At the end of the 19th century, a broken-rhythm, buoyant musical form called "rag" -- for its ragged meter -- gained traction in minstrel shows, social clubs, black dance halls and even the Chicago World's Fair. The music had rich antecedents in tribal Africa, the American South and the Caribbean, and a young musician named Scott Joplin blended those elements into a lively song he called "Maple Leaf Rag." Rag was played with a lot of improvisation, most of which has been lost. But "Maple Leaf Rag" endured because of its superb musicality and best-seller published status.
One in a Million
Classic ragtime emerged from the redlight-district saloons in the South and Midwest. "Maple Leaf Rag" is named for a social club in Sedalia, Missouri, where Joplin played the piano. It first was published as sheet music in 1899, initially selling very slowly because classic ragtime is challenging to play. But the catchy, unmistakable tune caught on and "Maple Leaf Rag" soon became a nationwide bestseller; by 1914, it was the first piece of sheet music ever to sell one million copies. Joplin's piece is acknowledged as the iconic masterpiece of the musical genre. The syncopated rhythm was so popular that hundreds of rags were written and piano sales skyrocketed.
Writing Classics in Ragged Time
"Rag" is shorthand for ragged time, a syncopated rhythm that blends march tempos, minstrel-show music and a melody deliberately broken up to play in choppy passages over a steady sustaining beat. "Ragging" traces its roots back to African traditions; slave music based on British Isles jigs and reels and known as "clapping Juba"; and the cakewalk, a minstrel-show crowd pleaser. Ragtime was a natural for itinerant musicians of the American South, who played portable instruments such as the banjo, ukulele, mandolin, guitar and violin. Joplin, another string player, was familiar with syncopated rag music and elevated his composition to a standard he likened to Chopin, composing with sophisticated complexity for accomplished instrumentalists and creating "Maple Leaf Rag" for piano.
Upbeat and on Your Feet
Ragtime is a description of musical meter. The music is written in duple meter, in which each measure is divided into two beats or a multiple of two; for example 2/2, 2/4 or 4/4. The melody in the treble is very syncopated but the bass rhythmically is very stable, and the composition generally has three or four distinct sections, each section from 16 to 32 measures long. The syncopation makes it upbeat, loose and exciting music; the listener is jarred out of complacency by the disrupted rhythm and compelled to move. In W.W. Norton's "A History of Western Music," Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" is characterized as a composition with no introduction that shifts keys between D-flat major and A-flat major; assigns the left hand the steady pulse of a march tempo and the right hand the syncopated melodies; and achieves a colorful harmony due to Joplin's musical sophistication.
Jazz, the indigenous American music that relies on improvisation, syncopation, blues and polyphony, owes a major debt to ragtime. "Maple Leaf Rag" swept Europe, coloring music by European composers such as Satie, Stravinsky and Hindemith. Claude Debussy's "Golliwog's Cakewalk" resonates with ragtime. Popular composers Gershwin, Ellington, Bernstein and Sondheim wrote with elements of rag. Never-proven rumors claimed Gershwin "borrowed" the melody of "Alexander's Ragtime Band" from Joplin. Contemporary classical musicians recorded Joplin's music. The movie "The Sting" used another Joplin tune, "The Entertainer." Novelist E. L. Doctorow published a bestseller about the era called "Ragtime"; a Broadway musical based on his book won four Tony awards. More than a half-century after his death at age 49, Joplin was posthumously awarded a special Pulitzer Prize for music and the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor.