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MMD > Archives > October 1995 > 1995.10.12 > 04Prev  Next

Defining "Ragtime" and "Joplin"
By Tim Gracyk, forwarded by Terry Smythe

Forwarded Message:

 From:        To: ALL                       Orig: MBNET
Subj: Defining "ragtime"/"Jopli Area: Date: 10/12/95
I am writing the "ragtime" and "Scott Joplin" entries for an encyclopedia of black culture in the 20th century, and I post my rough drafts here so I can get comments from anyone who would like to read them. The entries must be short, so I cannot add much to these, but if you think I misrepresent anything or if you see where wording could be more precise, I would like to hear your views.

Thank you.

--Tim Gracyk (using Donna's email address)



Introduced in the 1890s, ragtime was incredibly popular in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Simply defined, the music combines an even rhythm with a syncopated melodic strain. When piano players perform ragtime, the left hand generally provides a march-like rhythm (often with octave-chord patterns giving an "oom-pah" effect) while the right hand plays a melody in a contrasting rhythm. Syncopation is the result of emphasis or accent on beats that would normally be considered weak musical beats. Syncopated music was not new, but constant syncopation combined with a steady rhythm was a novelty in popular music.

The origin of the term "ragtime" is not clear. Scott Joplin, widely recognized as its greatest composer, explained to a reporter in 1907 that the music took its name "because it has such a ragged movement," or uneven movement or timing. Other explanations have been given.

The music was chiefly developed by African-Americans, with important composers and performers including James Scott, Artie Matthews, Joe Jordan, Scott Hayden, Eubie Blake, Luckey Roberts, James P. Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton. White musicians performed rags written by African-American composers and also composed works in a similar vein. The song-writing industry known as Tin Pan Alley recognized ragtime's popularity and added "ragtime" and "rag" to countless titles to help popularize new vocal numbers, but few melodies of instrumental rags are suitable for vocals, and few popular vocal numbers labeled as "ragtime" are true rags.

Ragtime was was already established as a genre when Scott Joplin's first two rags were published in 1899, "Original Rags" and "Maple Leaf Rag," the latter proving especially popular. Perhaps the only rag to surpass it in popularity was Euday Louis Bowman's "Twelve Street Rag," published in 1914.

Hundreds of rags were written for piano and published in sheet music format. As ragtime developed, harmonies got increasingly complex as did cross rhythms, so more skill was required of ragtime pianists. James Scott's popular "Frog Legs Rag" from 1906 reflects this development. Ragtime was also played by brass bands and performed on solo instruments like banjo, mandolin, and guitar. Nick Lucas in 1922 made the first disc of rags performed on solo guitar: "Pickin' the Guitar" and "Teasin' the Frets." The African-American Blind Blake recorded his own ragtime compositions for Paramount beginning in 1926, and these influenced generations of guitar players.

Notable ragtime numbers written by African-American composers between 1900 and 1920 include Tom Turpin's "St. Louis Rag" (1903), Luckey Roberts' "Pork and Beans" (1913), Wilbur Sweatman's "Old Folks Rag" (1914), Jim Europe's "Castle House Rag" (1914), Ford Dabney's "The Georgia Grind" (1915), W.C. Handy's "Ole Miss Rag" (1916), Jelly Roll Morton's "King Porter Stomp" (published in 1924 but written much earlier). Artie Matthews' series of Pastime rags, published by Joplin's publisher John Stark from 1913 to 1920 feature excellent rags.

Distinctions can be made between "folk ragtime," the music of pianists with no formal musical training but who played by ear and improvised, and "classic ragtime," which is the music of trained musicians like Scott Joplin who brought form and structure to ragtime. By the 1920s, white pianists influenced by ragtime specialized in a semi-virtuosic style of piano playing called "novelty piano." Zez Confrey's 1921 "Kitten On The Keys" is an example. Around this time African-American pianists influenced by ragtime developed a new style of playing called "stride."

Ragtime's heyday basically spanned Scott Joplin's career, from 1899 to 1917. Rags continued to be written, with some rags privately published even in recent decades, but other trends eclipsed the ragtime craze by the World War I period, including a jazz craze sparked by the first jazz disc, issued in 1917. Ragtime has enjoyed major revivals. The publication in 1950 of Blesh and Janis' They All Played Ragtime coincided with ragtime recordings being issued by small 78 RPM record companies devoted to ragtime (these labels recorded Joplin numbers like "The Entertainer" for the first time). Ragtime enjoyed incredible popularity upon the release in 1974 of the film The Sting, which was set around 1930 but anachronistically features Joplin tunes.

Although ragtime in recent decades has been performed mostly by white artists, notable African-American performers in recent decades include Eubie Blake, who played ragtime up to the year he died in 1983; pianist Hank Jones, who recorded in the early 1960s an LP titled This is Ragtime Now!; and Reginald Robinson, a contemporary composer who in 1993 recorded for a compact disc titled The Strongman 21 original pieces, including "Spring Rag" and "Good Times Rag."


Berlin, Edward. Ragtime: A Musical And Cultural History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

Blesh, Rudi and Harriet Janis. They All Played Ragtime. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1950.

Schafer, William J. and Johannes Riedel. The Art of Ragtime. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1973.


Scott Joplin was one of America's most original and influential composers. He wrote a few dozen rags from the turn-of-the-century until his death in 1917, all works of great craftsmanship, but this composer of diverse talents also wrote waltzes, marches, two operas, a ballet.

Born to freed slaves in 1868 in northeast Texas in a town later named Texarkana, Joplin was reportedly in Chicago at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, and he may have heard ragtime played by African-Americans who congregated there (the music was probably not named ragtime yet). He settled in Sedalia, Missouri in 1894 and composed when he found time between jobs as a musician at prostitution houses and in society dance bands. His earliest published compositions were not rags but parlor-type songs (lyrics by Joplin), marches, a waltz. The ragtime genre was already established when Joplin's "Original Rags" was published in early 1899, but "Maple Leaf Rag," also published in 1899, was so successful that it sparked widespread interest in ragtime. It was recorded eight times during Joplin's life, with "Wall Street Rag" being the only other Joplin tune recorded before his death. Joplin himself never made phonograph recordings.

In 1900 he collaborated with one of his Sedalia students, Arthur Marshall, on "Swipesy," and its subtitle--"Cake Walk"--is a reminder that ragtime spread with the popularity of this dance. By the time Joplin took up residence in St. Louis in 1901, his fame had spread and the sheet music of "Peacherine Rag" in that year identified Joplin as "the King of Ragtime Writers." His first opera, a two-act work titled The Guest of Honor, opened in East St. Louis on August 30, 1903 but "Scott Joplin's Rag-Time Opera Company" soon disbanded due to financial difficulties. No reviews of performances have been found, and the work itself is lost.

In 1904 John Stark published Joplin's "The Chrysanthemum--An Afro-American Intermezzo," and this is the first time the phrase "Afro-American" appears on sheet music. Joplin wrote a ballet titled The Ragtime Dance, published in 1906. He moved to New York City in 1907, published an instruction book for ragtime enthusiasts, and wrote various ragtime gems including "Pine Apple Rag," "Euphonic Sounds," "Solace," "Scott Joplin's New Rag."

He also composed Treemonisha, a folk opera with ragtime influences, not a ragtime opera. Joplin wrote the libretto along with the score. The subject matter--an Arkansas community of former slaves--was refreshingly different but the work is dramatically weak, a consequence of Joplin having little theatrical experience. He copyrighted a piano-vocal score of Treemonisha in 1911 but failed to secure backing for a full production (its premiere was in 1972). By 1915 he suffered the effects of syphilis, and piano rolls made in 1916 do not reflect Joplin's earlier skills as a player. He died in 1917 at age 49.


Berlin, Edward. King of Ragtime. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Blesh, Rudi and Harriet Janis. They All Played Ragtime. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1950.

(Message sent Fri 13 Oct 1995, 04:03:24 GMT, from time zone GMT-0500.)

Key Words in Subject:  Defining, Joplin, Ragtime

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