How Ragtime Was Made in America and Mangled in Europe

A brief history of an indelible art form.

It was a ragged sound, some said. The rhythms—typically syncopated tunes that don’t quite line up over a steady oom-pah bass—had their roots in the indigenous music of the Caribbean and South America, and ultimately in Africa. Piquantly and irresistibly, these syncopations both play against and point up the toe-tapability of the underlying march, the melodies curling like vines around it. Like the bouncing 2/4 beat, the overall form also came from Sousa marches—16-bar paragraphs and a second section in a contrasting key, in and out in three to four minutes. The harmonic language, easy on the ear with a dash of bittersweet, was crafted to appeal to lovers of the Victorian parlor song and the lesser followers of early romantic composers like Chopin and Schumann.

Thanks to the genius of American composers like James Scott, Louis Chauvin, and above all Scott Joplin, all these streams fed together in the last years of the 19th century to create something quite unprecedented. There had been earlier contributions to the European art-music tradition—the Colonial-era anthems of composer William Billings, plain and strong as Shaker furniture, could have been written nowhere but here—but ragtime was the first to become a mass-culture phenomenon. Born in bars and brothels, raised in social clubs, and coming out at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, it made its way into respectable houses via sheet-music sales—one million copies, it is claimed, for Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.”

But what was truly new was its influence on other composers, especially those in Europe— whose work will be on display during a March 18 Meany Hall recital by pianist Jeremy Denk. In addition to an example of classic piano ragtime, the “Sunflower Slow Drag” co-written by Joplin and Scott Hayden, Denk will play works by composers inspired by it—who found ragtime’s rhythmic freshness intriguing and its connection to black culture fashionably exotic, and who freely collaged it, kaleidoscoped it, and funhouse-mirrored it.

And misinterpreted it. By the time the term reached Europe just after World War I, “ragtime” became a catch-all label for jazz, Tin Pan Alley tunes, Broadway musicals, practically all of American popular music. Stravinsky, fascinated by the phenomenon, included a rag in his theater piece The Soldier’s Tale and wrote a Ragtime for 11 Instruments, both in 1918. His Piano-Rag-Music from the following year explodes everything he heard as American and reassembles the shards. Amusingly, the passages that sound the most traditional are the ones in which he chose not to use barlines in the score, resulting in an elegant flow coming closer to that heard in Joplin’s compositions.

The densely dissonant “Ragtime” finale from Paul Hindemith’s piano suite 1922 is a machine-age evocation; to most Europeans at the time, America = modernity = machines. You could hear it as the soundtrack to Metropolis, if that epic silent film had a scene set in a Kansas City saloon. Ives’ four “Ragtime Dances” subject the style to a mad chaos of fragmentations and quotations; his biographer Jan Swafford calls them “cubistic ragtime, enlivened with slapstick.” Yet Ives’ enthusiasm for the style was not without condescension, and worse: “It is something like wearing a derby hat on the back of the head, a shuffling lilt of a happy soul just let out of a Baptist church in old Alabama,” he wrote in 1920. “Perhaps we know [ragtime] now as an ore before it has been refined into a product. It may be one of nature’s ways of giving art raw material. . . . It has its uses as the cruet on the boarding-house table has.” Ugh. No music ever written is more “refined” and less “raw” than Joplin’s best, like his “Gladiolus Rag,” “Heliotrope Bouquet,” or “Weeping Willow.”

Going back to the real thing, Denk will also play jazz pianist Art Tatum’s take on Vincent Youmans’ “Tea for Two”: suave, glittering, ornate, a breathtaking showpiece. And one final example from Denk’s program will bring ragtime up to its 1970s revival and re-appreciation—when, within a few years, pianist Joshua Rifkin made best-selling Joplin recordings for Nonesuch; the composer’s magical operatic fable Treemonisha was reconstructed and recorded; and the inclusion of Marvin Hamlisch’s orchestrations of his rags in the soundtrack to the film The Sting earned an Oscar and a Grammy. Seattle-born ragtime enthusiast William Bolcom himself contributed to the genre with Three Ghost Rags. The first of these, “Graceful Ghost” from 1970, is a direct homage to Joplin’s bittersweet, elegiac side, and probably the single loveliest piano piece of the past half-century.

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