The Origins of Ragtime Piano Music

By the late 1890’s another form of African-American music was developing:  from the banjo, a new kind of syncopated piano music called ragtime was emerging; and from work songs a lament that would later be called “the blues” was struggling to the surface.

Chicago was a gathering place in 1893 for ragtime pianists, who had transferred the syncopated sounds of the fiddle and banjo to the piano.  At the time of the Chicago Exhibition, these men gathered to compare their various compositions and techniques.  In that year of 1893, the word “ragtime” was first used in published sheet music.  

Fred S. Stone wrote “My Ragtime Baby” in 1893, William Krills wrote “Mississippi Rag” in 1897, Tom Turpin published “Harlem Rag” in 1897, Tom Broady’s “Monday Broadway Stroll” and “A Tennessee Jubilee” came out in 1898.  Nevertheless, the man we remember best is Scott Joplin; he published “The Original Rags” in 1898, and in 1899 he published his immortal “Maple Leaf Rag,” the first piece of instrumental music to sell over one million copies. We are including here a Pianola Roll that is stated to have been recorded by Joplin, himself.

In Kris Kristofferson’s lyric for “Me and Bobby McGee, he writes “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”  In the mind of the ragtime piano player, they had known what it was like to have “nothing.”  It had been called slavery.  To the former slave, freedom represented opportunity; the opportunity to create a new musical world, written in the syncopated tones of slavery but released by emancipation to soar even higher.  

The best “Seventeen Minute” tutorial on the subject was recorded in New York in August 2013 by the JAZZ ACADEMY (Jazz at Lincoln Center), hosted by Terry Waldo, one of Eubie Blake’s students.  Waldo explains and demonstrates the art of ragtime piano playing.

Waldo considers how, during the period of slavery, the addition of the five-string banjo to the playing of Scotch-Irish music of jigs and reels required the performers (slaves) to play in triplet time.  Once freed from slavery, these musicians transferred this fiddle and banjo music to the piano, which turned the music, according to Waldo, into a “syncopated march.”

Waldo discusses and plays some Tin Pan Alley tunes to show how the introduction of ragtime music changed popular music forever.

Eubie Blake, one of the Pioneers of Ragtime Piano Music

Eubie Blake

As an extra bonus, the recorded material includes the performance of the “Charleston Rag,” a rag written by Blake in the same year as “Maple Leaf Rag.” Waldo describes the “Charleston Rag” as a more complex piece to play and explains why it was not published until the 1970’s when Blake found the manuscript of the rag and forwarded it to Waldo, who was his student.

It is appropriate to note that ragtime piano music could be played by very few performers, but anyone with a story to tell could stand on a corner and sing about his troubles or “blues.” Ragtime and the blues combined to establish a new form of music, called “jazz.”

The jazz greats incorporated all of the various forms of music they heard in New Orleans and then migrated up to Chicago in 1917 when Freddie Keppard and Sidney Bechet started to work at the De Luxe Cafe.  Joe “King” Oliver followed in 1918, along with Bill Johnson’s Original Creole Band and Paul Brunis’ Red Hot Peppers (which included Kid Ory and John St. Cyr).  By 1924 when Louis Armstrong formed his band (The Hot Five), Chicago had become the capital of jazz.

We have only scratched the surface of the history and sound of ragtime piano music.  It epitomizes the infectious syncopated rhythms of African-American piano music and deserves your further study.