Seen as the first truly American musical genre, ragtime was born of a union between European classical marches – such as those of John Philip Sousa – and African-American polyrhythmic folk and dance music like the cakewalk. Developed in the 1890s in African-American communities in the southern Midwest and Missouri, ragtime remained popular until about 1918, when it was displaced by the emergence of jazz. Significant ragtime revivals occurred in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1970s.
Early musical leaders of ragtime included Ernest Hogan, who coined the term “ragtime” and helped develop the genre; he published some of the earliest sheet music rags in 1895. Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb, and James Scott are known as “The Big Three” ragtime composer-pianists of the early twentieth century. Irving Berlin developed and popularized the vocal ragtime, or “ragtime song,” in 1911’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
The outstanding characteristic of ragtime music is syncopation, which creates a ragged rhythm by putting melodic accents in between big beats of the music. These springy rhythms make ragtime ideal music for dancing. Usually composed in 2/4 or 4/4 time for the piano, the left hand plays bass notes on the strong beats (one and three) and chords on the weak beats (two and four), while the right hand plays a syncopated melody.
Though ragtime originated on the piano, it has been transcribed and directly composed for brass bands, guitars and banjos, and full orchestras. Many different styles of ragtime have emerged or branched off from the genre, such as the two-step, cakewalk, characteristic march, ragtime song, classic rag, novelty piano, and stride piano.
As stated above, Scott Joplin, known as the “King of Ragtme,” pioneered ragtime with his “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer.” But not until the 1970s did ragtime experience a boom in recordings and recognition. In 1971, Joshua Rifkin’s album Scott Joplin: Piano Rags, was nominated for a Grammy award. Two years later, The New England Ragtime Ensemble won a Grammy for The Red Back Book, a set of orchestrations of Joplin’s rags. In the same year, Marvin Hamlisch’s version of Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” which he had written for the film The Sting, won an Academy Award.
Ragtime famously preceded and led to the development of jazz – especially swing – around 1917. The former genre fell out of favor once jazz became popular, in part due to the fact that ragtime was spread via sheet music and piano rolls, while jazz spread more quickly via live performances and recordings. Composer-pianist Jelly Roll Morton bridged ragtime and early jazz in compositions like “Black Bottom Stomp.” James P. Johnson and Fats Waller pointed toward early jazz by combining ragtime with blues and improvisation to create the stride piano style.
Returning to one half of its roots, ragtime also influenced early-twentieth-century European classical music. Claude Debussy composed Golliwogg’s Cakewalk in 1908 and Igor Stravinsky wrote his “Piano-Rag-Music” in 1919. Scott Joplin also wanted to bring together ragtime and opera, which he attempted in his opera Treemonisha, but its first performance failed – it was rediscovered and fully staged in 1972.
Ragtime is not hugely popular today, but some younger musicians – Jay Chou, The Kitchen Syncopaters, and Inkwell Rhythm Makers – incorporate ragtime into their music. Modern ragtime composers include William Bolcom, Treor Tichenor, and David Thomas Roberts.