By ALBERT EVANS, Artistic Associate
On a bright spring morning, in the city of New Rochelle, New York, E. L. Doctorow sat at his desk in a darkened room, staring at the wall. A fresh sheet of paper stood in his typewriter, but an idea for a new novel eluded him.
Doctorow was determined to keep to his daily writing schedule, so he lit his pipe and began to describe what he saw—the wall. Having soon exhausted that subject, he moved on to the room and the rest of the house: a spacious residence built in the early 1900s. He began to imagine the family that might have lived there during that time—dominant white Protestants, served by second-generation Irish Catholics who cleaned their houses, tended their lawns and lived out of sight “somewhere downtown.”
His novelist’s eye zoomed out to take in nearby New York City, ruled by titans of business, administered by tough politicians and peopled by the full range of humanity, from the upper classes living in marble mansions, to the desperately poor tenement dwellers—the Italians, Poles and Jews who had fled poverty and hunger in their homelands, thousands of them arriving every month on what the rich sneeringly called “rag ships.”
At the bottom of the social ladder were the Blacks, many of them former slaves, who migrated north to escape the new bondage of the Jim Crow laws only to find themselves again unwelcome and unemployable.
But despite the sharp divisions between rich and poor, there was an exciting spirit of change in the city. It was an age of invention and speed—the country was connected by thousands of miles of railroad tracks and telegraph cables. The miraculous new telephone made cross-country vocal communication possible. Men were even building flying machines and conquering the air! The phonograph turned a nation of amateur music makers into a vast audience of listeners. A new kind of music caught the spirit of the age—75 years later, Doctorow would use it as the title of his book: Ragtime.
WHAT WAS THIS MUSIC?
Ragtime began as a way of playing any kind of music by “ragging” the melody, a rhythmic trick which almost certainly originated with the African American plantation culture of the mid-1800s. Over a steady beat—foot stomping or hand clapping—a banjo player would alter a melody so that accents that would normally fall on strong beats might instead playfully land on weak beats, or even between the beats. This was not new — it was called “syncopation” and had been used as an ear-catching effect in folk and classical music for years. But the plantation players would rag the entire melody, beginning to end. These first raggers were amateurs. Nothing was written down, so the origins of ragtime are hard to trace.
Around 1890, ragtime traveled north and was taken up by pianists who entertained in big-city saloons and brothels. Some of these “professors” could actually read and write music. All of them learned from each other and the idea of rags as composed pieces with identifiable authors emerged.
Scott Joplin was one of those authors. Born in Texas in 1867 and raised in Missouri, he was an ambitious and serious-minded kid, one of the first generation of African Americans born after the end of slavery. His parents were both musical, and young Joplin was given free piano lessons by a sympathetic German music professor who introduced him to the classics. In his late twenties, Joplin played in the places where he could find work—in the bars and bordellos. He was enraptured by ragtime, and soon made it his mission to elevate rags to the level of Chopin Nocturnes or Bach Preludes. His first publication, “Original Rags,” brought him notice; his second, “Maple Leaf Rag” (published in 1899) swept the world—the first instrumental piece to sell over a million copies of sheet music. For the next two decades, Joplin’s rags were the gold standard, admired and played all over the world.
Joplin-style “classic ragtime” is a piano genre, a fusion of Black and White styles that seems to musically advocate for the harmony of the races. The left hand is the “White” hand. It lays down the steady “oom-pah” rhythm and four-square chords of the parade march. (John Philip Sousa, America’s March King, was a great Joplin admirer and advocate.) Against that conventional foundation, the right hand—the “Black” hand—plays ragged melodies in the new syncopated style invented by the plantation pickers and fiddlers. Together, the two hands work together like a happy machine, creating an almost hypnotic mood and sustaining it for three or four minutes, the length of a typical rag. Despite the seeming freedom of the right-hand, ragtime is not jazz—its themes are carefully composed and players are not expected to take liberties, except for an occasional virtuosic flourish. Joplin even tried to limit the speed at which his rags were played. Often printed on his music was this:
“Note. Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast.” – Composer
For the first few years of the Ragtime Era, the sheet music titles and cover art made it clear that rags were being offered as examples of “quaint” Black music, often with minstrel show references. But as the music moved out of the saloons and into the genteel parlors of White society, that marketing angle was dropped. Titles became politely vague and artwork depicted well-dressed white couples riding horses, rowing canoes, or attending palm court dances. Neither approach had much to do with the music. But the image of Joplin himself was never obscured or downplayed. His dark, dignified face looks out proudly from his compositions. “Maple Leaf Rag” gave him a secure income that allowed him to pursue the writing of operas, though none ever earned a dime.
As ragtime grew from a novelty to a craze, popular songwriters began naming their marches and two-steps “rags,” even if they had barely a lick of syncopation in them, like Irving Berlin’s breakthrough hit “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” The era of classic ragtime came to an end in 1919, two years after Joplin’s death. The Ragtime Era was followed by the Jazz Age, which borrowed the syncopations of ragtime, added the freedom of improvisation and revoked the speed limit. Ragtime enjoyed a nostalgic mid-century revival, along with Dixieland jazz, barbershop quartets and other “old-timey” styles. Ragtime was typically caricatured as raucous honkytonk music. Male performers wore derbies and striped shirts with sleeve garters; females wore anachronistic flapper dresses and feather boas. The pianos were sometimes tricked out to sound metallic and even out-of-tune.
In 1970, a young musicologist named Joshua Rifkin recorded an album of Joplin rags performed in respectful, authentic style. It was an ear-opening success, and suddenly classic ragtime was back in vogue. The music got another boost when Marvin Hamlisch adapted several of Joplin’s pieces (most prominently “The Entertainer”) for the soundtrack of The Sting. Ragtime, E. L. Doctorow’s best-selling novel, appeared in 1975, followed by a 1981 movie and, in 1996 became the stirring musical you will see today.
Click here for tickets to see Ragtime at The 5th Avenue Theatre.