The renewed interest in ragtime, the American popular music of the first two decades of this century, among serious (or “classical”) musicians, is one of the most curious cases of changing musical taste in recent years. The revival began in 1970, when a recording of eight piano rags of Scott Joplin, the most important of the ragtime composers, appeared on the Nonesuch classical label.1 The record, which soon became a best-seller, was the idea of Joshua Rifkin, then a twenty-six-year-old pianist with degrees in composition from the Juilliard School of Music and in musicology from Princeton University. Rifkin was not rediscovering forgotten or previously unrecorded material, for ragtime had remained popular with jazz and Dixieland audiences. But he played the music differently from the “flashy school of ragtime,” as he called it. Jazz musicians had altered the steady beat of the music, adding syncopations and in the process destroying the contrasts which highlighted the melodies; Dixieland musicians had done the pieces very fast, damaging their lyrical qualities. Rifkin, however, played the music exactly as written and observed the admonition, often printed on ragtime music, that “It is never right to play ‘Ragtime’ fast.” What emerged was a subtle and delicate music, with graceful melodies and compelling rhythms, which captivated a large new audience.
The next major step in the revival was the publication of Joplin’s complete works by the New York Public Library. With these now so easily available, ragtime recordings—on classical labels and featuring classically-trained musicians—inundated the market in versions not only for the piano, for which the music was originally written, but also for harpsichord, Moog synthesizer, violin, and band.2 And along with the recordings flowed a stream of books and articles, some scholarly, some popular, but all making large claims for the artistic importance of ragtime.
No one knows where the term “ragtime” came from. It may be derived from the “ragged” melodic outlines of the music, or it could be a corruption of “jig-time,” or perhaps it came from the custom among blacks of putting out a white flag, which was called a rag, to announce that a party with music and dancing was about to begin. In any case, the style was created during the last years of the 19th century by itinerant black musicians of the Midwest out of a mixture of previously disparate elements. From the minstrel song, they took the melodic style characteristic of banjo accompaniment; from the march, they took the bass figures and rhythms; from the cakewalk—a black dance that became a popular fad in the 1890’s—they took a mock-serious combination of stately procession and energetic improvisation. By the turn of the century, the piano rag had developed into a highly stylized form, usually consisting of four themes, repeated one after another, with a reprise of the first theme after the second. Its characteristic sound came from a combination of syncopation and steady beat: the left hand played a relentless bass pattern (what jazz musicians call a “boom-chick bass”), while the right hand played a syncopated melody, that is, one which started or ended off the beat.
Although in its own time this music was very successful with a large public, its present-day partisans seem to delight in emphasizing the difficulties that faced ragtime composers like Joplin and the other two leading composers of rags, James Scott and Joseph Lamb.3 William J. Schafer and Johannes Riedel, for example, in their book The Art of Ragtime,4 devote much space to quoting the unsympathetic and sometimes intemperate reviews of ragtime that appeared in music journals of the day. There is some remarkably purple prose in those early reviews and, separated from us by sixty years, they make amusing reading:
A wave of vulgar, filthy, suggestive music has inundated the land. Nothing but ragtime prevails, and the cakewalk with its obscene posturing, its lewd gestures. . . .
[Ragtime] denotes a species of music almost invariably associated with particular dances of a lascivious or merely ridiculous kind. . . . The Valse Lente [a popular dance of the 19th century] might and doubtless did, drive people to conjugal infidelity, but ragtime, I verily believe, drives them to mania.
Rifkin too makes much of the opposition to ragtime, particularly to the problems Joplin encountered in trying to arrange production of his opera Treemonisha.5 According to Rifkin, Joplin’s will was broken when he could find neither publisher nor producer for the opera:
The disaster of Treemonisha dealt a mortal blow to the composer’s spirit. Changes in his personality had already begun to disturb his wife and friends. His quiet, level temperament became unpredictable, his behavior tense, suspicious, increasingly moody. His skill at the piano declined seriously. After the debacle, the pace of the disintegration increased, until Joplin had to be taken to Manhattan State Hospital in the fall of 1916. Even there, he continued to compose during occasional lucid moments, feverishly sketching and revising. But Joplin never recovered, and he died in the hospital on April 1, 1917.
Here Joplin is cast as a doomed prophet, a composer ahead of his time, denied recognition because of the philistine tastes of his publishers and the public, and because of his dedication to high principles. No mention is made of the fact that Joplin had for years been suffering from, and finally died of, syphilis, which characteristically produces the personality changes Rifkin describes, without the need of “mortal blows” from any other source.
Perhaps one reason Joplin is so often cast in the role of neglected genius is that this idea fits conveniently with the current emphasis on the importance of racial discrimination, as well as the desire—itself an element in the revival of ragtime—to assert the worth of black culture. In his essay, “Scott Joplin: Black-American Classicist,” Rudi Blesh calls Joplin an “all-but-forgotten black-American genius,” and attributes this to snobbery and prejudice against black culture:
Quickly, then, ragtime began to meet with fanatic opposition from an informal entente of the moralist prudes, the Europe-oriented culture snobs, and an Academy that felt suddenly challenged. . . . The real trouble with ragtime was not that it was no good but that it was too good, and it had, so to speak, been born out of wedlock, with at least part of its parentage black.
These interpretations not only conveniently ignore important elements of Joplin’s life, but they also misrepresent the development of popular music in the 20th century. First, Joplin was a supremely successful composer, as successful for his time as any popular composer is today. Born in Texas in 1868, the son of former slaves, Joplin left home at fourteen to become an itinerant musician, wandering around Texas, Louisiana, and Missouri, up and down the Mississippi, playing piano on riverboat steamers, or in gambling halls and brothels, joining up with traveling shows and squeezing out a living from low wages and tips. But within months of the publication of “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1899, Joplin had become a rich and famous man, and he continued to earn substantial sums from his music until his death in 1917. Neither James Scott—who was also black and who worked as a sheet-music salesman for much of his life and later taught music and did arrangements for silent-film theaters—nor Joseph Lamb—who was white and who worked in his family’s prosperous import business—made as much money out of his ragtime compositions as Joplin. But both did reasonably well.
As for the bad reviews that ragtime received, it should be noted that the academic defenders of serious music in that period attacked all the popular music of the day (just as they often do today). Besides, ragtime—to a much greater extent than the music of Tin Pan Alley composers such as Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern—received its share of highbrow reviews that were good and some that were even glowing. For example, in 1915, Hiram K. Moderwell, music critic for the New Republic, wrote of ragtime that
it has carried the complexities of rhythmic subdivision of the measure to a point never before reached in the history of music. It has established subtle conflicting rhythms to a degree never before attempted in any popular music or folk-music and rarely enough in art music. . . . It has gone far beyond most other popular music in the freedom of inner voices (yes, I mean polyphony) and of harmonic modulation.
Far from showing the ragtime composer as a man ahead of his time, the facts of Joplin’s life and career suggest a close relationship between composer and audience, and a direct link with the musical traditions of the time.
Second, it is a great exaggeration to suggest that Joplin was an “all-but-forgotten” composer until the recent revival. “Maple Leaf Rag” has never been out of print since it was first published. Performers, critics, and a substantial audience have played, written about, and listened to ragtime throughout the seventy-five-year period since the birth of the style. And finally, the relative decline of ragtime cannot be blamed on hostility to black culture, since it was another form of black music—jazz—that became the new rage when the original ragtime boom finally receded; and it was black performers and composers, like Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington, who pioneered and profited from the change.
This change, however, probably had more to do with the development of the popular-music market than with considerations of a strictly aesthetic character. Before 1900, sheet music was the only practicable way to distribute a composer’s work, and popular songs and piano pieces were—at prices of two dollars a copy and more—out of reach of a mass market. Besides, a high level of musical culture was required to read and play sheet music. But in the last years of the 19th century, the popular market was transformed. The cost of sheet music dropped to a quarter or fifty cents, and mechanical means of reproduction—the piano roll, the Edison cylinder, the Gramophone—became readily available. The result was an unprecedented growth in the popular-music market. Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” the piece that inaugurated the ragtime craze, eventually sold more than a million copies in sheet music and, along with other ragtime hits, was widely recorded. The new market supported an enormous growth in music publishing and a newfound prosperity among composers. And just as it had raised up ragtime and enriched its composers and publishers, the market turned away from ragtime toward the end of World War I, when the mass audience began tiring of it and the new vogue of jazz began proving more salable.
The attempt to assimilate ragtime into the romantic myth of the artist neglected and destroyed by a Philistine society can be seen as part of an effort to remove ragtime from this world of popular music and recast it as “serious” or “classical” music. And indeed, we now have an extensive critical literature which treats Joplin, Scott, and Lamb as composers of art music comparable to (although presumably less accomplished than) the great European masters. Schafer and Riedel, for example, argue that the best ragtime composers “forged a large body of finished and self-consistent works of art” which deserve to be played with “the same love and care given to Bach, Chopin, or Bartok.” Rudi Blesh, in his prolific proselytizing for the ragtime cause, finds composers in every period to compare with one or another ragtime composer: Joplin is “the towering Bach of ragtime”; Scott is “the Liszt to the Chopin of Joplin”; and Lamb is the composer of “Chopinesque” melodies. By 1975, Rory Guy, writing notes for a ragtime record, could conclude that “The recognition of ragtime as a legitimate classical form has at last been accorded.”
The trouble with all this is that ragtime simply does not stand up “as a legitimate classical form.” It is true that of all the forms of popular music, ragtime is the most amenable to “classical” treatment by performers. Unlike jazz and folk music, ragtime is not improvisatory. It is fully written out, with scores that can be studied and performed with no reliance on aural tradition. And unlike the work of the popular songwriters, ragtime is written for the solo piano—the preeminent classical instrument. Nevertheless, it is also true that the rag is a modest form, with a structure and technique that are simply elementary beside a Bach fugue or a Chopin sonata.
Nor do such bigger and more ambitious works as Joplin’s opera Treemonisha bear out the larger claims for this music. Set on an Arkansas plantation in 1884, Treemonisha is the story of a black child of that name, who as a baby is found under a tree, raised by a kind but ignorant black couple, educated by a white woman, and destined to become a leader by virtue of her education. The opera tells how Treemonisha quarrels with three evil old (black) conjurers, is kidnapped by them, is saved, and finally brings enlightened leadership to the plantation.
One problem with Treemonisha is the libretto, which is clumsily constructed and written, even by the not very exacting literary standards of the genre. Joplin spends most of the first act lackadaisically explaining Treemonisha’s strange arrival and upbringing, then has her kidnapped and rescued within little more than half an act, and then, anticlimactically, gives us half of the second act and all of the third act to watch a reunion with her family and her triumph over the evil old men. Joplin is also more interested in teaching lessons than in maintaining dramatic tensions. For example, one song, entitled “Wrong is Never Right: A Lecture,” contains the following lyrics:
Never treat your neighbors wrong,
By making them feel blue,
Remember that the whole day
The Creator is watching you,
Never do wrong for revenge,
In the day or night,
Wrong must not a right in-fringe,
For wrong is never right.
and the chorus sings:
Wrong is never right,
That is very true,
Wrong is never right,
And wrong you should not do. . . .
But the real problem is with the music. Abandoning the ragtime idiom in all but a few sections, Joplin wrote Treemonisha in conventional rhythms and harmonies that owe more to Victorian parlor songs and Italian opera than to the folk sources that give his piano rags their authenticity and appeal. The result, with the exception of a few numbers that do employ the ragtime idiom (such as “Aunt Dinah has Blowed de Horn” and “A Real Slow Drag”), is derivative music without grace or energy.
Although musical and social pretensions are at the root of Treemonisha‘s troubles, it is these very qualities that the new partisans of ragtime praise in arguing that Treemonisha was Joplin’s greatest accomplishment as a composer. Schafer and Riedel argue that “Treemonisha is the first demonstrably great American opera,” precisely because it uses conventional forms of Western opera like the overture, the aria, and the recitative, in combination with a native musical idiom. And Carmen Moore, in her introductory notes to the opera for the New York Public Library edition, likewise ignores the derivative aspects of the music to emphasize the opera’s achievement and its relevance to American blacks of today:
Time and the experiences of highly-educated black Americans including Scott Joplin have shown that the elimination of educational deficiencies was not the black man’s panacea and that for education to be relevant an institution called racial prejudice would have to be brought down. But now as blacks begin to enter a new era of creative independence the message about education begins to sound valuable again. . . . There is little music in Treemonisha which is not thoroughly timeless, totally American in the sense in which Dvorak meant it, or black and beautiful in the sense that the most progressive young black minds could imagine.
It would not be difficult to find fault with either the social or musical analysis in such passages, but the real danger of these reinterpretations is that the best of ragtime will be lost in the effort to make the music into something that it is not. Ragtime’s great achievement is in the modest pieces—the piano rags. Some are minor masterpieces, intricately carved, delicate works. Joplin turned out perhaps a dozen of these nearly perfect little works: “Maple Leaf Rag,” “The Entertainer,” “The Easy Life,” “Cascades,” “Solace,” “Euphonic Sounds,” “The New Rag,” and “Magnetic Rag,” to name a few. The best of James Scott and Joseph Lamb, although never reaching Joplin’s standard, are also very good indeed—works like Scott’s “Frog Legs,” “Grace and Beauty,” and “Climax Rags,” or Lamb’s “Sensation,” “American Beauty,” and “Patricia Rags.”
The ragtime revival has performed a valuable service in making these pieces readily available again, often in fine performances. But it also threatens to weigh them down with too much seriousness, and rob them of their vitality. Ragtime music came from saloons and cat-houses and it was meant to entertain. The music falls apart if played too slowly or with too much introspection. If ragtime’s friends go on burdening it with an unnecessary load of musical pretension and political meaning, they may end by sinking this music into a deeper oblivion than the relative neglect from which the ragtime revival rescued it.
1 Nonesuch H-71248.
2 Among the noteworthy recordings are two more volumes of Joplin piano rags played by Rifkin (Nonesuch H-71264 and H-71305); a five-record set of Joplin’s complete works for the piano, played by Dick Hyman on RCA CRL-5-1106; and a violin-piano adaptation by Itzhak Perlman and André Previn, on Angel S-37113, that communicates a spontaneity and humor rare among recent recordings.
3 A selection of Scott’s music is available, played by John Jensen on Genesis GS-1044; Lamb’s rags are on a companion volume, Genesis GS-1045.
4 Louisiana State University Press, 249 pp., $10.00.
5 The opera recently had a Broadway performance, and a recording of it with the Broadway cast and the Houston Grand Opera, conducted by Gunther Schuller, has just become available in a two-record set on Deutsche Grammophon, 270783.