I haven’t done an article on marches (yet.)
But you no doubt know the name John Phillip Sousa.
Even if you don’t, you know his music.
He wrote “The Washington Post,” and “Stars and Stripes Forever,”
And, “The Liberty Bell,” which was used as the Monty Python’s Flying Circus theme.
They chose “The Liberty Bell” because it was in the public domain, and therefore cost them nothing to use.
That’s the same reason Warner Bros. cartoons used so much classical music.
Anyway, Sousa wrote operettas and suites and humoresques and plain old songs.
But he’s mostly known for his marches with patriotic titles. He was around just after the American Civil War, so the country needed all the patriotism it could get as it tried to pull itself back together.
The problem with marches is they require a marching band.
Trying to get 30-plus musicians to show up at the same place at the same time, and pay them all, is a feat in and of itself. And you can’t squeeze them into the corner of your midwestern saloon. Trust me, it’s hard enough with a punk trio.
Saloons could afford a piano and someone to play it.
But the question is: how can one musician compete with a huge ensemble?
Even though the marching band has dozens of players, the instruments can be divided into four parts:
So, if the piano player can play the melody with his right hand and keep a steady beat, that’s two of the four parts taken care of. But it means that the left hand has to play both the bass part and the chords.
If you look up the word “stride,” you’ll get a bunch of definitions, both verbs and nouns. Usually, the last noun refers to “stride piano.“ Here’s what I found on dictionary.com:
Stride piano did indeed become its own thing in the 1920s.
The technique was called “stride bass” in the ragtime days, and the stride genre is the link between ragtime and jazz
What the left hand does in ragtime and stride is play a single bass note on the first beat of the measure, then “stride” up the keyboard an octave and play a chord on the second beat, then stride back down to play another bass note on the third beat, then back up to play a chord on the fourth beat.
That alone takes tremendous concentration, and even more so because the right hand is playing the melody.
Plus, the left hand has to keep a steady beat like a marching band, and the right hand plays with syncopation. That is, the left hand is exactly on the beat and the right hand is slightly off. Or a lot off, as the case may be.
That’s how ragtime got its name. Its time is ragged.
I’m glad I’m a bass player and only have to worry about one note at a time. What the ragtime piano players did is astoundingly difficult. They were masters of their craft. Playing in cheap saloons.
Chestnut Valley was an African-American section of St. Louis, MO, that had a number of bars and brothels and other businesses.
The bars and brothels needed entertainment and hired piano players.
A businessman named Tom Turpin opened a saloon there in 1897. He also published sheet music, including his own song “Harlem Rag.”
It didn’t yet have the secondary rag trick but it has the same left hand stride of the ragtime about to come.
Other piano players in Chestnut Valley heard “Harlem Rag” and used it as inspiration for their new compositions.
In Texas following the Civil War, newly freed African-Americans had trouble finding work that paid more than subsistence wages. One of these people, a young man named Scott Joplin from Texarkana, didn’t like low pay manual labor, moved to Sedalia, Missouri and made a living teaching piano. He also wrote instrumental pieces.
A local music publisher named John Stark heard Joplin play his composition “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1899 and signed him to a publishing deal for $50 plus a royalty of a penny per copy of sheet music sold. Stark set about promoting the work. It didn’t happen overnight but they sold a million copies by 1914.
“Maple Leaf Rag” was successful enough for both men to move to St. Louis and eventually New York City. Stark became the biggest publisher of ragtime sheet music. Joplin composed rags and operas for the rest of his, sadly, short life.
Ragtime songs have been arranged for other instruments, but it’s really piano music.
Having said that, its ancestors are the fast picking banjo music from Appalachia and the South, the jigs and fiddle music of British immigrants, and something called the cakewalk.
The slaves’ satirical, exaggerated, movements struck everyone as funny, including the whites, and many masters held competitions.
The prize for the best or funniest dance was a cake, hence the name cakewalk.
Cakewalk music was played by ensembles, not just piano, but ragtime took that joyous verve for its own. It also took the speed, dexterity, and happiness of banjo and fiddle music.
The big three names in ragtime are known as the Big Three.
Scott Joplin is of course the most familiar, and the other two star composers were Joseph Lamb and James Scott.
While ragtime was centered around black musicians in Missouri, Joseph Lamb was a white piano player in New Jersey. He loved Joplin’s music and began writing his own rags. Joplin heard and liked Lamb’s music so much that he introduced him to Stark, and Stark became Lamb’s publisher. A couple of Lamb’s more popular tunes are “Topliner Rag” and “Champagne Rag.”
His work had a duality to it. He sometimes wrote in the cakewalk style, upbeat and joyful. And he sometimes wrote with a darker, minor key, ambiance. At the end of the 1910s, Joplin died, Lamb’s wife died, and ragtime inevitably faded out of popularity.
Lamb gave up music and became an accountant.
He composed for his own pleasure only and didn’t publish his new songs until he released an album called “Joseph Lamb: A Study in Classic Ragtime” in 1960.
He died the following year at the age of 72.
James Scott had a similar relationship with Joplin. He was the son of former slaves and found work as a song plugger for a music publisher in Carthage, Missouri. If you went into a music store and wanted to hear a song before you bought its sheet music, you’d bring it to the song plugger. He’d put the sheet music on the piano and play it for you, much like we would listen to CDs in stores before buying them in the 1990s.
Scott’s employer published four of his compositions but overall business wasn’t good and the shop closed.
Scott went to St. Louis with the intent of playing his songs for Joplin, and that’s exactly what happened.
Joplin liked the tunes and, again, introduced him to Stark who gave Scott a publishing deal.
His “Frogs Legs Rag” was a huge hit, selling more copies than anything else Stark published except “Maple Leaf Rag.”
He married in 1914 and moved to Kansas City where he took up teaching and working as an arranger in theater. When ragtime lost popularity, he played organ during silent movies, but talkies came along and ruined him financially. His wife died young, he lost his arranging work, and died destitute at the age of 52.
Joplin himself died at 48. He had been admitted to a New York City mental institution with syphilitic dementia. It was 1917, and many consider his passing to be the end of ragtime.
Some critics at the time said that ragtime was “lowbrow” and “musical poison.” A few folks, as always, said it would corrupt the minds of young people. These critics were, of course, big fat doody heads. They clearly didn’t understand the difficulty or intricacies of the genre.
It’s important to mention here that there’s not much improvisation in ragtime. You play what’s written on the page.
There’s no embellishing or otherwise disrespecting the composer’s wishes. Ragtime has that in common with classical music, its predecessor, but what little improvisation occurs is, like in baroque, on repeated passages later in the pieces. Why play exactly what you played before when you can throw in a little flair?
Not only is composing three parts for two hands difficult, it’s really hard to play, too.
Playing ragtime is as challenging as playing baroque or classical. Playing Bach or Chopin or Lizst takes as much talent and dedication as playing Joplin or Lamb or Scott.
Some classical composers of the early 20th Century recognized ragtime’s value and the Big 3’s genius. Debussy, Dvorak, and Satie each incorporated ragtime elements into their work. Debussy’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” is a nice blend of Joplin’s playfulness, Lamb’s atmosphere, and Debussy’s subtlety.
There was a revival of ragtime in the 1950s, which may have convinced Lamb to put out his album of unreleased compositions, and a bigger revival in the 1970s.
That one was in part prompted by an album called “Piano Rags by Scott Joplin” by Joshua Rifkin.
It was nominated for two Grammy Awards.
Its popularity may have led to ragtime being featured in a 1973 movie called “The Sting.”
Even though the story takes place in 1936, two decades after ragtime. It used Joplin’s “The Entertainer” as its main theme.
The movie won ten Oscars including Best Picture and Best Scoring: Original Song Score and Adaptation or Scoring: Adaptation.
Half of the soundtrack album is Joplin tunes.
Not only did ragtime sell a lot of sheet music in its time, it sold a lot of pianos. People had them in their homes even if they couldn’t play any of the Big 3. They tried. Some became pretty good.
It doesn’t matter if they got good or not. Music in the home brings families together, though not when everyone’s wearing their own earbuds.
Ragtime is a truly American genre, coming from smack dab in the middle of the country at that time.
It took the technical aspects of classical piano and the arrangements of patriotic marches, and produced something that would influence other American genres, like jazz, blues, and rock & roll, for the next hundred years.
In the words of the great bluesman Taj Mahal:
“I’m feeling so much better, I could cakewalk into town.”
Suggested Listening – Full YouTube Playlist
Cake Walk In The Sky
Frogs Legs Rag
Dill Pickles Rag
Charles L. Johnson
James P. Johnson
Coaxing The Piano
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