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.