David and Art - "Ragtime"
A Texan born shortly after the end of the Civil War was instrumental in creating one of America's most distinctive styles of music.
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I’ve often referred to jazz as the original American art form—or the emblematic American art form maybe—and there’s much to be said that backs up those statements. But at the same time, as with so much in American history, there’s more to the story. There was earlier American musical styles. And one of these was called ragtime.
Scott Joplin is often called the king of ragtime music and it’s true that his name is associated more than anyone else’s with this very distinctive form. When you hear one of his compositions, you’re hearing what America sounded like from the middle of the 1890s until 1917.
Much of Joplin’s personal story is wrapped in mystery much like, say, blues legend Robert Johnson. But what can be said for sure is that Joplin was born in northeast Texas shortly after the end of the civil war. His father was a former slave from North Carolina. Some who have studied his life say he was born in the little town of Linden, which, although we don’t know for sure, would be nice because that’s also the hometown of fellow musicians Don Henley and blues legend T-Bone Walker. Joplin grew up in Texarkana, where he learned to play guitar and mandolin. At some point he learned to play the piano and developed a distinctive syncopated style whose rhythms were ragged—unlike, say, the precision of a march. Those ragged rhythms gave a name to the music.
As a musician he traveled throughout the south playing, and in 1893 he turned up in Chicago at the World’s Fair playing his catchy infectious style. That’s the point at which ragtime began to be a national movement. After the world’s fair he surfaced in Sedalia, Missouri where he taught piano. After Sedalia he drifted to St. Louis and then on to New York. Most of his music was written for piano, and his 1899 composition the Maple Leaf rag is one of the best-selling pieces of American music ever. He died in New York in April, 1917, the month the US entered WWI and for the most part, ragtime as a dominant form of American music died with him. Other things were on the way.
Classic ragtime is every bit as formulaic as is a march with its set progression of intro, first strain, second strain, trio and so on. But, much like marches, despite this set form Ragtime pieces are somehow able to incorporate a great variety of moods and melodies. They all sound similar, they’re instantly identifiable as ragtime, but they have identities all their own.
Today more than a century after Joplin’s death, he and his music still inspire musicians and capture the public attention. More on this next week.