Dance moves: Race and the rise of ragtime, 1900-13


In a new series, the music blog 20jazzfunkgreats is charting 20th-century 'periods of innovation' spurring the evolution of music to dance to. Here, in the first instalment, they look at the emergence of ragtime

3rd March 2016

It was after being sent a download promo of the excellent latest 12" record from Optimo Trax – a banging, previously unreleased early techno number from Muslimgauze – that we began to wonder, what exactly was the first techno record?

Some sources suggest this 1981 12" as a likely culprit… but we're getting ahead of ourselves, here. Now is not the time to talk about techno.

Still, this mini-investigation did lead into an appealing thought experiment. Early techno sounds exciting, partly because it only slightly resembles the music that would later be popularly referred to as techno. It sounds, instead, anomalous, out of time and more futuristic and less generic than the genre music it begat.

This 'anomalousness' isn't unique to early techno, though. It's inherent to all early adopters who – clunkily or otherwise – take significant enough steps outside of the familiar traditions they operate within that the work becomes retrospectively worthy of a new classification.

We became a bit obsessed with the taxonomy of this – these overlooked little spawnings of new musical species. So we travelled back in time, beyond techno, to see if we could construct a linear timeline for these new genre arrivals that represent an evolution of music made in the 20th century expressly for the purpose of dancing.

We'll start at 1900, we thought, and run all the way up to 1999.

Each post in this series – 'Dancing music in the C20' – will assess one 'period of innovation'. Arbitrarily, we have defined each 'period of innovation' as the length of time it took for a given genre to accrue one hour's worth of A-sides or notable works.

This hour of music (assembled into Spotify playlists) therefore represents an album-length birth of a new musical sound. What is fascinating about these compilations is that they don't necessarily resemble the popular sound of a given genre; and they rarely include a genre's classic works.

Take disco. If we follow the popular assertion that disco's artistic pinnacle is Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder's megalithic 1977 single I Feel Love, we're talking music that is light years away from the first disco records, such as The Love I Lost (parts 1 and 2) by Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes, which arrived four years earlier, sashaying out of Philly soul's primordial ooze.

Or blues. Early blues was really a kind of pop music. It was powered by big bands, you could dance to it, and it had a strong femininity. This was very different music from the 'man on a porch twanging a guitar and moaning about his woman' stereotype that would pervade blues post-Robert Johnson.

And while Miles Davis's Kind of Blue (1957) is the canonical high watermark of jazz, recordings identifiable as jazz were circulating as early as 1917 – though admittedly more dixieland (and, again, 'pop') in nature than Miles's modal hard bop.

So this 'period of innovation' proto-genre music that we are proposing to investigate across this occasional series may not necessarily be what is popularly thought of as "the good stuff" but it does represent that music arguably at its most pure and rule-free – when its potential seemed limitless, and its future unknowable.

Crudely copying and pasting all these historical instances into a century-long timeline isn't especially scientific or musicological, but it is a kind of fun way of seeing how humanity's craving for shaking its ass was mediated by recorded sound across the nascent age of the music industry: the 20th century.

Like any good faux-academic study, here are a list of the random rules, strengths and limitations of our investigations:

  • Recorded music only. Improvised, live and orally transmitted folk songs are all valid musical expressions that have been integral to the evolution not only of dance music, but of music overall. But we just don't have the scope to go into it here!
  • Contemporaneously released music only. Sheet music, unreleased gems that would go on to become classics in future decades, and Smithsonian Folkways-style stockpiling of audio documents are mostly omitted here in favour of music that was pressed onto shellac or vinyl, mass-produced, marketed and distributed at a relatively wide audience.
  • One music per period. Music does not grow in a linear, clear way. It is a sprawl of division, subdivision and creativity. But we're lazy assholes, so we're just going to pick one genre per period of innovation. Where strong evolutions of dancing music occur in parallel, such as techno and house, we'll pick, say, house, follow it for the length of time it took that genre to produce its first hour of A-sides, and then see what the next thing to be born was.
  • Each genre on the timeline does not necessarily correspond to the genre that precedes or follows it. The genres we're looking at just happen to have been born sequentially, we won't be trying to carve out a literal link between, for instance, early space disco (1976-77) and early dancehall (1977-80) – they just exploded in consecutive instances in the space-time continuum.
  • Music made for dancing only.

All that said, here is our first entry in Dancing music in the C20:

Ragtime – 1900-13

Ragtime didn't arrive on the dot at the birth of the century. It evolved out of the previous century's cakewalk style of dance music, and the man now regarded as its chief architect was the musically ambitious composer Scott Joplin, whose ragtime works were published in sheet-music form.

By 1901, though, the first ragtime recordings had emerged.

Ragtime is an interesting case study in sociopolitics for this experiment. We might reasonably assume that our history of dancing music in the 20th century will largely be driven by African-American innovation; and certainly, ragtime originated from the black musical communities of St Louis and Kentucky. The first published composer of ragtime music – the broadway entertainer Ernest Hogan – was black.

But interestingly, our Spotify playlist of the early ragtime recordings exclusively features work by white American male performers. This perhaps says a lot about which groups had access to new technologies in the early 20th century.

Outside of the issue of resources and technology, something else had happened by the early 1900s that had made ragtime an increasingly mainstream and white music.

Hogan's second ragtime hit was a reappropriation of a song he heard a bar pianist in Chicago play, called All Pimps Look Alike to Me. Hogan's version – All Coons Look Alike to Me – went on to sell over a million in sheet-music form.

The success of All Coons Look Alike to Me contributed to the surge of a new kind of ragtime, performed by blackface minstrels (Hogan was a regular on the minstrel circuit) and white recording artists, called Coon Song. Coon Song was a virulently racist popularisation of ragtime that, like minstrel shows, depicted African-Americans as "dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, happy-go-lucky and musical".

Although Hogan was a proponent of Coon Song, the irony that an innovative and largely African-American musical form could only achieve a mass audience by appealing to the commonplace racism of early-20th-century white America was not lost on him and, by the time of his death in 1909, he had regretted his part in refashioning ragtime – otherwise a liberating, sophisticated and new dance music – as a vulgar parody of black people.

Perhaps the most notable early recording artist of ragtime was the banjo player Vess L Ossman, who was not immune to the polluting influence of Coon Song – his repertoire of standards included All Coons Look Alike… – but who also drew on the ragtime tradition of hybridising white military marches with African polyrhythms. (Hear some Ossman tracks over at 20jazzfunkgreats.)

Although ragtime's popularity was relatively short-lived – supplanted by the new styles of blues and jazz – the 1972 film The Sting saw a renewed interest in the musical form, which finally afforded global popularity and recognition to the composer of that film's soundtrack: Scott Joplin – the King of Ragtime.

The YouTube clip below is a pretty fun explanation of how ragtime contributed in practical terms to dance fads of the 1900s such as the grizzly bear, the castle walk and even the tango.

There’s an interesting history of the original cakewalk dance over at the StreetSwing website, which suggests the moves of cakewalk were not only a mix of Seminole Native American and African Kaffir traditions, but were performed in plantation dances by black slaves as a heavily exaggerated parody of the ballroom dancing of the white plantation owners.

Ironically though, the cakewalk became the first dance to successfully cross over from black communities to white American high society (hence the hot-stepping honkies in the image at the top of this piece).

Its influence was far-reaching enough to inform this 1903 supernatural dance horror by George Melies!

A version of this article was originally published on 20jazzfunkgreats


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