"White music - played black."
Joachim Berendt - The Jazz Book (1976)

RagtimeRagtime was the first black music style to be accepted by whites and it was also the first to become commercially successful. Ragtime reflected the social progress and aspirations of a better educated generation of black musicians, directly the result of urban living.

It was a spontaneous piano based music usually written during performance. However, once a particular piece had been defined, it was seldom improvised upon, later being notated. Ragtime, unlike most other contemporary black music styles, shunned improvisation of any kind, adhering to strict European traditions since its development came about through the influence of the Creoles. Based on a syncopated march beat, ragtime was a joyful mixture of black work songs and European traditional music, also encompassing several dance rhythms such as the jig, two-step and quadrille. It was termed "ragged" simply because of its extremes in syncopation. Technically, it can be defined as four 16 bar themes arranged systematically with specific harmonic relationships.

Ragtime was initially popularized by wandering black piano players who called themselves "perfessors" or "ivory ticklers." Although definitely an upscale music form, it would forever be associated with its places of origin - the saloons, brothels and gin-joints of St. Louis and New Orleans.

The popularity of piano rags spread throughout Missouri and consequently most of the South. New ragtime dance styles were created to coincide with the music. The American public first discovered ragtime music in 1893 at The Chicago World Fair and by 1896, a very light skinned black called Ben Harney was appearing at Tony Pastor's 14th Street Theatre in New York City, billed unrealistically as "The Inventor Of Ragtime." The first appearance of ragtime on sheet music came with the publishing of "My Ragtime Baby" by Fred S. Stone in 1893 and in January of 1897, "Missouri Rag" by William Krills became the first piano rag to be copyrighted. Then in September of 1899, Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" sold well over 400,000 copies and everyone immediately jumped on the ragtime bandwagon. Several other black ragtime pianist/ composers achieving notoriety included Otis Saunder, Jesse Pickett and Joplin protégés James Scott, Scott Hayden and Arthur Marshall. None however, were able to match the impact of their mentor.

Ragtime piano had been taught to Scott Joplin by Louis Chauvin who had allegedly perfected the art. Piano rags had actually been played in Sedalia and St. Louis years before when the style in its earliest form had been labelled "jig piano." Later, small combos featuring five string banjos, harmonicas, washboards, empty liquor jugs, fiddles and various homemade percussion instruments played a primitive form of ragtime. Originally, they were called jigbands or jugbands and later when ragtime became commercially successful, it was played by larger ensembles featuring more conventional instrumentation.

In 1905, French impressionist composer Claude-Achille Debussy incorporated ragtime syncopation into his "Golliwog Cakewalk." However, it was white Tin Pan Alley songwriter Irving Berlin who took ragtime to the masses with his 1911 composition, "Alexander's Ragtime Band." Although not technically ragtime, the use of the term spread like wildfire causing almost any rhythmic music to be labelled ragtime. Classical composer Igor Stravinsky saluted ragtime with his "Ragtime For Eleven Instruments"(1918) and "Piano-rag Music"(1920).

A list of classic ragtime pieces would not be complete without the inclusion of Egbert Van Alstyne's "Easy Pickin's"(1902), Bob Cole's "Under The Bamboo Tree"(1902), Tom Turpin's "St. Louis Rag"(1903) and Charles Johnson's "Porcupine Rag"(1909). And between 1910 and 1920, some of the best novelty rags were written by Felix Arndt and Zez Confrey. One interesting ragtime vocal recording was "King Of The Bungaloos" by Gene Greene (Feb., 1911), which featured an odd combination of pig Latin, vocaleese and pre-Louis Armstrong scatting.

Ragtime had definitely helped promote the popularity of rhythm and syncopation in American music and the ballroom dance phenomenon had come on its coattails. But by the late teens, a more adventurous black music form called jazz had began to eclipse ragtime's popularity. Actually, ragtime never really died, it simply permeated various other succeeding music styles. Also, the phonograph record had superseded the parlor piano and helped push ragtime out of the spotlight. It took a movie called "The Sting" (1974) and a hit version of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer," recorded by Marvin Hamlisch to create a renewed interest in ragtime, reminding the public of Joplin's importance in American music history. In 1996, a Broadway musical titled "Ragtime" captured the flavour of the ragtime era.


The cakewalk was "the" ragtime dance. It began as a tongue-in-cheek poke at white snobbery and the so-called upper crust. A dance of endurance, the body was bent backward, legs kicking in time with the on-beat, tipping the hat and swinging a cane. The higher the kicker, the better the dancer. Often the music would increase in tempo until it was almost impossible to keep up. Dance routines featuring haughty airs and high attitudes could become quite elaborate.

The origin of its name came from the main prize given at early dance contests......a cake. It was introduced commercially to whites by the vaudeville team Genaro and Bailey at a Georgia camp meeting and first presented in Europe by Vernon and Irene Castle.