For the month of February, my #tunethursday posts will not be about a specific tune, but, will be highlighting specific genres of music, the contributions of musicians of color and how they’ve come to influence current music. Today, we start with ragtime.
Ragtime had about an 18 year (1899-1917) run in popularity, but those 18 years played a significant and influential role in 20th century music. Where did it come from? It was one of the first truly “American” styles of music, and it came out of riverboat piano players that developed a “ragged” or syncopated style of playing.
So, what in the world is syncopation? Syncopation is a fun word (sink-o-pay-shon) to say, and it’s fun to do musically, once you learn it. Normally, in music, you have a strong beat and a weak beat. In 4/4 time, beat 1 is the strongest, beat 3 is the 2nd strongest, and then beats 2 and 4 are the weaker beats. This is why it totally throws musicians off if you clap along on beat 1 and 3! But, back to syncopation. Syncopation shifts the stress off of the main beats and it gives a completely different feel!
Here’s a great example. “The Entertainer” The left hand is primarily playing on beats 1, 2, 3 and 4, while the right hand is playing syncopated rhythms, and it has this freshness and life to it that really had never been heard in music before.
I thought this quote from Wikipedia was fascinating. “Black musician Tom Fletcher said, Ernest Hogan (the first person to write ragtime music) was the “first to put on paper the kind of rhythm that was being played by non-reading musicians.” There’s a lot there. At that time in history, slavery was about 30 years in the past, but African Americans were still viewed as lower or second class. There wasn’t the education that white Americans had, and especially when it came to music. So if you were an African American at the time, you most likely learned music by figuring it out! And this is what happened when Hogan did this. Scott Joplin was musically trained and took ragtime to a whole new level.
The mid 1910’s was a transition point, and the “St. Louis Blues” by W.C. Handy started that transition into blues. More on blues and jazz next week, but you can tell as you listen to this piece, there’s been a transition from piano being the predominant instrument to trumpets and other instruments standing out.
I learned “The Entertainer” back when I took lessons, and absolutely loved and was frustrated by it at the same time. Playing in that “ragged” style is a challenge, but it is so much fun to play once you learn it, and much more fun to listen to! I’d encourage you to check out more ragtime music!