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Ch. 06: Scott Joplin – King of Ragtime


The element of syncopation, which found its way from minstrel show songs to the parlor songs of Stephen Foster, was found first in the Afro-Caribbean rhythms that were performed by black musicians in the South for Saturday night dances and Sunday afternoon gatherings. The dance, called the Juba, was accompanied by a variety of rhythmic patterns, each being played independent of on another and against a firm, steady repeated pulse. This pattern of complex, irregular sounds against a constant beat was called “patting the Juba,” and was the starting point for the evolution of the syncopated rhythmic ideas used in the minstrel show songs.

In its most basic form, syncopation is creating a delay in the rhythm of the music from the anticipated pulse. The delay can be caused by the sudden appearance of a rest where the note would normally occur or by the extension of one note halfway into the next pulse value. Regardless of whether the syncopation is created by a rest or an extended note, the displacement of the beat happens in contrast to a steady, predictable beat.

In this example, each block or measure of music (A, B, and C) are repeated before moving on to the next measure. The first measure (A) has NO syncopation. The second measure (B) has a steady off-beat syncopation.

From the dance rhythms of the Juba, to the minstrel songs and parlor songs of Foster, to the crudely grotesque caricatures of the “coon song” of the 1870s and ’80s, syncopation was being infused into popular American music.

The most artistic appearance of raw syncopation in 19th century American popular music, however, was in the popular style called ragtime. Most likely the name “ragtime” is a contraction of the term “ragged time,” a common description of the music where uneven, syncopated melody was played against an even, steady pulse.

It first appeared in the brothels and dance halls of New Orleans, Louisiana; St. Louis, Missouri; and on the Mississippi riverboats between the cities. At that time, it was simply described as “jig music,” although it only vaguely resembled the English or Irish dance of the same name. By the 1880s it had acquired the name ragtime, but lacked the elegance and polish which were part of its mature nature. In its early state, ragtime was not simply syncopated; it was erratic, unpredictable and raw.

In its mature form, ragtime was primarily a piano song form; although vocal versions did gain popularity in the early 1910s during the Tin Pan Alley era of pop music. The ragtime piano song was extremely popular from 1895 to approximately 1917. Although ragtime was a moderately difficult style of music to play, its popularity was due in great part to the widespread purchase of automated pianos called “pianolas” or “player pianos.” These instruments allowed the middle class consumer to pump two foot pedals below the keyboard which triggered a paper roll to be transferred from one cylinder to another in the pianola. The paper roll had been carefully punctured with thousands of small holes, each coinciding with a piano key. When the pedals were pumped, the paper was transferred, the holes in the paper triggered piano keys to be played and the keyboard automatically played music. For the first time in history, a performer could “entertain” in a home without being physically present, an idea which was revolutionary in the pre-radio-television-movie-CD-DVD-mp3 era.

In its refined form, ragtime was not only carefully composed syncopation; it was also crafted as a series of “strains” or 16 measure musical ideas. Each strain statement was followed by an exact repetition of the strain before a second and third set appeared. Frequently, after several sets of strains, the original set may return to complete the song. Its structure, then, often began with a short introduction and followed with an AABBCCAA pattern.


Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

The refinement and popularization of ragtime was the result of the efforts of America’s first great African-American composer, Scott Joplin. Joplin was born in Missouri in 1868, just four years after Stephen Foster’s death. Like Foster, Joplin was born into a musically talented middle class family where both parents and children played musical instruments. Also like Stephen Foster, Joplin’s innate talent was augmented by music lessons from a transplanted European musician who taught him the rudimentary basics in composition.

While in his teens and early 20s Joplin traveled throughout the South, playing in dance halls, bordellos, saloons and churches before eventually landing in St. Louis in 1885. During this time he absorbed a wide variety of musical styles, including the one which was beginning to be known as ragtime.

In 1894, Joplin left the brothels and saloons of St. Louis for Sedalia, Missouri, where he attended the George R. Smith College for Negroes, a school sponsored by the Methodist church. Although he was enrolled at a religious school for the purpose of preparing to be a classical pianist, the raw sounds of ragtime never completely left him.

Joplin found a perfectly balanced merging of classical music structure, religious refinement, and syncopated ragtime in his second composed ragtime piano song “Maple Leaf Rag.” The sheet music version of the song, first published in 1899 and named after a saloon and dance hall in Sedalia, was an immediate success, selling thousands in a few months.

Though his success in the field of ragtime was immense, Joplin never lost the desire to be considered a composer of serious music. Over the next 18 years, Joplin composed two ragtime operas, a folk ballet, dozens of piano works, songs and arrangements. But it was his more than thirty ragtime piano compositions that established his place in American music history.

Treemonisha,” his second opera, combined folk songs, spirituals, ragtime and blues music with a story centered around the concept of education of blacks as the only path towards true freedom. The opera was never staged during Joplin’s lifetime and resulted in continual frustration and heartbreak in his final years.

Scott Joplin died in a mental hospital in Manhattan, New York on April 1, 1917. His path towards mental instability began with a case of syphilis, a venereal disease, but was exacerbated by the disappointments over “Treemonisha.” Though he never met his personal goals of classical respectability, Scott Joplin, the “Father of Ragtime,” refined the syncopated form of piano ragtime and helped prepare American audiences to accept the sounds of early jazz.

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Study Units

An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

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