Ragtime? For serious?

Scott Joplin, King of Ragtime

Scott Joplin, The Original King of Pop


“What is scurrilously called ‘ragtime’ is an invention that is here to stay,” Scott Joplin wrote in 1908, when ragtime was at the peak of its popularity. He should know – he was the King of Ragtime after all – and it turns out he was right. 100 years on, and here you are reading a blog post about ragtime on the blog of a guy who spends his time composing and performing it. But WTF is ragtime, and why should you care?

The traditional story is that ragtime was America’s first popular music.  It was invented by black people, commercialized by white people, popular for 20 years, from roughly 1900 until 1920, until it got replaced by jazz. The end.

I’m not knocking the traditional story, tragic as it is. Sure, the “Ragtime Era,” if you want to call it that, died along with America’s innocence during World War I, but music doesn’t just “start” and “stop” like an iPod. Ragtime isn’t just a period of history, it is a way of thinking about music. And like an undead Zombie Abe Lincoln, you can’t kill it.

In 1912, the epic James Weldon Johnson observed that, “No one who has traveled can question the world-conquering influence of ragtime… In Paris they call it ‘American music’.”  Ragtime was and is a fresh, cocksure, and bold way of thinking about music. It wasn’t born in the ballrooms, it was born in the barrelhouses – it is a music for and by the people – and its vitality and spirit have influenced a century of American music from George Gershwin to Billy Joel.

No one who has traveled can question the world-conquering influence of ragtime… In Paris they call it ‘American music’.

— James Weldon Johnson

The problem with ragtime up until now is that its practitioners have approached it solely as an article of the past, like a piece of glass in an antique shop. That’s all very well and good, but it’s also very well and dead. Few people today think of ragtime as a living, breathing art form, but there are more new pieces of ragtime being written today than there were 100 years ago (most of it much better than the old stuff).

Shocking, I know.

Not only that, a new generation of musicians is discovering that ragtime is more than just old white people in red-and-white striped shirts and corncob hats. You’ve got teenagers today who, at 16, could play the socks off of Fats Waller in his prime. They’re writing it, performing it, innovating within it, bring new ideas to the table. And they’re shaking up the old notions, sloughing off 50 years of “rinky-dink” piano recordings and going back to ragtime’s roots as, first and foremost, music that is fun as hell, music that makes you want to move, music that is subversive and toe-tapping and downright dirty.

When it comes to ragtime, if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

— Martin Spitznagel

At the same time, you have world-class classical pianists making it as affecting and emotional as any work by Chopin, performing it in encores or in concerts on its own. The music today is played in churches and concert halls, on street corners and center stage, and it is to this small, ragtag group of musicians that the future of this music is entrusted.

As part of that community, and as someone who, like a squeezed orange, helplessly drips with ragtime, it’s my mission with my music, my blog, and all my other endeavors to demonstrate that ragtime is more than a footnote in history. It is a way of thinking, a light in the darkness, and a damn good time for all involved.

And if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

Amen.

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