TW/CW: Racist imagery.
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 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.
Ragtime marked one of the earliest transitions of the oral/aural traditions of black American musical performance to the printed page.
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.