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Old 02-23-2014, 02:28 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default A Concise History of Ragtime

Although people generally think today of ragtime music as being started by Scott Joplin, it was not. Joplin became the King of the Ragtimers but he was not the inventor—at least if we go by publication dates. The earliest known published rag was by Ernest Hogan in 1895 called “La Pas Ma La” which put ragtime on the map and made Hogan quite famous.




The New Sunshine Jazz Band - La Pas-Ma-La - YouTube

Hogan, of Bowling Green, Kentucky, was a well-educated composer as well as high-ranking Freemason. He would become the first black composer to get his own show on Broadway. He became one of the highest paid entertainers in his day.

The following year, Hogan published “All Coons Look Alike To Me.” This is the start of what would be called “coon songs” or “coon shouts.”



Considered one of the most racist sheet covers of the ragtime era (although I think I’ve seen worse), the song itself is really not that bad.


All Coons Look Alike to Me - YouTube

There were quite a number of black coon songwriters such as Paul Laurence Dunbar and Will Marion Cook. These songs were quite popular in black vaudeville but whites also liked them and since they didn’t attend black vaudeville, white ragtime singers began to perform the coon songs. Onstage, they blackened their faces making ragtime a form of minstrelsy. We know that ragtime was in existence by 1893 when it played at the 1893 World’s Fair. We also know that some of the shapers of ragtime, such as Tom Turpin, were working on ragtime by 1892.



So where did ragtime come from and what does the term mean? The earliest form of ragtime was played on the banjo and was born from black barnyard dance music that slaves and sharecroppers played after the workday was through to loosen up a bit. When this music left the barnyards and plantation farms, it journeyed to the cities and port towns along the Mississippi River where it combined with riverboat songs. Another evolution took place in the 1870s and 80s when Irish jig piano was all the rage. Black pianists took up jig piano but began performing rags on the piano as well. White pianists also took to this new form of piano-playing. Another element that was crucial to the formation of ragtime was the marching band. Marching bands were a huge part of the American musical landscape back then. Virtually every city, town and village had at least one (picture the Hooterville Fire Department playing “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight”). The left hand played the straight 1-2-1-2 rhythm (with the accent on 1) while the right hand played the syncopated melody.


Johnny Collins - Hard on the Beach Oar (riverboat song) - YouTube
“Hard on the Beach Oar” riverboat song sung by Johnny Collins.

So what is syncopation? It is the key ingredient to ragtime (and, later on, jazz). It’s what makes ragtime ragtime. Ragtime is usually played in cut time, that is, 2/4 time. So there are only two beats per bar with a quarter note representing a beat. With the left hand keeping straight marching time, the right hand contrasting against the left by emphasizing the 2-beat without changing the accent being on the 1. This could be done a number of ways: A beat can be subdivided into four smaller beats—16th notes in this case. Now, imagine playing a 1 for the full four sub-beats, then play the 2 only on the last sub-beat. The count sounds like One…twoOne…twoOne…twoOne. That’s syncopation. The accent stays on 1 but the 2 is emphasized. As a result, the timing sounds jumpy or ragged and hence the term ragtime.

Some have pointed out that syncopation is not heard in West African tribal music but was not unknown to European composers. Liszt and Chopin used it, for example. That demonstrates that ragtime is primarily a white invention. This is not a bad supposition but the evidence shows that syncopation did not enter the American musical vocabulary until the contributions of black composers and musicians became significant. Syncopation may have been the black musicians’ way of constructing African poly-rhythms into a European framework but no one is certain. (For example, African-American church harmonies are not found in Africa but have a European basis and yet nothing like them existed in Europe either. Exactly how they formed is a mystery)

So there are our strands of the fabric of ragtime: black banjo dance music, riverboat songs, marching bands and syncopated rhythm. One other strand is minstrel. It is impossible to fully separate ragtime from minstrel music.



In 1896, a white pianist and riverboat captain named William H. Krell published the first rag to use “Rag” in the title—“Mississippi Rag.” Krell was a competent musician who heard the ragtime being played at saloons and clubs all along the Mississippi and strung a bunch of strains together but no one is sure what parts he borrowed and which he wrote. Regardless, it’s a great piece and one of my personal favorite rags (although many ragtime scholars insist it is not a rag at all but a cakewalk, be that as it may):


William Krell - Mississipi Rag - YouTube
Played by the incomparable Claude Bolling.

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Old 02-23-2014, 02:33 PM   #2 (permalink)
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By 1897, Tom Turpin of St. Louis had his “Harlem Rag” published. He is sometimes credited with being the first African-American to have a rag published. But Ernest Hogan seems to hold that record. The huge 250 lb+ Turpin is the first African-American to publish a rag with “Rag” in the title but that seems to be the extent of it. That’s not to short-change Turpin, he was known to have been playing that rag by 1892 and he opened the Rosebud Café in St. Louis which showcased a spate of ragtime talent. It was an exceedingly important watering hole for ragtime. “Harlem Rag” is a sweet, little piece and seems to have a bit of the Old West in it. Although I am trying to be concise, I would be remiss not have mentioned either it or Turpin:


Tom Turpin, Harlem Rag - Two Step (1897) - YouTube

By 1897, Scott Joplin came on the ragtime scene. Born in northern Texas about 1867 or so, Joplin showed musical talent at an early age. His mother, Florence, offered to perform chores for free to a white woman in town if she would allow Scott to practice on her fine grand piano. The woman agreed and listened to the boy play. She told some of her friends about the child prodigy and eventually word to go Julius Weiss, a German music teacher in town. He took Joplin under his wing and taught him music theory, classical music and opera. Joplin in particular loved the operas of Wagner.

Joplin joined minstrel troupe around 1893 before leaving for St. Louis and Chicago. By 1894, he was playing cornet for the Queen City Cornet Band, an all-black marching band that was the first marching band to play rags. They also played the classics and opera pieces and it is believed Joplin studied these pieces to get ideas for his own compositions.


The Queen City Cornet Band of Missouri. This photo was taken sometime around 1896. Some say the man on the far right clutching the cornet is Scott Joplin. My opinion is that the man does indeed appear to be him although he is believed to have left the band before 1896. Then again, the photo could be misdated or Joplin may have still been in the band and the historians are simply wrong or the man isn’t Joplin. Without an intense study of the original photo (if it still exists) no one can say.

Joplin’s first published piece was “Original Rags” from 1897:


Scott Joplin - Original Rags - YouTube



Published by Carl Hoffman, Joplin didn’t get his due. He had to agree to let the house arranger, Charles N. Daniels, put his name on the piece as arranger despite having nothing to do with the arrangement. Some periodicals of the time that mentioned it also attributed the composition to Daniels and didn’t mention Joplin at all. The composition is clearly Joplin’s. His trademark style is all over it.

But Joplin’s big piece, the one he told friends would make him King of the Ragtimers, remained unpublished. He was turned away several times. Finally, a lawyer got Joplin in touch with the firm of John Stark & Sons of Sedalia, Missouri. Stark agreed to publish the piece as well as pay Joplin a royalty—an excellent deal which Joplin took. He had been working on this piece since at least 1894 when he first started playing parts of it for people. Now it was completed and published under the title “The Maple Leaf Rag.”




Maple Leaf Rag Played by Scott Joplin - YouTube
“The Maple Leaf Rag” piano roll. This sounds a bit fast. Joplin wrote on the sheet music that this piece was to be played slow, adding that “it is never correct to play ragtime fast.”

“Maple Leaf” became a gigantic hit, an enormously popular hit. By far, the biggest of the ragtime era. Joplin made a small fortune as did Stark & Sons. The country now knew the name of Scott Joplin. Whenever he showed up at a club (segregated, of course), the house pianist would break into “Maple Leaf” playing it very fast and embellishing it with all kinds of flourishes. Joplin always hated when they did that believing that they were trying to show him up (and they might have been) although he should have just taken it in stride. Even Jelly Roll Morton, a talented but hopeless braggart, who was a contemporary reverently referred to Joplin’s piece as “the perfect rag”—a praise he usually reserved only for his own compositions.

Joplin was a quiet, reserved man of high intelligence and perfect pitch. He spoke quietly in perfect, precise English. He hated the stereotype of black barnyard dialect. Those who met him found him personable although his conversation seemed to center almost entirely around music to the point where many thought him obsessed by it (nothing wrong with that). He never wrote at the piano but instead rode trains through the Missouri countryside holding manuscript paper and pencil and would start jotting down ideas as they came to him. He detested coon songs and said so in print but he seemed to be a man of few letters. We have little personal correspondence of Joplin so his views and aspirations remain somewhat of a mystery to us although he appears to have been perfectly literate. He was married once but his first (and only) child died in infancy and his marriage fell apart.

But Joplin had a dream and that was to turn ragtime into an art form. He planned to do this by bringing large helpings of classical music into the genre. He was not alone in this endeavor. Many of the black ragtime musicians were writing complex rags—heavy rags as they are called. Whites often went for the more pratfall rags or light rags. The money was in light rags and there were many excellent light rags and black musicians wrote and played many but they were also determined to turn ragtime into serious music and Joplin spearheaded this drive. In fact, he came to refer to his rags as “American Negro Classical Music.”
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Old 02-23-2014, 02:36 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Another ragtimer who doesn’t get a lot of mention in the histories is Arthur Collins. Arthur Francis Collins was born in Philadelphia in 1864, took singing lessons, toured with opera singer Francis Wilson, married in 1895 and retired from music. But he was still a young man and couldn’t stay away from music for long. He joined the De Wolf Hopper Company and then signed a contract with Edison in 1898. He recorded a couple of cylinders that year—“Zizzy Ze Zum Zum” and “Just As the Sun Went Down.” The following year, he cut “Hello Ma Baby” in a decidedly different light than Michigan J. Frog:


Hello! Ma Baby - Arthur Collins (1899) - YouTube

He sang baritone in the Peerless Quartet from 1909-1918, a highly successful act. He also had a long running collaboration with singer Byron G. Harlan (author of the now legendary jazz standard “The Darktown Strutter’s Ball”). Known as Collins & Harlan, they often billed themselves as “The Half-Ton Duo” since both men were somewhat portly in build. Although they sang in two-part harmony, many of their numbers were performed as a male-female duet with Harlan supplying the comical female voices.


Collins & Harlan, ''****** Loves His Possum'' (1906) - YouTube
This one was a big hit for the Half-Ton Duo.

In 1905, Collins cut “The Preacher and the Bear” on a cylinder for Blue Amberol (and re-cut it 1908 on a Victor disc). It was a huge hit selling two million copies (this was back when a few thousand was considered a major hit). It was, by far, the biggest selling recording of the ragtime era.


The Preacher and the Bear - Arthur Collins - YouTube
The 1905 cylinder version of “The Preacher and the Bear.”

His 1910 recording of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” with Byron Harlan was #1 for 10 weeks. Collins recorded all through the 1910s and even became the first artist to use a form of the word jazz in a song title with his 1917 release, “That funny Jas band from Dixieland.” On October 20, 1921, Collins was performing onstage for the Edison Company in which the audience was to guess whether he was really singing or whether they were hearing an Edison Diamond Disc machine. The stage went black and Collins turned to leave the stage and fell through a trapdoor some fool stagehand had left open and was seriously injured. The following year, he was well enough to record a number for the Gennett label and then resumed working with Byron Harlan for Edison but he developed heart ailments which were exacerbated by the effects of his fall in 1921 which he had never fully recovered from and, by 1926, Collins retired from music permanently. He moved to Florida where he spent the next seven years until his death on August 3, 1933 at age 69. He was a very prolific artist who recorded over 300 records (few, if any of them recorded electrically) in a career that spanned over a quarter of a century.

Because his material was often blatantly racist by today’s standards, Arthur Collins has been largely forgotten by the public, known only to a comparatively small circle of ragtimers and jass enthusiasts. But he was the most famous of the ragtime singers in his day and the biggest seller among them. He paved the way for jazz singing by opening a path for later artists as Al Jolson, Bing Crosby and Cliff Edwards—not to mention Louis Armstrong. He was the first white artist to routinely record the songs of black songwriters.


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Old 02-23-2014, 02:42 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Another major ragtimer we need to touch on James S. Scott of Neosho, Missouri. For some reason, most of the great ragtimers and influential jazzmen either came from or made their homes in Missouri. Scott was born in 1886 of parents who came from North Carolina. His cousin was blues singer, Ada Brown, who recalled her cousin quite fondly.


Fats Waller & Ada Brown - That Ain't Right - Stormy Weather (1943) - YouTube
A beautiful clip of Fats Waller and Ada Brown. They don’t make em like this anymore.

Scott was a short man, about five-foot-four. He walked quickly with his head lowered as though lost in thought. He often walked past old friends and family members on the street without seeing them. If one of them called to him, he would suddenly look up and break into a smile. His family was not well-to-do even for a Black family in America at that time and he went to work from a young age shining shoes. That Scott was such a musical genius and excellent sight-reader on the piano is surprising considering the Scotts did not have a piano. James had to learn wherever he could find a keyboard to play on. Yet he became quite good just learning by ear. An excellent black pianist in town named John Coleman took an interest in young Scott and gave him about 30 lessons in technique and sight-reading after seeing how good the boy had become on his own. Scott seems to have taken it from there and began churning out amazing ragtime pieces of a quality unmatched even by older more experienced composers as Joplin whom he admired.

At 16, James got a job at Dumars Music Store in Carthage, Missouri doing menial labor and helping Mr. Dumars frame pictures—something Dumars specialized in. The store had a piano back in the stockroom and this gave James something he had so desperately lacked—steady access to a piano—and he never missed an opportunity to practice on it and work on his own pieces. Scott was such a modest young man, he never told Mr. Dumars what an ace-crackerjack pianist he was and Dumars only found when out he chanced upon hearing James practicing back in the stockroom. Dumars was startled to see his stockboy tearing it up and excitedly asked him, “Can you read?”

James said he could. Dumars immediately promoted Scott to head salesman plugging and demonstrating sheet music. When James played some of his own pieces for Dumars, the storeowner realized that he may have hit a jackpot! Dumars published Scott’s first rag when the boy was no more than 17.


Summer breeze James scott - YouTube
Scott’s first published rag. The influence of Joplin is there but Scott’s style is all his own.

Scott’s most famous rag was published by Dumars in 1906—“Frog Legs Rag”:

frog legs rag (1906) - YouTube


The sheet music of “Frog Legs” is a Stark reissue.

Scott stayed with Dumars until 1914 when he left Carthage at the age of 28 and went to St. Louis to meet Scott Joplin, which he did. Joplin liked the young man and recommended him to John Stark & Sons. Stark signed anyone Joplin told them to trusting his ear. So Joplin functioned as something of an A&R man for the publishing house. Scott turned in stunning pieces to Stark showing all kinds of innovation with ragtime.

Pieces as “Climax Rag” and “Suffragette Waltz”—both from 1914—show an evolution in his style from the Dumars days even considering the brilliance of earlier pieces as “The Ragtime Betty” (1909) and “The Ragtime Oriole” (1911). After ragtime collapsed with the onslaught of the 20s, Scott supported himself by teaching piano, leading an eight-piece band and playing piano and organ in theatres to accompany movies which were silent then. The talkies came into vogue, Scott was thrown out of work like thousands of other musicians. Then his wife, Nora, died and Scott moved in with his cousin along with his dog. He continued composing even after coming down with dropsy. His rags were reaching a complexity likely achieved by no one else before or since. But in 1938 at the age of 52, James Scott died in the hospital. His sheet music is now lost and some believe was thrown away by a maid sent to clean up the dead man’s rooms.

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Old 02-24-2014, 06:27 PM   #5 (permalink)
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In 1902, Joplin turned a piece into Stark called “The Ragtime Dance” which seems to have been the start of Joplin’s quest to produce a more genteel rag. It was stately and lovely and John Stark refused to publish it. The problem was that he was convinced it wouldn’t sell. The public wanted light rags and Joplin was dropping this high-brow stuff on them that they didn’t want.




The Ragtime Dance - SCOTT JOPLIN (1906) Ragtime Piano Legend - YouTube

Joplin tried to cajole Stark into changing his mind but Stark was adamant. They weren’t in business to lose money. Stark’s daughter, Nellie, was an accomplished classical pianist who had studied with the masters in Europe. Joplin also taught her ragtime. He was like a second father to her and she loved him as such. She pressured her father to publish the piece and Stark finally gave in. As he predicted, however, the piece flopped. But we owe Nellie a debt of gratitude for without her efforts, the piece would certainly be lost to us today (an unknown number of Joplin pieces have been lost with only one being recovered). “The Ragtime Dance” is both a work of genius and a historically important piece for it represents turning point in ragtime, a point that was too far ahead of its time. But great works often are. That’s what makes them great.

A lot of historians believe Joplin married twice but Edward Berlin proved Joplin married three times. Berlin found the marriage certificate. His second wife was named Freddie Alexander. She was born in Little Rock, Arkansas around 1884 and that is about all we know of her. She was quite a bit younger than Joplin, marrying him at the age of 19 while he was 36 or so. He dedicated his 1903 piece “Chrysanthemum” to her on the front cover of the sheet music. They tied the knot a year later. Unfortunately, only about two months into the marriage, Freddie fell gravely ill with either a flu or pneumonia (versions vary) and died September 10, 1904. Berlin found a newspaper article about Freddie and Joplin. She was mentioned by name and also as “Mrs. Scott Joplin.”


The cemetery where Freddie is buried.

No one knows where Joplin went during this period of what must have been intense mourning. From all indications, Joplin was very much in love with his young bride. He simply vanished for a while. We have no accounts of anyone who saw him during that time and he appears to have written no letters to anyone expressing his grief or expressing anything at all. He suddenly reappeared in 1905 with a new piece published not by Stark but by the F. Bahnsen Piano Mfg. Co.—“Bethena – A Concert Waltz”:



Scott Joplin Bethena, A Concert Waltz - YouTube

No one knows if Joplin wrote it for his dead wife but it’s hard to believe otherwise considering the circumstances. Whether he wrote it for Freddie or not, it is a stirring and lovely piece and not a rag at all. A romantic notion has arisen that Joplin called his wife Bethena because Freddie, obviously, wasn’t a terribly romantic name especially for a woman. The speculation goes further that the photograph of the woman on the cover of the sheet music is, in fact, Freddie Alexander. This could explain the mystery of why no one really knew what she looked like—she was white. Then again, she could be mixed race, we can’t really say. In all likelihood, the photo is stock and used by the publisher to help sell the sheet music and isn’t Freddie at all. But many people today believe that it is. If so, she was a very lovely woman.

In 1907, Joplin received word that his old friend and colleague, Louis Chauvin, was dying of syphilis in Chicago. Chauvin, who was both Black and Mexican, was superb pianist. He was also an expert singer and dancer. He could not, however, read music and so never wrote anything down. Today, only three of his songs survive—all of them collaborations with people who could write music, which is the only reason we still have these pieces.


Louis Chauvin

Joplin caught a train to Chicago and located Chauvin in a sporting house. There was a piece of music that Chauvin used to play that Joplin loved. He did not want it to die with its creator. So they sat down together and worked on the piece. Chauvin played his bits for Joplin, who wrote them down. Joplin added his own themes to complement Chauvin’s. Afterward, Joplin arranged the piece into a rag which he sent untitled to Stark who promptly titled it “Heliotrope Bouquet.” Published in 1907, it remains one of the most ethereal and hauntingly beautiful rags to come out of the era.

The intro is Chauvin’s as is the first theme which repeats. Then Joplin added Chauvin’s intro again to segue into the next two repeating themes which are Joplin’s. It is an exceedingly beautiful piece of music:


Joshua Rifkin. Scott Joplin & Louis Chauvin's Heliotrope Bouquet. - YouTube



The following year, 1908, Louis Chauvin died at the age of 25.

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Old 02-24-2014, 08:26 PM   #6 (permalink)
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This is fascinating. Where do you get your information from? I'm trying to find credible academic research material at the moment.
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Old 02-25-2014, 08:00 PM   #7 (permalink)
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I was going to skip the proto-rag era but I've changed my mind--so here it is:

As far as can be determined, the term “ragtime” appeared in print for the first time about 1896. The term “rag” in relation to music first appeared in print in the Topeka Weekly Call of Topeka, Kansas August 16, 1891 which mentioned that “The Jordan hall ‘rags’” should be discontinued as a public nuisance. Jordan Hall was located in Tennesseetown, a community of African-Americans mainly from Tennessee and Mississippi that sprung on the edge of Topeka in the 1870s as conditions for blacks in the South had degenerated so badly that many had no choice but to flee. Even so, life in Tennesseetown was no picnic either. Comment was made in the 1890s concerning the badly substandard way of life in the little enclave.

The Topeka Weekly Call articles ran all through 1891 about the goings-on at Jordan Hall. By October, an article appeared in the paper complaining that “A certain class of girls in Tennesseetown sings a song called ‘Proctor Knok’ from sun rise until sun set.” In November, the paper reported that “Misses Electro P. and Minnie E. are very fond of singing ‘Proctor Knot.’ They sing it to the boys at festivals and entertainments.”

We assume that the dance done to accompany this song was called the rag. It must have appeared scandalous to whites in the area. But was this related to ragtime? It would appear so. In 1909, an article appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that read in part:

“A negro woman, whose name is unknown to fame, is declared to have invented ragtime in St. Louis in 1888, in a house, now fallen, at Broadway and Clark avenue… It was the day of Proctor Knott, a famous racehorse, and he was the theme of an epoch-making ballad which she sang. One stanza has been preserved:
‘I-za a-gwine tuh Little Rock, Tuh put mah money on Proctor Knott.’”

The song couldn’t have been too old since Proctor Knott was foaled in 1886. A 1913 article in the Journal of American Folk-Lore printed a version of “Proctor Knott” that the author states was collected in 1909 from the rural whites of Mississippi:

Bet your money on Proctor Knott!
He’s a horse of mine.
Done quit runnin’;
He’s gone to flyin’,
All the way from Little Rock.
Bet your money of Proctor Knott,
Proctor Knott run so fast
You couldn’t see nothing but the jockeys ass.


We can be fairly certain that this song was originally played on the banjo which is an instrument with roots in Africa. It is not European. There are several African instruments similar to a banjo—one even called an mbanza. There is no record of white people playing banjos until about the 1840s with the rise of minstrelsy. So the ties of minstrelsy to ragtime are not hard to see. Early ragtime more or less was a continuation of minstrelsy.


An mbanza.

A very early proto-rag from 1890 was “The Darkie’s Dream by G. L. Lansing which was originally written for the banjo. It has genuine raggy elements in it indicating that some of what went into ragtime that gave it its character was already present in latter-day minstrelsy.


Early Rag 1890 - The Darkie's Dream by G.L. Lansing (Old banjo tune) - YouTube

Another early proto-ragtimer was Monroe H. Rosenfeld. His 1891 piece, “The Alabama Walk Around” sounds like it may have been written for a band. It doesn’t sound like something converted from banjo. The influence, in this case, was probably Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869):


Early Rag (1891) The Alabama Walk Around by Monroe H. Rosenfeld - YouTube
Charles Drumheller’s 1893 piece “Banjo Twang” has a definite Gottschalk influence and is close to a true rag or a cakewalk.


Early Rag 1893 - Banjo Twang by Charles Drumheller (Legacy of Louis Moreau Gottschalk) - YouTube

Gottschalk MUST be given credit as being a major influence on the later piano ragtime. I don’t think there can be any doubt about it. Born in New Orleans to a Jewish father and a Creole mother, Gottschalk was musically talented from an early age and recognized as a piano prodigy. At 13, he began traveling, going to Europe. He also spent great amounts of time in Cuba, Central and South America. In fact, he spent most of his musical career outside the United States. He absorbed and incorporated musical styles from every country and region he visited. During the Civil War, Gottschalk considered himself a New Orleans native but supported the Union cause. He detested slavery. He left the U.S. in 1865 and never returned, collapsing during a concert he was giving in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1869. He never recovered and died at age 40.

Below is Gottschalk’s piece, “The Banjo” which definitely defied the norms of its time and lent itself more to the ragtime era which he never lived to see. Definitely a man ahead of his time:

Philip Martin Performs "The Banjo" by Gottschalk In Mexico - YouTube

Ben Harney (1872-1938) was another early ragtimer. No one is sure where he was born—either Kentucky or Tennessee. He began publishing rags in 1895, the same years as Ernest Hogan and some date him earlier than Hogan. Supposed by some to be a light-skinned black man, Harney was white. He may also be the originator of scat-singing which was also written out on the sheet music of his 1899 piece “Cake Walk in the Sky.” He often billed himself as the originator of ragtime but all ragtime scholars agree this cannot be the case. But he is an early one and definitely helped to shape the genre in a very fundamental way. His piece below, “You Been a Good Old Wagon But You Done Broke Down,” sounds like it may have been based on “Froggy Went A-Courtin’”.


Ben Harney, 1895 - You've Been a Good Old Wagon (First Ragtime song ever published) - YouTube
“You Been a Good Old Wagon” Ben Harney (first published in 1895)

Sylvester Louis Ossman (1868-1923), or Vess L. Ossman as he was known, hailed from Hudson, Hew York. He was quite prolific and recorded solo material as well as backing vocalists as Arthur Collins and Len Spencer with banjo accompaniment. He also toured and recorded in England. His popularity waned when a new ragtime banjoist appeared by 1910—Fred Van Eps. Ossman ceased recording in 1913 for two years before resuming his career. He made his final recordings in 1917 and thereafter went on the tour circuit. He died of a heart attack in 1923 after finishing a show.


Vess L. Ossman "A Bunch of Rags" rare visuals George Gaskin, Dan W. Quinn, Will F. Denny Phonoscope - YouTube
Bunch of Rags, Vess L. Ossman (1898 recording)

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Old 02-25-2014, 08:23 PM   #8 (permalink)
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If one wants source material for ragtime, the bible is "They All Played Ragtime" by Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis. This was the first book to deal with the history of ragtime. A couple of its contributors are friends of mine.

Another is Edward Berlin's "King of Ragtime" which is the definitive Joplin biography.

One nice source is "The Ragtime Ephemeral" by Chris Ware out of Chicago, another friend of mine. I don't think he publishes it anymore. I haven't communicated with him in a long time.

A fantastic source is "Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895" which is full of articles culled mainly from African-American newspaper articles of that period. It's put out by University Press of Mississippi/Jackson. I got it in a cool underground bookstore in the Detroit area but it's probably available online somewhere--Amazon maybe. Very highly recommended.

To study the blackface minstrel era, the definitive work is Professor Dale Cockrell's "Demons of Disorder." This comes very highly recommended. I'll try and touch on some of his themes as I think they are very important.

Another source is "One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race" by Scott Malcolmson which gives a nice treatment of the psychology of whites towards minstrelsy.

There are also several books I checked out of libraries that I can't remember the names of now. Also Gunther Schuller's "Early Jazz" is worth a look.

One good audio source is Reginald Robinson's "Euphonic Sounds" which I had to get by writing directly to him--I found him exceedingly polite--which contains not only all three of the Louis Chauvin's surviving songs (the only source to do so to my knowledge and Reginald's version of "Heliotrope" is by far my favorite) but also contains fragment of Joplin music unheard before. Reginald and Chris Ware noticed it in an old photo Joplin's last wife had taken of her deceased husband's piano with manuscripts on it. The top page was a hitherto unknown composition. They used a magnifying glass and studied the original photo housed at Fisk University in Tennessee and were able to transcribe it. It has lyrics but Reginald leaves them out in his 30-second recording of the fragment. Since Joplin didn't generally write lyrics to his pieces, I think it is something he wrote for his opera Treemonisha but then took it out for some reason.
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Old 02-26-2014, 04:12 PM   #9 (permalink)
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Before we continue on with ragtime, lets go all the way back to minstrel music. We may as well cover it at this point and I know there aren't any other threads about it in this place. To understand minstrel, we must understand the banjo. The banjo is to minstrel what the electric guitar is the rock. I have to leave to do a bass gig right now but this tutorial will get things started:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shOgjCzPocY
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Old 03-01-2014, 02:20 PM   #10 (permalink)
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The word “minstrel” shares the same root with minister—a servant, entertainer or imperial household officer. The word also meant a poet, a storyteller, a jester, a juggler, a workman. The French used the word to apply to musicians employed by the court to compose and play music for various events. But the word came to apply to itinerant musicians who traveled about seeking employment or what we call gigs. In the 18th century, the word came to mean essentially the same thing as a bard—a singer of heroic poetry accompanying himself on a lyre or other stringed instrument although this sense was limited to the medieval era. But starting in the 19th century in America, minstrel took on a whole new meaning.

Today, we tend to regard the American minstrel era as one of shameful racism where white people dressed in shabby clothes, smeared burnt cork on their faces, snatched up banjos and pranced around singing the way they thought blacks sang and danced. They mocked blacks and perpetuated stereotypes. As we will see, this is largely untrue. First, we should point out that whites performing in blackface preceded the minstrel era and that, while we generally say blackface minstrelsy started in America in the 1840s, the evidence shows that it had its beginnings in the 1820s. Like everything, minstrelsy evolved from something largely unrelated to what it eventually became.

To understand minstrelsy, we must first understand that the mind creates narratives to explain subconscious leanings and motivations too base to be seen or understood in the clear light of intellectual analysis. For example, a man can give you a million reasons why he prefers women with large breasts but the true reason is purely biological—large breasts indicate to him that she is good breeding material because she has plenty of milk to raise healthy offspring. This is regardless of whether the man even wants children. Women often claim to like a man with a compact, muscular buttocks because they find it “hot” or “sexy.” The truth is, his anatomical gift advertises to women that he possesses good thrusting power and therefore can impregnate women more easily and more often to produce healthy offspring. Again, this is regardless of whether the woman in question even desires to have children. Advertisers have known about this for years. They state that people who like to drive SUVs claim the vehicles are safer than ordinary cars (they are not) but the truth is, the people who like SUVs feel less intimidated encased in this bastion of metal than they feel in an ordinary car. They are careful, however, never to advertise their products to appeal to the subconscious desires.

When we are dealing race relations, the same subconscious motives present themselves and the mind must, once again, create a narrative to explain it that has nothing to do with the motive itself. In this case, we are dealing with the feelings of whites towards the color black. By studying the various roles of black characters in the theatre of the early 19th century in both Europe and America, we get an idea of what factors were at play (and many of them still play). Blackness we have always associated with fear and the unknown but also the low and the vulgar. A popular play in England called “The One Hundred-Pound Note” featured a bootblack named Billy Black whose face is always sooty. When the play came to America in 1827, Billy Black’s character was changed to black boy. The sootiness of his face and his occupation made the association natural to Americans.

Going back to the 18th century, the play “An Irishman in London—The Happy African,” was a farce written by William McCready that came to America in 1793. In it, a black maid named Cubba (played by a white woman, of course) and an Irishman named Murtoch are presented as outsiders to high white culture. Murtoch is brought low by McCready’s device of symbolically transferring Cubba’s blackness to Murtoch.

Then, of course, there is “Othello.” However Shakespeare intended the play to taken by the virtually all-white audiences that were the only ones to see it 300 years after it was written (1603), those whites took it to be a vindication of the moral wrongness of miscegenation—of course, by this, we mean specifically between black males and white females. White males took sexual relations with black female concubines as virtual birthright. No less a notable that John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States, who stood opposed to slavery, decried the interracial relationship stating that “the passion of Desdemona for Othello is unnatural, solely and exclusively because of his color.” Adams was far from alone in his sentiment. He expressed the white male majority opinion.

So blackness as seen by white audiences in America as something “other” and something “low.” Black could never assimilate and so would always be on the outside. This, again, harks back to the subconscious idea that black represents the unknown, the unknowable, the shadow, the devil.

In Holland, they celebrate Christmas on December 6 as Saint Nicholas Day. The Dutch depict Nicholas as a bishop who ride a white horse. Running or walking alongside Nicholas is a fellow they call Zwarte Piet or Black Pete. He usually carries a sack of switches to beat the bad children with while Nicholas or Sinterklaas hands out the gifts to the good children. Pete is the shadow twin of Santa, his dark side. He’s lower than Sinterklaas and so runs alongside him instead on the horse with Nicholas.

The Dutch celebrate their Christmas as we do in America—with people dressing as Santa. The difference is that the Dutch also have people—often women—dress as Pete. They blacken their faces and don a Moorish costume. Here we see the difference between the subconscious motives and the narratives the conscious mind creates to explain them. Pete is black because he represents the “Other” or the “Outsider” but the Dutch decide to depict him as a Moor because consciously they cannot otherwise explain his blackness.






Getting to the root of the Black Pete legend, Nicholas is frequently depicted with children as he is also their patron saint. He is shown with three young boys. This refers to a legend when a terrible famine struck the region (Myra in Turkey or Anatolia where Nicholas served as bishop). A butcher lured three young boys into his shop under some pretense and then butchered them and placed the body parts in a pickling tub and then put the flesh up for sale as ham. Nicholas saw through the man’s unspeakable crime and resurrected the three boys. In the iconography and statues the boys are often depicted still in the tub.







What has that to do with Zwarte Piet? According to the French legend, after Nicholas resurrected the three murdered boys, their killer, Père Fouettard, becomes the servant of Nicholas and delivers punishments to bad children. Again, his evilness makes him a dark character and his name is a variation of Pierre or Peter and so he is Black Pete.


A disturbing image of Père Fouettard devouring the three boys.

In other European countries, Nicholas’s helper is even more frightening. He is called Cert or Krampus (“Claw”):


Krampus/Cert despite his horrific appearance (clearly he is the devil and notice he is black) only punished the bad children and rewarded the good. In this depiction, he gave the little girl apples while he takes her brother away (and she seems not the slightest bit upset about it). Below, we see Pete doing the same thing—taking away the bad children. Supposedly he sold them into slavery in Spain (Spain once conquered the Dutch and treated the people rather abominably). Pete and Krampus serve the same function because they are the same:

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