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Ragtime as a Cultural Phenomenon

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The bitter-sweet flavor of the hard-won Thirteenth Amendment, the tint of resentment of the new ways, branded by the extinguished fires of the Ku Klux Klan followers, the intoxicating air of emancipation, and newly born freedoms – all these were instrumental in the creation of the social and cultural prerequisites for the new sort of music, the new way of thinking, the new perspective on the world.

The transition period from the 19th to the 20th century was one of the most complicated fragments on the tapestry of the US history. The period of Reconstruction, “the dramatic, controversial era” (Foner xi), was closely followed by the Glided Age, with its swift economic growth. Then again, the nation faced the Panic of 1873 triggering a massive economic depression, succeeded by the Progressive Era, boasting its social activism, and flourishing political reformation. For decades, people of the United States were thrown from one extreme to another, with no time to properly adapt to the new world they were now a part of, with no time to ponder changes and integrate them into their system of values.

These unsteady and constantly evolving surroundings were bound to give birth to an extraordinary cultural phenomenon. Furthermore, the abolition of slavery gave way to the creative genius of those formerly restrained, the Afro-Americans, who hurried to introduce their own unique ethnic elements into the cultural treasury of the nation. As it often happens, music and literature were the first to absorb the new input, and thus vividly represented the sentiment of the times.

Talking about the music of the era equals to talking about ragtime to a great extent, while it is considered to be “the first body of serious Afro-American composition” (Baker), and “it can teach serious listeners as much about the real American spirit as Bartok can about the Slavic” (Baker). At first, ragtime was “a term applied to the peculiar, broken rhythmic features of the popular ‘coon song’” (Berlin 5). The most famous coon songs of the time were Ernest Hogan’s All Coons Look Alike to Me (1896), Theodore Metz’s A Hot Time in the Old Town (1896), and Joseph Howard and Ida Emerson’s Hello! Ma Baby (1899).

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Later on, however, ragtime progressed and mostly left the vocal stage behind, blossoming in the form of instrumental rag with occasional vocal support, and thus reaching the peak of its popularity. Moreover, at some point, it stopped being a solely Afro-American music and broke the racial borders, infiltrating the works of white musicians as well. In my point of view, this sort of popularization of formerly racially bound music gave a boost to the process of introduction of equal rights for all the citizens of the United States, regardless the skin color.

There and then, ragtime “has been developed into the distinct musical idiom by which America expresses itself popularly, and by which it is known universally” (Berlin 6). I find it necessary to name several prominent ragtime composers, giving tribute to their priceless input into the American culture; they are Scott Joplin (The Entertainer, Maple Leaf Rag), Jelly Roll Morton (King Porter Stomp, Black Bottom Stomp), Eubie Blake (Shuffle Along), James Scott (Climax Rag, Frog Legs Rag, Grace and Beauty) etc.

The ragtime’s metaphorical cradle is the Missouri Valley, while situated at the center of the country, “it has long been and remains a crossroads of cultural exchanges” (Brightwell). Rag was an ever-present background in the local whorehouses, parlors and gambling clubs.

The characteristic feature of this type of music is the improvised syncopation, or ‘ragging’, of pieces of music, resulting in “broken rhythm in melody” (Berlin 11), and even a certain “hysterical effect” (Berlin 11). Writing about the peculiar manner in which to preform, Scott Joplin, “The King of Ragtime”, stated, “Play slowly until you catch the swing,” and described the effect as “weird and intoxicating” (Brightwell).

The media for ragtime are extremely diverse; it includes piano, song, bands and even several combinations which seem exotic today, such as a brass band; violin and piano; banjo and zither; and two mandolins, guitar and piano.

The Ragtime era

As significant and momentous as it was, the Ragtime era came to a close shortly before 1920, melting into jazz and slowly losing its popularity. Nevertheless, the trace left by the overwhelming ragtime craze and its social implications is actually omnipresent. Naturally, such an important indicator of any new developments as literature was not an exception.

The literary works of the era carry a distinct touch of naturalist school of realism; they were engulfing new expanses and eagerly portraying upper-class and lower-class issues, their interrelations and connections. Typically for naturalistic art, the process of shaping human characters and destinies was one of the key issues in the works of the era. Hence, social conditions, environment, and cultural innovations, such as a new musical craze, could not help playing a great role in the lives of the characters.

Talking about the influence of ragtime on literature, I would like to exemplify the main instances of it by means of a novel by the same name written by Edgar Doctorow. First of all, it should be mentioned that all the social, political, and economic turmoil typical of the era are vividly reflected in Ragtime. The social position of Afro-Americans, the relationship between the representatives of different races and classes, all this is shown through the lives of three families of drastically different background who eventually merge into an allegorical ‘Melting Pot’, representing the American nation.

The influence of ragtime music extends to more than mere content side of the story, flooding the form of it with its rhythmic characteristics, namely syncopation. One of the most suitable excerpts to show it would be a part where a successful dark-skinned pianist, Coalhouse Walker Jr., tries to make up with the woman he has abandoned some time ago. The very syntax of the extract may be characterized as fragmentary and cropped. The sentences tend to be either simple and short, or compound with detachments, “One afternoon, a Sunday” (Doctorow 144). The reader may also observe some cases of asyndeton, “he rose, patted his lips with the napkin, placed the napkin…” (Doctorow 148), and parallel constructions, “She told him to wait and closed the door. She climbed to the third floor. She found…” (Doctorow 149) All these instances create a certain melody; thus, the structure of the novel itself channels the rhythm of ragtime. In my opinion, this effect serves to show that this particular period of time was as complicated, jumbled, and uneven as the rhythm of ragtime for both the whole nation and Coalhouse personally. 

Conclusion

All in all, it is quite obvious that the two sides of our life depicted in the essay that are our immediate reality, and the way we pour our reaction to it in our creative works, are closely intertwined creating a small bubble we live in and filling the air itself with its essence. In our case, it is the essence of change, unease and certain resentment.

Born from the crude historical circumstances, and developed in the age of doubt, ragtime became “first truly and distinctly American musical form” (Brightwell), presenting us with a beautiful metaphor for the whole American nation. ‘United we stand, divided we fall’ motto suits here perfectly, enhancing the importance of feeling the link despite the skin color and different backgrounds. Thus, the cultural heritage we may be proud of today gained a tremendous gift of uniqueness with the influx of Afro-American ethnic motives. The same way it happened on the social level, when the colored stopped being discriminated and ostracized.

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