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A Short History of Ragtime

Ernest Hogan
Ernest Hogan, the Father of Ragtime, 1890s (United States Public Domain)

When the term Ragtime is mentioned today and the origins of it are discussed, many people think of either the talented African-American composer-entertainer Scott Joplin…or the movie The Sting that featured his music…or his jumpy piano tune The Entertainer…or any combination of the three. But this unique music form did not start with Joplin…

African-American Ernest Reuben Crowdus was born in Bowling Green, Kentucky in 1865. In his early teens, he performed in a traveling minstrel troupe called the Georgia Graduate as a dancer, musician and comedian. There, he changed his name to Ernest Hogan because Irish names were popular at that time in the business. A few years later, moving on to bigger and better things on his own, he was the highest paid vaudeville entertainer at $300 a week, a tidy sum at turn of the 20th century. In 1907, he was the first African-American to write, produce and star in a Broadway show, The Oyster Man, a spectacular musical-comedy set in 2 acts. He may also have been the father of a new musical genre, or at least brought it to national prominence. Kind of like saying that Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile…he just beat everybody else in mass-producing it.

Anyway, Hogan supposedly put his own name in print to this genre, calling it Ragtime because it had a ragged rhythm. It was upbeat and cheerful piano-based tunes that made people want to dance. Ragtime had a mechanical sound to it, like a piano roll. According to one source, the music began in the African-American red-light districts of New Orleans and St Louis. One of the earlier dances associated with Ragtime was a variation of a Southern plantation dance called the Cakewalk. From there it went on the road to minstrel shows and vaudeville. And this was where Hogan picked up on it.

Hogan wrote and published 2 popular songs in the mid-1890s. The first one was La Pas Ma La in 1895 which was based on a dance he invented consisting of one walk forward and 3 steps backwards called the “pasmala.” The second one was All Coons Look Alike to Me in 1896. I know it sounds racial, but that’s what it was called. Honest. And it sold over a million copies in music sheet form which was where the money was, before records and turntables were introduced.

But the lyrics weren’t actually his. They were derived from a piano song he had heard in a Chicago parlor called All Pimps Look Alike to Me. He just…changed some of the words. That’s all. The song then fueled an avalanche of similar tunes by other entertainers and composers called “coon songs,” although these tunes had been around on and off for about 10 years. Hogan had merely brought them to the forefront with his own song. Many African-Americans were soon appalled by the racial slurs Hogan and others were using. Due to these “coon songs,” Hogan’s name is bypassed by some historians as one of the early contributors to the Ragtime phenomenon. Other composers quickly made their names known in the Ragtime genre, three in particular simply known as the “Big Three.”

Joseph Lamb was of Irish descent and was the only white person of the trio, and one of the few whites connected with the music form. Lamb composed both “light” and “heavy” rags. He attended St Jerome’s University in Berlin, (now Kitchener) Ontario just after the turn of the 20th century and while there had several of his earlier compositions (mostly waltzes) published by Harold H Sparks of Toronto. Back in the States, in 1908, he met his hero, Scott Joplin, who introduced him to John Stillwell Stark a Sedalia, Missouri music publisher-promoter. With Stark, Lamb published his first rag, Sensation Rag, followed by others such notables as Ethiopia Rag, Excelsior Rag, Champagne Rag, and Cleopatra Rag. During the 1950s he was interviewed on a few occasions by musical historians who were surprised to discover he was white and…still living. In 1959, he performed some of his pieces before a crowd of 400 people at Toronto’s Club 76. He died the following year at the age of 72 in Brooklyn, New York.

James Scott published mostly out of the ragtime hub of Missouri, where he was born and raised. Living in Carthage, his first piano piece was published locally in 1903 by Charles Dumars, A Summer Breeze. Scott moved to St Louis where Scott Joplin introduced him to John Stillwell Stark who published Scott’s Frog Legs Rag five years later. His 2 other works of importance were Grace and Beauty and Climax Rag. Scott was a cousin to famed female blues recording singer Ada Brown who sang to Fats Waller’s piano work in the World War II movie Stormy Weather.

Last and most prominent of the Big Three, was none other than Scott Joplin, the most famous composer of the era. Joplin was born somewhere in Texas sometime between late 1867 and early 1868. No one knows when or where for sure. A self-taught pianist, he played in saloons and brothels throughout the American Mid-West. His first published work was Original Rags in 1897. At that time, he worked at the Maple Leaf Club in Sedalia, Missouri, which inspired his next work of art, Maple Leaf Rag. The local John Stilwell Stark paid Joplin $50 up front for what turned out to be the most famous ragtime tune ever, a one cent royalty for each piece of sheet music sold, making it the first time a composer received a royalty.    The residuals from the work provided Joplin with a modest income for the rest of his life. By 1909, over half a million copies were sold and millions more up to Joplin’s death in 1917 from complications due to syphilis, a disease he probably picked up in one of the brothels he performed in. Stark published almost 60 Joplin compositions (besides works of Joseph Lamb and James Scott), including The Entertainer in 1902 and Pine Apple Rag in 1908.

Scott Joplin
The talented and versatile Scott Joplin, 1903 (United States Public Domain)

In 1903, Joplin wrote an opera entitled A Guest of Honor, featuring a wide range of musical genres, not just Ragtime. It was the first opera ever written by an African-American, and he went on the road with it. While on tour in Springfield, Illinois, someone stole the box office receipts, shutting the opera down. Joplin’s personal belongings and the musical score for it were confiscated as non-payment. Hence, the score for A Guest of Honor was lost forever. In 1911, Joplin moved to New York City, where he wrote a second opera, Treemonisha. Although it never made it to the stage, it’s considered a masterpiece today, and has been performed many times since the score was discovered by accident in 1970.

In the 1920s, Ragtime composers such as Jelly Roll Morton and James P Johnson managed to make the transition into Jazz. Morton’s most famous compositions were Black Bottom Stomp and King Porter Stomp, later reworked by both the Benny Goodman and Fletcher Henderson bands. Johnson, in particular, combined Ragtime and Blues into early Jazz. Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Fats Waller were all affected positively by Johnson’s music. Ragtime saw a few revivals over the next few decades, but they weren’t very strong.

After early Jazz came the Big Bands of the 1930s-1940s, the Googie-Woogie and Jitterbug era of Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, and others. Scott Joplin was quickly forgotten. Then along came the movie The Sting in 1974, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford and highlighting Joplin’s music. All of a sudden, Ragtime was popular again and everyone was appreciating The Entertainer (72 years after it was first published) when Marvin Hamlisch recorded it that year. A No. 5 national tune, it was also No. 48 on the year.

But remember who started the Ragtime craze…Ernest Hogan, the true Father of Ragtime. He died in May 1909 in New York City of tuberculosis. He was only 44. In his remaining years, he deeply regretted the use of the racial slur in his 1896 song, All Coons Look Alike to Me. But he sure did a lot for the industry.


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