Ragtime

TW/CW: Racist imagery and lyrics.

cakewalk_custom-ff0e86ebe03762f561e078c304694e8139054288-s800-c85

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.

Maple_Leaf_Rag

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.

Charles Cohen, 1878-1931

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:

http://ragpiano.com/comps/ccohen.shtml

And 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!

Clair de lune

nuit de carnaval

Nuit du carnaval (Henri Rousseau, 1886).

In an art song, there are many layers of meaning.

There is the meaning of the sounds of the music.

There is the meaning of the words of the text.

There is also the meaning of the sounds of the words themselves.

Listen to the sounds of the text read in French.

Another reading, with a poetic translation into English in the subtitles.

“Clair de lune” (Paul Verlaine, 1869)

Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.
Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur
L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune
Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur
Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune,
Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres
Et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau,
Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres.

In translation:

Your soul is a delicate landscape
Where roam charming masks and bergamasques*
Playing the lute and dancing and seeming almost
Sad under their whimsical disguises.
While singing in a minor key
Of victorious love and easy life
They don’t seem to believe in their happiness
And their song mingles with the moonlight,
With the sad and beautiful moonlight,
Which makes the birds in the trees dream
And sob with ecstasy the water streams,
The great slim water streams among the marbles.

*Masks = masked players; bergamasques = dancers of a rustic peasant dance called the bergamasque or bergamask, supposedly derived from Bergamo in northern Italy (you can see here a reference to the migration of commedia dell’arte from Italy to France). The bergamasque is supposed to be an awkward, clumsy, buffoonish dance.

Debussy’s first version of the song, written in 1882.

A live performance by South African soprano Pretty Yende.

Debussy’s second version, written in 1891.

Debussy also wrote a piano piece called “Clair de lune” as part of his Suite bergamasque (bergamasques again!) in 1891 (he revised it for publication in 1905).

The piece has been orchestrated many times. This version was cut from Disney’s classic 1940 film Fantasia.

Here is Gabriel Fauré’s setting of the Verlaine poem, written in 1887, in between Debussy’s two versions.

“Au clair de la lune” is an old French folk song in which the protagonist takes advantage of an opportunity that presents itself unexpectedly (talk about “la vie opportune”!)

800px-Au_Clair_de_la_Lune_children's_book_2

“By the light of the moon,
My friend Pierrot,
Lend me your quill
To write a word.
My candle is dead,
I have no light left.
Open your door for me
For the love of God.”

By the light of the moon,
Pierrot replied:
“I don’t have any pens,
I am in my bed
Go to the neighbor’s,
I think she’s there
Because in her kitchen
Someone is lighting the fire.”

By the light of the moon
Likeable Lubin
Knocks on the brunette’s door.
She suddenly responds:
– Who’s knocking like that?
He then replies:
– Open your door
for the God of Love!

By the light of the moon
One could barely see.
The pen was looked for,
The light was looked for.
With all that looking
I don’t know what was found,
But I do know that the door
Shut itself on them.

Debussy quotes the melody throughout his 1881 song “Pierrot”:

The text is a poem by Theodore de Banville.

In translation:

The good Pierrot, whom the crowd watches,
Having finished at Harlequin’s wedding,
Wanders as in a dream along the Boulevard du Temple.
A young girl in a flimsy blouse
In vain entices him with her scamp’s eye;
And meanwhile, mysterious and shiny
Making him its dearest delight,
The white moon with horns of a bull
Casts a glance offstage
At his friend Jean Gaspard Deburau.