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An Introduction To Ragtime

April 23, 2008

I first heard Ragtime music as a young boy in the 1970s. Although The Sting, a 1973 movie featuring the music of Ragtime great Scott Joplin, help popularize the genre to 1970s audiences, my introduction came through my grandfather.

Robert P. Sevy, my maternal grandfather, likely heard the music as a boy in the 1920s. But Ragtime’s roots lie in the 1890s and perhaps earlier. Joplin did not invent the genre, but his name became associated with it in 1899 when his first big hit, Maple Leaf Rag, was published. More information on this is available in the Ragtime and Joplin links above.

As a long-time Missouri resident and appreciator his state’s history, my grandfather likely picked up his affinity for Ragtime from a place, Sedalia, Missouri. How? Joplin called Sedalia home from 1894 until sometime just before his April 1, 1917 death in New York City. Beginning around 1980, the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Foundation began hosting an annual festival celebrating the man and his music.

I don’t recall exactly whether my grandfather attended a Joplin festival, but I don’t doubt the probability. One of his hobbies was restoring player pianos. That piano creation utilized paper rolls and a vacuum/bellows system to force key movement. Considering my grandfather’s career as a union machinist, it seems a natural hobby.

The earliest brand, as I understand it, was the Aeolian “Pianola” player piano [see right]. I remember seeing a great many Aeolian piano rolls lying around my grandparents’ house, so that connection did not surprise me. At an auction after his 1994 death, my grandfather’s extensive roll collection and several player pianos—whether restored, repaired, or waiting—drew a great deal of interest. I’m ashamed I didn’t learn more about the mechanics of his most distinctive hobby. But I relive those days, in an inadequate way, when he played those rolls relatively frequently by listening to Scott Joplin’s music via dvd. Even the best sound system is no substitute, however, for having a live piano playing in your room (apparently by a ghost).

The best—an perhaps only—recent biographical writing on Joplin seems to be by Edward A. Berlin. Berlin is an Author’s Guild writer, but apparently not a university scholar. A short, article-length biography by Berlin is available through the foundation’s website, but Berlin has composed a full-length biography as well. Titled King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era (New York: Oxford, 1994), Berlin’s work is still in print. Berlin also writes on Ragtime scholarship in general. Here’s an historiographical essay.

My prompt for these reminiscences and minor historical exploration was a March 2, 2008, Chicago Tribune article. Titled “Revisiting the artistic value of ragtime: Young pianist aims to revive old genre with documentary,” the Howard Reich piece takes a long look at the work of 2005 MacArthur Fellowship awardee Reginald Robinson [right]. Robinson is a Chicago-area pianist who is in the midst of creating a multi-part documentary film on Ragtime. Because of its larger historical references and commentary, I present here some excerpts from Reich’s essay:

Three years after he won a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, or “genius” award, Chicago pianist Reginald Robinson has embarked upon the most ambitious venture of his career.
Armed with camera, tripod, lights and an encyclopedic cultural knowledge, Robinson has begun production on a multi-part documentary film exploring an art form that he has done more to revive than anyone else: ragtime.
If he’s able to complete the project, he believes he finally may start to accomplish what he first set out to achieve in the early 1990s: reawaken this country — and the rest of the world — to the haunting, sweetly syncopated beauty of all-American ragtime music.
“I want people talking about Scott Joplin; I want his name on people’s lips again,” says Robinson, who first discovered ragtime in 7th grade and has striven to unlock its mysteries ever since.
Having taught himself to read music, play the piano, perform classic ragtime and — best of all — pen his own ragtime masterpieces, Robinson already has given this music a vigor and vitality it was sorely lacking before he came along. Visionary Robinson recordings such as “Man Out of Time” (2006), “Euphonic Sounds” (1998), “Sounds in Silhouette” (1994) and “The Strongman” (1993) have proven that ragtime need not be regarded as an ancient musical form. In Robinson’s gifted hands, the music expresses freshly contemporary perspectives.
But with the documentary-in-progress, Robinson takes his quest to a new level, for he knows that a film can reach more people, more powerfully than any single performing artist could do in a lifetime of solo concerts. By tracing the evolution of ragtime and its pivotal role in American social history, Robinson, 35, believes his as-yet untitled film will not only champion the music but correct the unfortunate stereotypes that still cling to it.
“Ragtime kind of got a bad image,” says Robinson, pointing to the thick layer of nostalgia that long has hung over this music, which first blossomed in the 1890s. “People still dress up with long sleeves and garter and derby hats when they play this music. They don’t want things in ragtime to be any different than the way they’ve been for 50 or 60 years. I want to show the reality of it. …”It shouldn’t be played just in some small town for a group of Caucasian folks,” adds Robinson, referring to nostalgic ragtime festivals that dot the Midwest, where the music originally flourished.
The tension in ragtime — as in so many other aspects of American life — not surprisingly originates in the issue of race. Racial strife, in fact, happens to be stamped all over the DNA of this music, which was created by black slaves brought to America. In this country, they applied African musical principles — particularly its systems of offbeat rhythmic accents, or syncopation — to European song forms and instrumentation.
“The use of this driving, exciting propulsiveness in the most complexly developed ways is … a commonplace in the Negro music of Africa and the Americas,” wrote Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis in their landmark book, They All Played Ragtime (originally published in 1950). “Piano ragtime was developed by the Negro from folk melodies and from the syncopations of the plantation banjos. … The treatment of folk music, both white and Negro, according to African rhythmic principles … produced a completely new sort of music.”
Called “ragtime” presumably for its “ragged time” (another term for syncopation), the new music traveled from the plantation to the minstrel show and other formats that demeaned the race that created it. Early ragtime-piano stars, such as Eubie Blake and Jelly Roll Morton, were rebuked by their families for playing the music in the brothels where it thrived.
With racism and vice inextricably linked to ragtime, the music eventually drove away African-American listeners. They “would rather put that part of the past behind them, and who could blame them?” pianist and music scholar Dick Hyman once told the Tribune. “That’s why what Reginald has done is such a brave act of individuality, to go against this attitude the way he has.”
With his documentary film Robinson is intensifying his campaign to bring this music the attention it deserves, notwithstanding its historical associations. For Robinson, the peculiar social status of ragtime music today obscures the importance of the art.
“People say to me all the time, ‘This reminds me … Charlie Chaplin films,'” says Robinson, citing the ragtime tunes often added as background to silent films. While it did accompany silent movies, “Ragtime came out of the minstrels, and the minstrels came out of slavery. It was during slavery that this music came about — the freedom of black people was in the music. They could not be free physically, but they could be free in the music. And you can feel that in the music. … “That’s what I want to say in the film, and that’s why I’m not interviewing just musicians and historians of ragtime but historians of American music, people who know the condition of the country during that time.”

The rest of the article deals with commentary on Robinson’s film project by the music history community, and an update from him on the documentary’s progress. Check it out.

I hope Mr. Robinson’s documentary makes its appearance soon. I’m excited to gain, through the film, an even greater appreciation for both my grandfather’s musical tastes and Ragtime’s larger place in American cultural and social history. I leave you with a reprint of a Joplin mural located in Sedalia, Missouri. – TL

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4 Comments
  1. First introduced to Ragtime by, yes, E.L. Doctorow – the actual man, whose daughter went to school with me while he was writing the book. He had all these old records, and it was amazing stuff. Somewhere I probably still have old cassettes recorded from those records.

  2. Ira,

    Thanks for the comment. I had never heard of the E.L. Doctorow book before researching my post. In fact, even though I cited The Sting in the post, I've not viewed the film beginning to end.

    – TL

  3. Just a note on “Ragtime.” The film is awful because they paid no attention to historical accuracy at all. From the very first shot which pretends that a high Victorian home is the site of the tale, on through. The book is hardly perfect history, but it is a clever rumination on a moment in time. (and from an authorial standpoint, he said it was a psychological lifesaver after the intensity of writing “The Book of Daniel” – which is, by far, Doctorow's best work.

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  1. Robert P. Sevy: His Life, Service, and Politics | Thinking Through History

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