TW/CW: Racist imagery and lyrics.
One of the earliest published songs that uses a ragtime style, Rollin Howard’s “Good Enough” (1871). The chorus, marked “Dance” (at 1:15) used a syncopated figure before going back into the straightforward on-the-beat verse section. This rhythmic figure is a bridge from the cakewalk to ragtime.
The cakewalk was a dance from slave days, which was originally an exaggerated parody of upper-class white dance forms. Slave masters found it so amusing to watch that they began to hold dance competitions among their slaves, with the prize being cake — hence, “cakewalk.”
Here is an example from an early silent film dramatization of the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin:
After a wildly popular demonstration of the cakewalk at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, the dance made its way into the vaudeville theaters and ballrooms of white America and Europe.
The great African-American poet Ishmael Reed wrote, in his 2016 poem “The Diabetic Dreams of Cake”:
He was on a plantation doing
What looked like a goose step
He was twirling a cane
He was wearing a monocle
A black top hat
And shiny black boots
The master said, That takes the cake
Some of the slaves applauded
Others grumbled and called him a dandy
You can sleep with my wife and daughter tonight,
The master said
He started running because they were as ugly
Or shall we say beauty challenged as well
As booty challenged
Under an old Southern pine tree
He ate the cake
The technique of rhythmic syncopation in the cakewalk was known as “ragging.” Ragtime developed the simple syncopation of the cakewalk into something more complex, the early stages of which can be seen in this 1895 piece by Ben Harney (a white Kentucky-born composer who Time magazine called “Ragtime’s Father”). Harney’s piece also uses “stop time,” which would become a popular ragtime technique (see 1:51). Harney’s song attempts to imitate African-American banjo-picking style.
A vocal version, sung by a white singer putting on a minstrel-esque “blackvoice” style:
Tom Turpin’s “Harlem Rag,” published in 1897, was the first piano rag written by a black composer.
White composers still attempted to capitalize on ragtime’s popularity by appropriating the form and fitting it with lyrics of shocking bigotry. The 1900 rag “Every Race Has a Flag but the Coon” inspired Marcus Garvey to create the Pan-African flag, shown below.
Ragtime marked one of the earliest transitions of the oral/aural traditions of black American musical performance to the printed page.
The jazz pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith, who straddled the worlds of ragtime and jazz, rags it, jazzes it, and explains as he plays.
Scott Joplin also wrote an opera, Treemonisha, in 1911, which included ragtime numbers. The opera didn’t receive its first full performance until 1972, and Joplin received the Pulitzer Prize for music composition posthumously for the opera in 1977.
Here is one of the opera’s most famous numbers, “A Real Slow Drag,” from the finale.
The trailer for a 1977 biopic of Joplin, featuring Billy Dee Williams as the composer.
Ragtime took the world by storm. European composers strove to imitate his style. Erik Satie wrote many piano pieces in rag style, including “Le Piccadilly”:
In his 1908 collection of piano pieces, Children’s Corner, Claude Debussy included a number called “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk.” The “golliwogg” was a popular turn-of-the-century Raggedy Ann-style doll, but racist, and derived from the stereotypes of minstrelsy.
Finally, Binghamton has a forgotten, but special, connection to the music of ragtime.
Georgia-born pianist and organist Charles Cohen, the son of slaves, made his way to Binghamton, where he lived on Haendl street on the West Side until his death. He is buried in Floral Park Cemetery in Johnson City. For more, go here:
Two of his best-known rags are “Riverside Rag” and “Fashion Rag.” The sheet music cover for “Riverside Rag,” seen in the video below, features a picture of the Riverside Amusement Park, which was once on Riverside Drive in Binghamton. That’s right — a rag about Binghamton!