Ragtime is considered the first completely American form of music. It became popular during the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, paving the way for jazz. Its name derives from its “ragged”, syncopated rhythm. The Library of Congress gives the specific definition as: “Ragtime -- A genre of musical composition for the piano, generally in duple meter and containing a highly syncopated treble lead over a rhythmically steady bass. A ragtime composition is usually composed three or four contrasting sections or strains, each one being 16 or 32 measures in length.” Its upbeat and energetic rhythms make it ideal for dancing.
Ragtime was developed by African Americans in St. Louis, Missouri and New Orleans, Louisiana. St. Louis was a bustling cultural, social, and musical hub in the late 19th century. Ragtime evolved out of jigs and John Philip Sousa's marches, and was often played to accompany a cakewalk, a dance that emerged out of plantation slavery. One of the earliest ragtime musicians was Ernest Hogan, who supposedly coined the phrase “ragtime” and published two of the first sheet music rags. One of them was entitled “All Coons Look Alike to Me”, which has since been criticized for its racist and stereotypical portrayal of African Americans.
The 1893 Worlds Fair in Chicago introduced ragtime to the world. At the time, the term 'ragtime' was used to describe the “coon songs” of Hogan and others. Hogan's famous piece was performed in Chicago and garnered a great deal of attention. Ragtime continued to develop and is generally considered to have emerged in its mature form by 1897. A few years later, in 1889, Scott Joplin, the most well-known ragtime composer, published the immensely popular and influential “Maple Leaf Rag”. Classical ragtime, as exemplified by Joplin, was primarily a written endeavor and was disseminated through sheet music as opposed to live performances. Live performances were usually small-scale, in urban clubs or private residences.
There were also several discernible derivations of ragtime, including but not limited to: “folk ragtime,” which was performed on the banjo and mandolin; novelty piano, which emphasized speed and complexity and was developed by white composers; stride piano, a successor or at least a bridge between ragtime and jazz that was popularized by African American pianists; and the fox-trot, a dance fad. Several European composers, such as Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky, were influenced by ragtime and incorporated elements of it into their work.
Some of the most popular ragtime composers besides Scott Joplin were: Jelly Roll Morton, whose work is considered a bridge to jazz; Eubie Blake, who composed “Shuffle Along,” in 1921: The first Broadway musical entirely performed by African American talent; James Johnson; Joseph Lamb; and James Scott. Lamb and Scott, along with Joplin, were known as the “Big Three” of ragtime.
Ragtime faded as jazz grew more and more popular in the 1920s, and then it languished for several decades. It was rediscovered in the 1970s, when a compilation of Joplin’s work was published and one of his operas was revived. The movie “The Sting” used Joplin's music as part of its score, introducing ragtime to a whole new generation. E.L. Doctorow’s famous novel Ragtime was published in 1975 and was adapted into a Broadway musical in 1998.
Ragtime remains a triumph of American cultural expression and a testament to African American musicians' enduring contribution to American music. It is also evocative of America’s growing cultural independence in the 1910s and 1920s.