborn woman, he grew up in Texarkana on the Texas-Arkansas border. Though deprived of conventional educational opportunities, his mother took an active interest in his education. A German emigrant musician sparked Joplin's interest in music and Joplin soon became a professional musician. In 1893 Joplin played at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and in 1896 he moved to Sedalia, Missouri, now considered the "Cradle of Classic Ragtime". There Joplin attended the George R. Smith College and taught piano and composition to other ragtime composers. By 1899 he had published two songs, two marches and a waltz. That year he published his first rags, Original Rags and Maple Leaf Rag. Joplin had ambitions to compose for the musical stage and in 1899 he staged an Afro-American tableau titled The Ragtime Dance in Sedalia. Despite the indifference that greeted this work, in 1901 he formed the Scott Joplin Opera Company in St. Louis through which he introduced a ragtime opera, A Guest of Honor in 1903. In 1907, Joplin moved to New York where he met Joseph Lamb whom he encouraged and helped connect to a publisher. In 1911 he published his ragtime opera Treemonisha, a work intended to create an indigenous black American opera. Staged in a concert version in 1915, it failed with the audience, leaving Joplin's spirit permanently broken. There is some evidence that Joplin had also completed a musical comedy titled, If and a ragtime symphony but the manuscripts were either destroyed or lost. Joplin's other compositions include The Entertainer (1902), Peacherine Rag (1901), and Magnetic Rag (1914). Joplin's style is often called the Missouri Ragtime style. Among the Missouri group of composers are Joseph F. Lamb, Artie Matthews and James Scott.

 

SYNCOPATION: Syncopation is a rhythmic pattern in music where the beat or emphasis is displaced to a "weak" beat. Usually in music, the first beat of a measure is the strong or emphasized beat. In 4/4 time, normally you would count ONE-two-three-four, ONE-two-three-four. A syncopated pattern would be; one-TWO-three-four, one-TWO-three-four. The result is a rhythmic pattern that sounds "off-beat".

TONIC, the keynote of a scale or the primary key of a work. A passage in the tonic uses the primary key of the work.

SUBDOMINANT- The fifth tone below the tonic or keynote. Thus, a new key for the passage is established based on the new note.

TRIO - Though most often meaning a group of three musicians, in this sense, it means the third part of a multi movement work. The trio is often included in multi section works and acts as an interlude of sorts between repeats of other sections before a return to the main "A" theme of the work or a coda.

 



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