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The Rag: Its Evolution and its History - A Musical History


The Rag

There is very little musical distinction between the early cakewalks and what is described as a rag. We can trace the evolution of the rag, from its use of the march form, through he cakewalk to those labeled as early rags, to its collaboration and inclusion into the jazz songs of the 20’s.

It is hard to give a definition of a rag. It does not have a characteristic rhythm like the cakewalk. Its form is like that of a march. We cannot go by a song being described in the title as ragtime. An example of this would be Alexander’s Ragtime Band - not in ragtime style as we know it.

No program on the history of ragtime would be complete if the name of Scott Joplin was not mentioned. Joplin and John Stark (the publisher) were the driving force behind published ragtime. We should mention that the cakewalk and early ragtime were closely related to the brass band movement.

We can describe ragtime as a way of playing a piece of music. Pianists would ‘rag’ a Sousa March or ‘rag’ Foster’s "Swanee River." A performer would syncopate or embellish the melody with added notes in a quasi variation technique than an improvised element. Opera Magazine, in 1916, wrote: "Ragtime has carried the complexity of the rhythmic subdivision of the measure to a point never before reached in the history of music." Ragtime was the first style of music that used the rhythmic element of syncopation within a complete composition. Rudi Blesh stated: "With this music (sic: ragtime) the wires of dark and white America crossed and the vital currents were flowing back and forth."

John Philip Sousa was among the first to spread the music of ragtime worldwide. His influence is seen in the use of cakewalks and ragtime compositions in his many concerts.

Ragtime continued to develop both in more complex rhythms and melodically. There is more use of arpeggios and fast 16th notes passages. Syncopation is more of the tied variety and the music becomes more harmonically diversified. These advanced rags are noted as ‘secondary rags.’

You've Been A Good Old Wagon
Mississippi Rag
Southern Hospitality
Alabama Dream
Hello Ma Baby
Bos'n Rag
The Entertainer Rag
Black and White Rag
Grizzly Bear
The Red Rose Rag
Down Home Rag
Alexander's Ragtime Band
Magnetic Rag
Teasin' the Cat
Sally Trombone
Wild Flower Rag
Orange Blossom Rag
Oriental Rag

YOU'VE BEEN A GOOD OLD WAGON - 1896 - Ben Harney

Written by vaudevillian Ben Harney in 1896, "Wagon" is probably the first American popular music piece that could be said to have elements of ragtime. We find the cakewalk rhythm in the introduction and in the first two sections. There is a Negro dance presented in the fourth section. "Wagon" is one of the earliest examples of the birth of ragtime.

MISSISSIPPI RAG - 1899 - W. H. Krell 

Mississippi Rag has an interesting cover on the sheet music for a number of reasons. First, the cover picture - it is a stereo type picture you would expect to see in the year 1899, although it is not as caricatured as other contemporary covers. This scene probably was duplicated many times on the river fronts and docks of the Mississippi River around New Orleans. Negroid features do stand out through emphasize. The picture probably was presented to help give authenticity to what the cover describes as 'the first ragtime, two-step ever written.' From this mentioning we can see the close relationship between early ragtime and the popular dance, the two-step. Also interesting is the list at the bottom giving the many musical combinations available from the publisher. This again gives us information as to the existing musical aggregations present during the last decade of the 19th century. If you look close you can see that this piece was published in Chicago. Little has been written by scholars on the role of local music publishers of music in the late 19th century.

The banjo is shown and below there are a number of musical groups that include the banjo. It is not included in the orchestral parts that are published, either for small or full orchestra. It is not until approx. 1911 that we find banjo parts published in the dance band arrangements. I suppose because it was thought of as a solo instrument. Known as the first published rag, Mississippi Rag was written by W. H. Krell, a very prominent and popular music composer of his day.

SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY - 1899 - Arthur Pryor

Marked a "Ragtime/Cakewalk," we find the name of "Sousa's Band" mentioned under The composer's name. The introduction has an interesting use of the cakewalk rhythm in tutti unison. It is marked "Marcia Moderate," again linking the cakewalk music to the march and brass band. Using both the cakewalk rhythm and the syncopation of ragtime this piece is a bridge between the cakewalk and the rag that leads to jazz.

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' and it was not until Chicago that this music was called jazz. "Alabama" contains many figures in the cakewalk rhythm. The trio uses the cakewalk rhythm - not in the familiar time values of 8ths and 16th but as quarter note and 8th note values. Interesting counterpoint in the trio with the cornet using the cakewalk rhythm in 8th and 16ths and the clarinet stating the cakewalk rhythm (in the same measure) as 8th and 16th note values. There are some problems in the editing of the parts as there are some mistakes in transposition.

HELLO MY BABY - 1899 - Howard/Emerson  

No less than Johann Brahms was a fan of this song. He heard a lady performer playing the banjo and singing this song in a Paris nightclub. He remarked how he really loved the rhythmic structure. Unfortunately Brahms died before he was able to use the style in a composition. Brahms was a great user of syncopation in his music and perhaps he, in his way, paved the way for the syncopated, rhythmic music of jazz. This arrangement begins with three sections of unfamiliar melodies but ends with the fourth section using the well-known melody of 'Hello My Baby.' This piece is an example (along with Alexander's Ragtime Band) of the ragtime style filtering into Tin Pan Alley and American popular music. It uses the cakewalk rhythm in its main melody.

BOS'N RAG - 1899 - Fred Stone

Possibly one of the first true classic rags, it was published in 1899, about the same time as the "Maple Leaf Rag" of Scott Joplin. It uses tied syncopation, a trait of classic rags incorporated later in 1906.  Usually these early cakewalks and/or rags would use untied syncopation, making this particular rag not only very interesting but important in its own right. It also shows the progress made in the evolutionary process of the rag. There is less evidence of the march and the traditional cakewalk rhythm evolving into the rhythm and character of a very early rag, much more than the characteristic cakewalk rhythms used in the Mississippi Rag, which is considered, historically, a very important piece.

The composer, Fred Stone, and his orchestra, monopolized the Detroit entertainment and social world to almost complete exclusion of white performers up until the 1920's. The black musicians of Detroit were organized first and the white musicians of the city petitioned the black musician's union for admission, a position that was a reverse of the national trend. Stone died in the middle 30's. His hold on music jobs continued well into the 20's when the 'name' bands began to overtake the Stone Empire.

THE ENTERTAINER - 1902 - Scott Joplin

Perhaps the man most responsible and best known for the ragtime era was composer Scott Joplin. His composition, "The Maple Leaf Rag," was the first piece of sheet music to sell a million copies. His rag, "The Entertainer," was made popular in our time by its use in the motion picture "The Sting," with a score adapted from the music of Joplin by Marvin Manlich. Written in 1902, it is a melodic and rhythmic composition that has withstood the passing of time. While ragtime began as a piano style, it was soon arranged for ensembles such as ours and became the popular music of America as played by the numerous musical ensembles of the day.

BLACK AND WHITE - 1909 - George Botsford

One of the most popular rags of this era was Botsford's "Black and white." Written in 1909 and labeled a ragtime/two-step, Botsford achieves a unification of all the sections of the rag. He ties all of the sections together with a common rhythmic figure or formula - a secondary rag pattern plus a single type of tied syncopation. This rag shows the high level it had achieved in the use of classical techniques in the hands of well-trained musical composers such as Botsford.

GRIZZLY BEAR - 1910 - George Botsford

This is an example of what is called a secondary rag containing a cross-rhythm meter - a technique in classical music called Hemiola. Botsford was a protégé of Irving Berlin and Berlin stated that he lent a hand to Botsford in the writing of "Grizzly Bear." Botsford, born in 1874, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, wrote this rag in 1910. Berlin is given credit for the lyrics of the song. In this piece we find the use of the cakewalk rhythm with an interesting use of staccato in the trio. There is a return to the cakewalk rhythm in the last four measures.

THE RED ROSE RAG - 1911 - Percy Wenrich

Percy Wenrich, who wrote such hits as "Put On Your Old Gray Bonnet," "Moonlight Bay" and "When You Wore A Tulip" was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1880. In 1911 Wenrich wrote "The Red Rose Rag." It is an excellent example of the use of diversified rhythm. It makes use of the cakewalk rhythm and the use of dotted rhythms - a rhythmic style that became popular in 1912 and was a forerunner of the dotted rhythm usage in popular music.

There is an interesting motif at A3 in the use of repetition and sequence. We find dotted rhythms in the 2nd section. This piece was arranged for band by J. B. Lampe (his real name is Ribe Danmark). He was also a composer of ragtime music.

DOWN HOME RAG - 1911 - W. Sweatman

Titled a 'rag' it is also notated a Buck Dance. There is no definition of what a buck dance is. Some say it is a dance done by a Negro man (often called a buck by slave owners). Others say it is a stylistic dance more like a hard stomping version of the vaudeville 'soft shoe' dance.

The piece contains syncopation, dotted rhythms and a rather boring repeated melodic pattern in sections A, B, and D. The reason this is being played is that it did become very popular - so popular that the Tuxedo Orchestra of New Orleans, in 1925, re-organized the piece and added space for improvised solos, showing the evolution from the early dance pieces of early rags and evolving them into the jazz songs of the 20's. They entitled it "Black Rag."

ALEXANDER'S RAGTIME BAND - 1911 - Irving Berlin

Written by the famous Irving Berlin, it became one of the most popular and influential pieces of the early 20th century. It paved the way for the beginnings of the famous "Tin Pan Alley." Berlin was a popular songwriter and whatever was popular and selling at the time was the style of his next composition. Alexander was the nickname used when persons of authority referred to a Negro orchestra leader. Thus the name of the song was typical of the Negro jazz band. It is played from the original arrangement published in 1911. Listen for quotes from "Swanee River" and Dixie."

MAGNETIC RAG - 1914 - Scott Joplin

Magnetic Rag is the last rag of Joplin's and was published in 1914 three years after the publishing of Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band." Tin Pan Alley rags were not really classical rags but popular songs using some ragtime rhythms and were much easier to perform.

The third section of Magnetic Rag possesses a quasi blues form. There is an extension of the 12 bar progression after the first four bars and continues with the blues progression after this insertion of two bars, almost like an extension within a phrase. Perhaps Joplin did not want to use the 12 bar blues form as it carried with it a certain down grade of musical classicism. We find a description of magnetic Rag at the beginning of this composition in the collection of Joplin's piano rags.

"Magnetic Rag" covers a range of moods unusual even in Joplin's works, one that almost strain the capacity of the short form. Magnetic Rag, as pure music is an impressive, although sadly premature, close to Joplin's piano works. It hints at future directions and demonstrates ragtime' potential capability of expressing profound musical thoughts."

TEASIN' THE CAT - 1916 - Charles Johnson

This piece, labeled a rag or fox trot, was written by Charles Johnson. Johnson, whose home was Kansas City, was one of the last Tin Pan Alley composers to continue writing rags and cakewalks. Johnson's "Fun On The Levee," (1917) was subtitled a cakewalk, and his writing a cakewalk as late at 1917 was unusual as the rag style was out of vogue after 1916.

"Teasin' The Cat" uses an interesting rhythms in its first section (o o o ), ( o o ), and (o o o o). This rhythm is repeated in the other sections of the song. The piece seems to be lost in time and its creation in 1916 leads toward the evolution of jazz.

SALLY TROMBONE - 1917 - Henry Fillmore

Henry Fillmore is most famous for the numerous marches he penned. But, he also wrote a number of ragtime numbers that featured the slide trombone. After a five bar introduction, "Sally"  begins with a chordal phrase that gives way to a more typical rhythm of the cakewalk and ragtime rhythms and includes multiple use of the trombone glissando, a sound that was associated with early jazz. The trio has the trombone featured and even has a trombone solo as part of it.

WILD FLOWER RAG - 1917 - Clarence Williams

This arrangement is by T. B. Bryan. He is the arranger of "Cocoanut Grove Jazz," a song that is one of the earliest mentioning of the word 'jazz' in its title (1917). This arrangement is tutti throughout as it was primarily for dancing. There are no solo passages. There is a later arrangement/recording of this tune in 1928 with legendary cornetist "King" Oliver, with Benny Moten and Ed Allen that present space for solos and jazz breaks, the style of the times. Within them we can see the progress and style change of jazz arranging. When one listens closely we can also hear the lack of technique from the players on the 1928 recording. The stocks played in the early 20th century were played by musicians that usually had good musical training - these musicians being from the tradition of the many town brass and string bands and in New Orleans, groups like the great Creole orchestras.

Wild Flower Rag's main theme is arpeggio-like and uses octave jumps with little syncopation and requires good technique from he musicians to execute correctly. It is written with a pianistic type melody better suited for a keyboard than wind instruments or strings.

ORANGE BLOSSOM RAG - 1919 - Anton Lada

Written by Louisiana 5's members: Al Nunez, Anton Lada and Joe Cawley, it is labeled a 'One-Step," Two-Step or Trot." By 1919 the style of popular music had progressed past the popularity of the classic rag. The blues and the jazz song (called a fox trot) became the dominant style/form of this era. In "Orange Blossom" there can be found the use of the cakewalk rhythm in the first section and the trio. We find an interesting coda that contains a trombone smear solo.

ORIENTAL RAG - 1963 - Wingy Mannone

This song was written late in the career of Manonne and after the Dixieland Revival had ended. Wingy was working in Las Vegas in the 60's until his death. The song is simple with repeated riffs and ending with the Vagabond song of Sigmund Romberg. At one time, Mannone was the orchestra leader of the Bing Crosby radio show.

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