What is a Rag?

When most of us hear the term "rag" or "ragtime", the musical image of a Scott Joplin work comes to mind. Though it is true that Joplin engineered the most lasting ragtime pattern, there are many songs that qualify as rags that do not sound like a Joplin style rag. Several of the songs published this month seem to follow the "Joplin model" (called The Missouri style) such as the Russian Rag, The Dynamite Rag, The Smiler and Tatters. Yet others sound different, not exactly like what we are accustomed to, for example The Frisco Rag, The Ragtime Engineer, The International Rag and The Louisiana Rag. These rags belong to the "Eastern Ragtime" style.

So what makes a rag a rag? Ragtime is a musical form or style that is defined as a syncopated* melody (usually in 2/4 time) over a regular, march tempo bass line. Ragtime was almost exclusively a piano form that reached its greatest popularity between 1897 and World War I. Its roots are in minstrel-show plantation songs, cakewalks, banjo playing, and black folk music; it also drew on, and recast in fresh ways, the chromatic harmonies of 19th-century European music. Created by itinerant professional performers in saloons and honky-tonks, ragtime was ultimately disseminated by piano rolls and printed music. The exact date ragtime emerged is debatable as there are distinct elements of ragtime in the music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, especially in his work La Bamboula published in 1847. In spite of that, the emergence of Scott Joplin's rags is considered the beginning of the ragtime era. It is a sophisticated genre requiring considerable technical skill. Among outstanding ragtime composers were Scott Joplin, whose "Maple Leaf Rag" (1899) inaugurated ragtime as a national craze; Thomas Turpin; James Scott; and Eubie Blake. Played at unrushed tempo in Joplin's classical St. Louis style, it gained a faster, "hotter" character in the hands of New Orleans players such as Jelly Roll Morton.

Scott Joplin (1868-1917), an American composer and pianist, was one of the most important developers of ragtime music. He was born in Texarkana, Texas and was trained in music by a German teacher. In 1893 Joplin played at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and in 1894 he moved to Sedalia, Missouri, where he opened a teaching studio. In 1911 he published his ragtime opera Treemonisha, a work intended to create an indigenous black American opera. Staged in a concert version in 1915, it failed with the audience, leaving Joplin's spirit permanently broken. Joplin's other compositions include "The Entertainer" (1902), "Peacherine Rag" (1901), and "Magnetic Rag" (1914). Joplin's style is often called the Missouri Ragtime style. Among the Missouri group of composers are Joseph F. Lamb, Artie Matthews and James Scott.

At the same time as the Missouri rags were being composed, another style of Rag emerged, called "Eastern Ragtime". These rags emerged from composers in New York, Baltimore and New Orleans. These rags, though technically defined as rags (sycopation over a regular bass line), do not have the same feel and sound as the Missouri school rags. The tendency of this style rag was to produce a fast brilliant style and were somewhat simplified in style.

* SYNCOPATION: Sycopation is a rhythmic pattern in music where the beat or emphasis is displaced to a "weak" beat. Usually in music, the first beat of a measure is the strong or emphasized beat. In 4/4 time, normally you would count ONE-tworee-four, ONE-tworee-four. A syncopated pattern would be; one-TWOree-four, one-TWOree-four. The result is a rhythmic pattern that sounds "off-beat".