The Ragtime Revolution | Ragtime | Scott Joplin



Jean Reynolds
Professor Frank Burton
ENG 1102
3 August 2015

The Ragtime Revolution
In 1976 a Pulitzer Prize was posthumously awarded to an African-American
composer who had died in poverty in 1917 at the age of forty-eight. That man was Scott
Joplin, and the music he championed was called ragtime. At the time of his death,
ragtime was losing popularity, and for the next forty years only a small number of
enthusiasts kept performing his music. But by the 1970s, Americans were rediscovering
the “ragged rhythms and lilting melodies” (Curtis 1) of ragtime, and an amazing revival
began. Music publishers sold huge numbers of ragtime recordings and sheet music, and
scholars began to take a closer look at ragtime and its role in American music.
Historians today point to the ragtime era (1895-1915) as a turning point in American
musical history. According to music scholars William Schafer and Johannes Riedel,
“Ragtime effected a total musical revolution, the first great impact of black folk culture
on the dominant white middle-class culture of America” (xi).
Thanks to ragtime’s fusion of black rhythms and traditional European musical
forms, it became “the first distinctively American musical style” (Smithsonian 227). The
United States was still a young country, and both its popular songs and serious musical
compositions were based on European hymns, folk songs, and marches. But ragtime,
with its complex African rhythms and syncopated melodies, helped Americans make a
dramatic break from the music of the past. The “Maple Leaf Rag,” for example, employs



an African-American hexaotonic scale that would later be called “the blues scale” and
become a common feature of black music (Stewart 97).
Scott Joplin’s musical compositions prompted Americans to start altering their
assumptions about African-Americans. “One of ragtime’s major contributions was to
emphasize the black musician’s ability to conceive and score a formalized instrumental
music, quite an abstract form” (Schafer 35). Although Joplin (1868-1917) is most
remembered for his bestselling piano compositions (called “rags”), he was a versatile
and accomplished musician who experimented with other musical forms. A Joplin suite
called The Ragtime Dance is still performed today, and Joplin also composed two
operas. Just before Joplin died, he announced that he was working on a symphony
(Berlin 238).
As the ragtime craze spread across the United States, ragtime became embedded in
American culture. Schafer and Riedel say that ragtime “inspired a new direction in the
American musical theater” (xi), and they find a direct link between ragtime and “later
developments in black music—specifically jazz” (xii). Ragtime was heard everywhere:
Alice Roosevelt, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, once interrupted a
diplomatic reception at the White House to ask the Marine Band to play Joplin’s “Maple
Leaf Rag” (White 216).
Although ragtime traces its origins to African-American rhythms, it brought black
and white musicians together right from the beginning. The first rag ever published was
the “Mississippi Rag” composed by a white musician, William Krell, in 1897. Scott
Joplin got his start when white businessman John Stark published Joplin’s “Maple Leaf
Rag.” Although few black composers were paid royalties for their work in those days,
Stark agreed to pay Joplin for each copy sold. According to Edward Berlin, this contract



“gave him sufficient income to change the conditions and course of his life” (56). Sales
from this one piece of music enabled Joplin to “meet most of his basic expenses” for life
(58). John Stark also benefited from the arrangement. Finding himself “the surprised
owner of the hottest copyright in ragtime” (Jasen 17), Stark expanded his publishing
business and moved from the small town of Sedalia, Missouri to St. Louis and then to
New York City.
White women were hugely important in the development of ragtime. Five-and-dime
stores promoted sales by hiring pianists to perform the latest music in their stores.
Often the music was ragtime and the performer was a woman. Superstar Judy Garland
was one of those pianists, and her daughter Liza Minnelli portrayed one of those
pianists in the film In the Good Old Summertime (Luft 8). Even more important were
the female composers of ragtime. Max Morath, a white performer who did much to keep
ragtime alive in the twentieth century, explained, “Ragtime was ’black,’ the ragtime
women were white” (155). Irene Giblin was a talented pianist who played ragtime in a
department store in St. Louis and went on to compose rags herself. A research study by
Max Morath and John Edward Hasse found that by 1930 at least 220 women had
published at least one rag or ragtime song (White 316).
The most famous black-white collaboration brought together Joseph Lamb, a young
white man who composed ragtime, and Scott Joplin. When Joplin heard Lamb’s
“Sensation Rag,” he persuaded John Stark to publish it and encouraged Lamb to
continue composing. According to Carol Binkowski, Lamb’s biographer, “This was the
beginning of a very cordial friendship between Joe Lamb and Scott Joplin” (81). Lamb
eventually published twelve rags with James Stark, and he began composing again
during the ragtime revival that began in the 1950s.



Ragtime’s most important achievement was to turn America from a musical follower
into a world leader. The tables began to turn in 1892, when Czech composer Antonin
Dvorak moved to the United States. An avid folklorist, he urged American composers to
incorporate black musical ideas into their compositions (Berlin 87). Soon a number of
European musicians began to find inspiration in the infectious rhythms of ragtime.
Musical innovators found in ragtime “an opportunity to explore a provocative approach
to matters of meter and rhythm quite foreign to their own cultural experience”
(Bomberger 84).
The popularity of ragtime grew rapidly both in America and overseas. John Philip
Sousa first introduced European audiences to ragtime at the Paris Exposition in 1900,
where Sousa’s band won a prize for its rendition of “My Ragtime Baby” by Fred Stone
(Southern 319). Soon musicians overseas began to recognize that ragtime was “a music
of enduring worth, revolutionary in concept and development” (Blesh 5).
As ragtime traveled across Europe, serious musicians began to incorporate its
rhythms into many of their compositions. “The quality of ragtime is, of course, what
attracted not only musicians like Debussy, Stravinsky, Satie, Ives, and Sousa, but also
millions of people here and abroad” (Schuller 80). Schafer and Riedel also name Darius
Milhaud, Paul Hindemith, and Maurice Ravel as composers inspired by ragtime (xi).
More than 115 years have passed since Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” captured the
hearts of music lovers in America and around the world. Since that time, racial barriers
have continued to fall, and American jazz, pop music, and musical theater have won
worldwide renown. Although for a time America seemed to forget about the role that
ragtime played in its history, that mistake has been corrected. Ragtime scholarship
continues to flourish, with new articles and books appearing all the time. H. Loring

White notes that there are at least six ragtime festivals every year, and ragtime is also
featured at many jazz festivals (2). New recordings appear every year, and composers
have begun to compose rags again. Joplin’s opera Treemonisha has been performed in
the United States, Italy, Finland, and Germany. According to Schaefer and Riedel,
ragtime “will endure as long as people have the sensibilities to understand its beauty
and its strength” (159).




Works Cited
Berlin, Edward A. King of Ragtime. New York: Oxford U Press, 1994.
Binkowski, Carol J. Joseph F. Lamb: A Passion for Ragtime. Jefferson: McFarland,
Blesh, Rudi and Harriet Janis. They All Played Ragtime. New York: Knopf, 1950.
Bomberger, E Douglas. “European Perceptions of Ragtime.” 83-97. Jazz and the
Germans. Ed. Michael J. Budds. Hillsdale: Pendragon Press, 2002.
Curtis, Susan. Dancing to a Black Man’s Tune. Columbia: Missouri U Press, 1994.
Luft, Lorna. Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir. New York: Gallery, 1999.
Morath, Max. “”May Aufderheide and the Ragtime Women.” 154-165. Ragtime: Its
History, Composers, and Music. Ed. John Edward Hasse. New York: Schirmer,
Jasen, David A. and Gene Jones. Black Bottom Stomp: Eight Masters of Ragtime and
Early Jazz. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Schafer, William J. and Johannes Riedel. Art of Ragtime. Baton Rouge: Louisiana U
Press, 1973.
Schuller, Gunther. “Rags, the Classics, and Jazz.” Ragtime: Its History, Composers, and
Music. Ed. John Edward Hasse. New York: Schirmer, 1985. 79-89.
Smithsonian Music: The Definitive Visual History. DK Publishing, 2013.
Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. New York: Norton, 1997.
Stewart, Earl and Jane Duran. “Scott Joplin and the Quest for Identity.” Journal of
Aesthetic Education 41.2. (2007) : 94-99.
White, H. Loring. Ragging It. Bloomington: iUniverse, 2005.

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