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The History and Evolution of the Cakewalk


The Cakewalk

The most popular media of American popular music during the evolution of jazz was the military /concert band - the most popular bands being those of J. P. Sousa and Arthur Pryor. The dance orchestra of the era was called the string band or 'society' band that existed in most every town in the U.S. These bands were the main media for the performance of cakewalks.

The cakewalk became one of the most popular of all 
Negro styles of music and reached its zenith around 1899. 
The first published cakewalk was "Walking For Dat Cake," 
published in 1877.

The cakewalk was the first ragtime style music, using a syncopated style and possessing a characteristic rhythm ( o o o ). Music of the era mixed genres and a piece of music could be called a cakewalk, rag, two-step, march or polka when used for dancing.

The ancestor of the cakewalk was the early jigs and reels played on the plantation. The Jigs and reels frequently used the cakewalk rhythm. These early jigs & reels were gathered together into one composition and became the cakewalk form.

Concert performances of cakewalks by military bands led to the development of ragtime. Composers like Arthur Pryor and Abe Holzmann, had a through understanding of the wind idiom and the rhythms of ragtime, and created a new genre of band music. A debt is owed to the street and string bands of New Orleans and their tradition of marching to ragtime music (later to be called jazz).


Marching and dance bands spread ragtime 
rhythms both directly and indirectly. Scott Joplin was a 
member of the Queen City Concert Band in Sedalia. 
Arthur Pryor played with the Sousa Band and had his own 
dance band during the off-season from Sousa's Band. 
The fusing of powerful emotional and rhythmic music 
created a strong repository for new musical expressions.

The popularity of the early cakewalks created the institution of Tin Pan Alley as a force in the music publishing business. Prior to this era there were no large scale commercial operations for this style of music. We mostly find local publishing companies publishing local composer's works. (Ex: the New Orleans publishing firms such as Grunewalds and Werleins.) The cakewalk craze spurred the whole entertainment industry and became as much of an influence as today's current rock era. Irving Berlin remarked that:

"The prominence of bands in early non-vocal ragtime recordings also testifies to the importance of this medium, as do the advertisements for band arrangements in some popular oriented music. For the present it is sufficient to observe that with such an abundance and variety of instrumental and vocal versions of ragtime, the piano genre did not have the prominence it enjoys today."

Not only brass bands but theater and dance bands played the cakewalk and later ragtime music. From the middle 1890's cakewalk and ragtime pieces were published and were available for dance and theater orchestras. Schafer in the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz states:

"The multi-thematic elements of most of the compositions in "The Red Book" (Joplin Rags) influenced early jazz.ragtime was later transcribed for the large concert bands of J. P. Sousa and Arthur Pryor."

Walking For Dat Cake
Rastus on Parade
Uncle Eph's Birthday
Georgia Campmeeting
Pickaninnies on Parade
Coontown Capers
Happy Moses
Koonville Koonlets
Original Jigs & Reels
A Coon Band Contest
Southern Hospitality
Uncle Jasper's Jubilee
A Warm Up In Dixie
Smoky Mokes
Cotton Pickers Rag & Cakewalk
A Warm Reception
Whistling Rufus
Colored Aristocracy
An Ethiopian Mardi Gras
Alabama Dream
Shuffling jasper
Dusky Dudes
Black Smoke
A Nigger in the Fence
The Cakewalk
Peaceful Henry
The Cakewalk Patrol
Coon's Birthday
Mr. Black Man
Bethena Waltz
Keep Moving

Walking For Dat Cake - 1877 - Dave Braham

Written by Dave Braham and Edward Harrigan, this piece was published in 1877. The cakewalk was originally a plantation dance accompanied by banjo music, generally on Sunday when slaves would dress up in fancy clothes and prance around to the music. The custom developed when the master gave a cake to the couple that presented the proudest movements. It then appeared in the minstrel shows and passed into the variety acts of early vaudeville.

The team of Harrigan and Hart presented, in 1877, a musical selection called "Walking For Dat Cake." It was billed as an "exquisite picture of Negro life and customs."

The rhythms are laced with dotted figures with some use of syncopation. However, it was the words that seem to be of more importance than the rhythms at this time, in this song.

The song is divided into four sections with the 4th section an instrumental one before it repeats to a D.C. This piece does not use the traditional cakewalk rhythm and perhaps should not be called an early cakewalk, but the title indicates the use of the activity of cakewalking as a viable article.

The lyrics describe individual participating in the cakewalk. There is no evidence of the traditional cakewalk rhythm but the song contains dotted rhythms. The lyrics state: "No use, we can't keep still; Oh, please to stop dat music, a walking for dat cake."

The Cake Walk Patrol - 1895 - William Krell

A patrol is a march using dynamic characteristics of crescendo and decrescendo. It is in the form of a syncopated march style portraying inept black soldiers and was staple of the minstrel stage. William Krell, one of the most popular and successful composers of his day wrote 'Cakewalk patrol' in 1903. It is labeled a two-step. By its use of united syncopation it pointed the way to ragtime. The cakewalk rhythm is found in the last section, which after a transition, is repeated to end the song. This song exhibits the rhythms of ragtime, and qualifies as one of the earliest, if not the earliest published rag. Cakewalk Patrol makes extensive use of united syncopation in the early sections.

Rastus On Parade - 1895 - Kerry Mills

Rastus on Parade is one of the earliest cakewalk types published. It can be called an early rag, being published in 1895. These early compositions were primarily for piano and identified as to the style of music. Brass Bands were closely associated with early cakewalks and Negro style music. Its champion was Arthur Pryor, trombonist/arranger for the Sousa's Band, later leading his own band. Pryor arranged early Negro music for Sousa. Sousa's Band always played the most popular music of his day along with his regular classical based programs.

"Rastus" gained some notoriety when it was performed by the Sousa Band. The song gained additional notoriety when it was used in a poem "The Colored Band" (1903) by Negro poet Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906).

Georgia Camp Meeting - 1897 - Kerry Mills

Written as a 'two-step, polka or cakewalk' it is in reality a perfect characteristic cakewalk. Kerry Mills, born in Philadelphia in 1869, was perhaps the most popular composer of American popular music in his lifetime, stated: "This march was not intended to be a part of the religious exercise, but when the young folks got together they felt as if they needed some amusement. A cakewalk was suggested and held in a quiet place - hence this music,"

Mills' career reflected the changing trends in American popular music in 1895 to 1915 in detail. He was a skillful and prolific composer capable of writing in any popular idiom. His most lasting composition might be "Red Wing." Mills compositions were the antecedent of classic ragtime and they indicate a bridge between the old two-step danced to Sousa's "Washington Post March and Two-step" and the emerging styles of black-revived dance called the cakewalk. In Mills' music, unlike the grotesque 'coon' songs of the era, the Negro is a medicum of dignity and individuality. His sheet music covers (again unlike the 'coon' song covers of this era), are carefully conceived and executed designed to emphasize the title, the composer's name and a distinct 'Negro image' without resorting to a complex apparatus of symbolism. "Georgia" was the biggest of cakewalk hits and is based on the Civil War tune "Our Boys Will Shine tonight." In "Georgia" one can see the influence of the cakewalk ancestor - the march, and it is band music and not in the keyboard idiom.

Coontown Capers - 1897 - T. Morse

Marked a two-step/cakewalk, "Capers" is march-like but with a syncopated introduction. The sheet music cover list 15 different instrumental combinations that could be used. It is one of the earliest cakewalks using united syncopation throughout, with the traditional use of unison and cakewalk rhythms in bar 13. One interesting part is the vocal in section D (the piece is in four sections), with the melody of the vocal repeated instrumentally to the end of the song. It became commercial viable to add 'coon' song lyrics to cakewalks as cakewalks were selling well. A sample of the lyrics: "Coons will be dancing, Gals will be prancing until the morning bright. Folks will be singing, shouting and winging, capers in Coontown tonight.

Smoky Mokes - 1899 - Abe Holzman

Abe Holzmann (1874-1939) was born in New York City. He was conservatory trained and was the composer of "Bunch of Blackberries" (1900), which was popularized internationally by Sousa. "Smoky Mokes" was a very successful song, and uses united syncopation.

Described as a cakewalk and two-step we find, in the vocal part, a text that is in Negro dialect and is an example of the lyrics in what were called 'coon' songs. Lyrics are by W. Murdoch Lind.

There are two versions that were published. The vocal copy has a picture of Edna Collins in the foreground with a caricature of a Negro in the background. In the instrumental cover there is a picture of four young Negro lads. The cover reminds us that it can be used as a cakewalk or two-step. Also given on the left of the picture is a statement: "published also as a song with humorous darky text." The cakewalk/ragtime song was primarily an instrumental form.

Original Jigs and Reels - 1899 - D. S. Godfrey

Written by D. s. Godfrey in 1899, this is a collection of jigs and reels that have a much earlier origin date than 1899. The origin of the reel has ancient roots, going back to the old Scandinavian, Scottish and English countries. The jig origin is in ancient German and Italian dances. The reel was popular in early America. In it one can see the origin of Negro dancing as described by Lafcadio Hearn: "The dancers danced a double quadrille .but warming with the wild spirit of the music, leaps and shouts, swinging each other off the floor, and keeping time with a precision that shook the building in time to the music.then the music changed to an old Virginia Reel.presented the most grotesque spectacle imaginable.men patted juba and shouted." This type of music and dancing, was the ancestor of the jazz dance. In two of the group we find the use of the cakewalk rhythm.

A Coon Band Contest - 1899 - Arthur Pryor

Arthur Pryor wrote this piece for band concert performance. The music illustrates the link between brass band music and the Negro type music, i.e. the cakewalk. This piece was re-issued in 1918 unaltered except for a new, more fashionable descriptive designation "Jazz Fox Trot." Published in 1899, it is a good example of the cakewalk genre using the characteristic cakewalk rhythm and syncopation. There is also a very characteristic trombone part using 'smears' or 'glissandos.'

Southern Hospitality - 1899 - Arthur Pryor

Marked a ragtime/cakewalk, we find the name of "Sousa's Band" following Pryor's name on the composer's credit. The introduction has an interesting use of the cakewalk rhythm in unison. It is marked "Marcia Moderato," again linking the cakewalk music to the march and brass band. Using both the cakewalk rhythm and the syncopation of ragtime it is a bridge between the two styles.

A Warmin' Up In Dixie - 1899 - E. T. Paull

All of Paull's sheet music covers were very colorful and help sell the piece inside. This piece is described as a 'cakewalk, march and two-step.' Written in 1899, the year that the cakewalk was the most popular, it uses the cakewalk rhythm and remains one of the best examples of the cakewalk idiom.

Cotton Pickers Rag & Cakewalk - 1899 - William Braun

One of the most popular arrangements in New Orleans during its publication, the song is a great example of the cakewalk and its evolution to ragtime.

The composer, William Braun, was born in New Orleans in 1867. He became a prominent bandleader in the city and was most famous for his association with the Rex Carnival Krewe and the Pan-American Life Insurance Company Band. He was associated with a great number of New Orleans Jazz musicians such as Nick LaRocca, Emmett Hardy and Eddie Edwards. He died in 1940.

"Cotton Pickers" is a charming cakewalk and is fun to play. It could be the model for all music that was called a cakewalk. A characteristic of these early cakewalks was the use of the cakewalk rhythm in the 13th and 14th measure of the first section. It was published by one of the leading music stores in New Orleans, the Grunewald Music Company.

An Ethiopian Mardi Gras - 1899 - M. Levi

Marked a 'two-step and cakewalk' this cakewalk contains 6 sections, with not only a repeat of musical material of D in section F, but an added obbligato played by the piccolo (which is preceded by a four bar transition.) Section A (which is in an 8 bar phrase structure-repeated) is again found in section C. This is a more developed cakewalk which breaks the traditional structural form.

Alabama Dream - 1899 - G. Bernard

Written in 1899 Alabama Dream is a good example of a cakewalk that is evolving into what would be called ragtime. New Orleans musicians called the early jazz they played 'ragtime.' In Chicago it became known as jazz. "Alabama" contains many figures in the cakewalk rhythm. The trio uses the cakewalk rhythm - not in the familiar time values of 8ths and 15ths but as 8ths and quarter notes. Interesting counterpoint is used in the trio with the cornet using the cakewalk rhythm in small note values while the clarinet 8th and quarter values. As in many early published musical arrangements, we find a few mistakes in the parts.

Swipsey - 1900 - Arthur Marshall/Scott Joplin

Most early ragtime publications were published for most every musical combination. As it gained in popularity there began piano transcriptions. Joplin assisted the young composer Arthur Marshall in writing this piece which is labeled a cakewalk. The piece is mostly known as a piano solo but it sounds excellent as an instrumental arrangement.

The Darkies Drill - 1903 - Agnes Melville

Marked a 'two-step and cakewalk' this piece comes as the fad and popularity of the cakewalk was fading. We can tell it is later in the development of the style as it contains harmonies foreign to the home key of C Major (the trio), has an Ab7th chord). It is somewhat reminiscent of the 'Patrol' style, popular before the turn of the century. It also contains some tied syncopation (united syncopation), typical of later cakewalks and rags. Section d contains the same melodic material as section B, but is preceded by a 4 bar transition, more typical of ragtime. The dynamics, an important part of a 'patrol' style should be observed and played with care.

Coon's Birthday - 1903 - Paul Linke

Perhaps one of the most developed cakewalks, it begins with the traditional ABA form and then modulates from C to F in the D section (marked trio), with the melody in the lower part, then repeated with the melody in the middle part. Section F presents a more harmonic structure - not typical of cakewalks. This section also contains musical play between the high parts and the low parts, with brief modulations from D major to F minor. Counterpoint is explored in the 13th bar of this section and is developed in Section G, with the melody being stated in the lower part using an obbligato like figure in the high parts. This cakewalk is more developed harmonically than the cakewalks of the 1899 era and shows the cakewalk's progress into becoming a more pianist style and progressing to classic ragtime. Paul Linke was a European composer and a ragtime pianist who is said to have played in San Francisco. His melodism is typical of European composers attempting to write cakewalks and ragtime.

Mr. Blackman - 1904 - Arthur Pryor

Marked 'march and two-step' "Mr. Blackman" is a fully developed cakewalk. In the 2nd section we find unison and the cakewalk rhythm I the 13th and 14th measures as was tradition with any 'authentic' cakewalk. There is an interesting use of the Scotch Snap (16note followed by a doted 8th). To what is similar to a musical trio, we find lyrics in the sheet music, the melody being repeated with new music. Except for the Negro dialect, the lyrics are not the traditional 'coon' song lyrics and show the respect Pryor had for this style.

Bethena Waltz - 1905 - Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin is known for his many ragtime compositions. We are familiar with his rag "The entertainer" and his "Maple Leaf Rag." Joplin also wrote two ragtime operas and other popular forms of the era, including minstrel songs. Not as well known but called one of his finest is the innovations Joplin wrote in the "Bethena Waltz." He uses the cakewalk rhythm in time that insures the use of syncopation throughout the piece. Two thirds of all the ragtime compositions of Joplin use the cakewalk rhythm.

Keep Moving - 1915 - William White

There seemed to be a small cakewalk revival in 1915 with the publication of a number of cakewalks led by Kerry Mills. The cakewalk had faded around 1903. "Keep Moving," written by William White, uses the cakewalk rhythm throughout but introduces a dotted rhythm figure, a characteristic of the maturing ragtime style as well as tied syncopation, also an element of the ragtime idiom. The tradition of the use of the cakewalk rhythm in the 13th and 14th bars of the first section is adhered to. The cover shows a more realistic view of Negroes in the cakewalk dance.

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