Ragtime Project

Ragtime’s Complicated Relationship to Racism in the United States

Often considered the first music style originating from the United States, Ragtime’s history is intricately intertwined with America’s racist past and present.

This blog post is part of my Ragtime Project, which encompasses an upcoming EP of Ragtime-inspired music, blog posts about the history of the music, and a forthcoming self-published collection of essay about what in this music and its history resonates with me as a performer and composer.

Content warning: racism, racial slurs, racist drawings
What is a content warning?

In my experience, Ragtime is an often skimmed-over portion of American music – relegated to silent movies, merely a caricature of the early 1900s. Thankfully, enough people, both during the music’s conception and in modern times, recognize Ragtime as a critical innovation in American music and an art form that requires exceptional skill. In my explorations of Ragtime, it did not take long for me to come across some atrocious, overt racism. At the same time, I have also learned about Ragtime’s ability to bring together Black and White artists. But, the more I study history, the more I realize that things are not always clean-cut “good versus evil” scenarios; there is usually more nuance. Some of Ragtime’s greatest advocates also took part in perpetuating racial stereotypes and white supremacy.

Performer/composer Reuben Ernest Crowdus (1865-1909), known by his stage name Ernest Hogan, was a vital figure in popularizing Ragtime music. He is on the shortlist of artists who may have coined the term “Ragtime” and was among the first to put syncopated rhythms, the signature of Ragtime music, on paper, hence helping to preserve the art form. [1] Hogan was the first Black producer and performer of a Broadway show, The Oyster Man (1907). [2] Hogan was clearly highly accomplished and boldly broke down racial barriers in his career. However, much of his success was overshadowed by just one of his songs, and the toxic trend it started in North American music.

Hogan was partially responsible for the creation and proliferation of a highly racist sub-genre of Ragtime music with his composition All Coons Look Alike to Me (1896). Once published, the tune became a hit and hundreds of imitation songs followed. This was extremely damaging to Black Americans, including those who tried to follow in Hogan’s footsteps as performers and composers themselves. The Indianapolis Freeman, a Black newspaper, published an article in 1901 stating, “The colored man writes the ‘coon’ song, the colored singer sings the ‘coon’ song, the colored race is compelled to stand for the belittling and ignominy of the ‘coon’ song, but the money from the ‘coon’ song flows with ceaseless activity into the white man’s pockets.” [3]

All Coons Look Alike to Me (1902), as recorded by Arthur Collins and Vess L. Ossman

Original sheet music cover for All Coons Look Alike to Me. From the American History Museum Collection.

On his deathbed, Hogan regretted using the term “coon” in his song. [4]  He said, “All Coons Look Alike to Me caused a lot of trouble in and out of show business, but it was also good for show business because at the time money was short in all walks of life. With the publication of that song, a new musical rhythm was given to the people. Its popularity grew and it sold like wildfire… That one song opened the way for a lot of colored and white songwriters. Finding the rhythm so great, they stuck to it … and now you get hit songs without the word ‘coon.’ Ragtime was the rhythm played in backrooms and cafes and such places. The ragtime players were the boys who played just by ear their own creations of music which would have been lost to the world if I had not put it on paper.” [5]

Ragtime scholar Rudi Blesh’s essay Scott Joplin: Black-American Classicist (1971) that precedes Scott Joplin: Complete Piano Works (1981) exposes a handful of examples of the complicated, racist history of ragtime. Often credited as the King of Ragtime, Scott Joplin was born circa 1868, a mere three years following emancipation. In fact, Joplin’s father was a former slave. Today, Joplin is known as the composer Maple Leaf Rag (1899), the first piece of written music to sell more than a million copies.

Like the story of many artists, Scott Joplin’s road to fame was not an overnight success. This struggle must have only been amplified by the cultural climate and stereotyping of Black music to only be suitable in places of ill repute. Against all odds, Joplin had uncanny conviction in his work, and, after multiple failed attempts, found a publisher who agreed to take on Maple Leaf Rag. He found an advocate in John Stark, a White man who owned a music store in Sedalia, Missouri. The success of Maple Leaf Rag brought Stark incredible wealth, enabling him to expand his publishing company and move to St. Louis, and then New York City. Joplin also reaped some financial benefits from Maple Leaf, but at a royalty of 1¢ per each copy sold (usually for 50¢), Joplin was given a minuscule 2% piece of the pie. It is hard to imagine any modern artist, even at the beginning of their career, accepting or even being offered such an insulting contract. Yet, John Stark was a friend of Scott Joplin’s. Joplin would spend time socializing with the Stark family. Stark and his daughter-turned-business-partner Eleanor took on financial risk by publishing Joplin’s music, even his ambitious artistic vision The Ragtime Dance (1906) at a loss.

Nonetheless, Stark allowed his company to print and promote Joplin’s music with disgraceful racist imagery on the covers of the sheet music. Another one of Joplin’s famous rags is The Entertainer (1902), often associated with light-hearted slap-stick silent movies. Below is the first edition sheet music cover, as published by John Stark. After seeing this, I will never be able to think about The Entertainer the same way again. I immediately bursted into tears upon seeing this cover for the first time. I cried because no one nor their music deserves to be disrespected in this way. I cried because Scott Joplin’s legacy and the realities of his life have been erased, even for me as someone “educated” in this tradition.

Original sheet music cover for The Entertainer (1902). From Wikipedia.

It is also important to consider that Joplin may have found little-to-no issue with his music being promoted in this way. While not considered an exceptional lyricist, Joplin did write lyrics to some of his rags, which often contained racial slurs. I do not bring up this point to condone Stark or any other systemic or personal racist acts in relation to Ragtime, but rather to emphasize the pervasiveness of racist and white supremacist language, even among the people it was designed to disenfranchise.

As uncomfortable as it can be to write or read this essay, I believe it is very important for us to know the unabridged history of music in the United States, Ragtime being commonly recognized as the first music originating from the U.S. As a creator and consumer of music, I am constantly curious about the roots of the music I love. I feel responsible for understanding the social, political, racial, and economic conditions in which this music was born – even when the history is painful. I strive to understand how a culture that is so racist – so toxic that Black artists needed to betray themselves for the monetary crumbs White music publishers offered them – came to exist and continues to be maintained. I hope my writings on this topic spark difficult and honest discussions and inspire change in how we learn about American music and how we treat artists of all backgrounds in the United States.

Learn More About Ragtime

This is a collection of the sources I have used for my research on ragtime. I am always looking for more places to learn, so please let me know if you have any recommendations.

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