Ragtime Music

Ragtime Music

Ragtime music, born of the John Philip Sousa march era, saw popularity from 1865-1918. It was syncopated music that grew out of local African American communities in the St. Louis area ahead of any popular acclaim. Notably, African American musician and composer, Earnest Hogan, coined the term “ragtime” and became the first to transfer the genre to sheet music. Another African American musician and composer, Scott Joplin, received the title “King of Ragtime” after publishing his Maple Leaf Rag. The composition was a hit, making him well known in the African American community. Among whites, however, he was quickly forgotten.

It is important to remember that this is simply another brick in the wall of ways that this country has stolen our minds, bodies and cultures for the benefit of its white overlords. 


A white man named Bill Harney stole the acclaim from African American ragtime composers in releasing a mainstream song called “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon but You Done Broke Down.” In this composition, he mimicked the style and animation of African American ragtime musicians. As a white man in mainstream society, he was conveniently mislabeled as “ragtime’s father” by Time magazine in 1938. He was given accolades for creating the music style, even though African American musicians had been performing ragtime for more than forty years. Once the ragtime cat was let out of the bag, it became popular in mainstream white America until Jazz took over in 1917.

The story of Earnest Hogan and Scott Joplin are not unlike many throughout the history of a country steeped in racial inequality. As black musicians, they would never be able to reach acclaim or speak up for themselves. Without many rights, there was nothing black people could do to minimize white plagiarism or misinformation. The New York Times wrote that Harney “did more to popularize ragtime than any other person” which was blatantly untrue. Racial disparities like this demand that each of us dig under the surface. Recognizing the influence of POC is crucial in 2017 as there is a leader who may suppress or mislead information going forward. It is important to remember that this is simply another brick in the wall of ways that this country has stolen our minds, bodies and cultures for the benefit of its white overlords.

- S. R. Hallmen   

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[1] Peter Gammond, Scott Joplin and the Ragtime Era (1975); James Haskins and Kathleen Benson, Scott Joplin (1978); Edward A. Berlin, King of Ragtime (1994); Susan Curtis, Dancing to a Black Man’s Tune: A Life of Scott Joplin (1994).