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.
Ragtime is often considered the first popular music originating from the United States, reigning prominent from the 1890s until the mid-1910s.  Its popularity was displaced by Jazz, though the nature of this transition is disputed (Schuller, Early Jazz, p. 63). (I intend for this to be the topic of a future blog post.) There was a brief revival of Ragtime in the 1950s, but much of the music was highly commercialized and played on out-of-tune pianos to mimic old-time saloons.  1950 was also the year in which scholars Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis published their seminal history book entitled They All Played Ragtime. However, the most impactful Ragtime revival occurred in the 1970s, the events of this time truly securing the art form’s place in the United States culture.
There are several important projects that contributed to the Ragtime revival of the 1970s, several of which will be outlined here.
1. The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake
In 1969, Columbia Records released The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake. Prior to this double-LP, Blake had a successful career as a songwriter with hits such as Charleston Rag (1899), I’m Just Wild About Harry (1921), and Memories of You (1930).  He collaborated with Noble Sissle on the Broadway musical Shuffle Along (1921), which renewed the popularity of Black musical comedies and launched the careers of many Black actors including Josephine Baker, Florence Mills, and Paul Robeson.  The release of The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake gave Blake’s career a second wind.  As one of the few surviving musicians from the Ragtime era, Blake became a beloved celebrity and torchbearer for the music. 
2. Piano Rags by Scott Joplin
In 1970, pianist/conductor Joshua Rifkin released Piano Rags by Scott Joplin on the Nonesuch label. In contrast to the Ragtime recordings of the 1950s which featured out-of-tune pianos to caricaturize a by-gone era , Rifkin treated Joplin’s music with the utmost respect and taking into account all of Joplin’s directions.  In 1971, the album was nominated for two Grammy awards for Best Album Notes and Best Classical Performance – Instrumental Soloist or Soloists (Without Orchestra).  It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame this year. 
3. The Red Back Book
In 1973, the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble, under the direction of Gunther Schuller, released The Red Back Book. The album won a Grammy for Best Chamber Music Performance that year.  The New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble became in-demand for performances and events across the country.  The collection of Joplin pieces featured on the album was thought to be lost, but Schuller came into contact with someone who had possibly the last surviving copy of the Red Back Book. 
4. The Sting
The contribution that had perhaps the most broad impact on the Ragtime revival was the film The String (1974). The soundtrack featured an abridged version of Joplin’s The Entertainer (1902), which rose to the top of the pop record charts. 
5. Producing Treemonisha
The 1970s also saw the first performances of Joplin’s second, though only surviving, opera entitled Treemonisha (c. 1911).  In 1972, the Atlanta Symphony and the Morehouse College Music Department gave the first full performance of the opera.  In 1975, the Houston Opera gave the first fully produced performance of Treemonisha. Gunther Schuller was responsible for the orchestration for the performance and the subsequently released recording on the Deutsche Grammophon label. In his lifetime, Joplin did not orchestrate the opera. He self-published the piano score, which he played in a reading of the opera for potential financial supporters in 1915.  Joplin tragically passed away at the age of 49 without living to see his opera produced.
Because of these key events and the public’s overall positive reception to them, Ragtime music will continue to be a remembered and cherished part of the unique musical heritage of 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.
Sam – it is so nice to see your energy around this .. I know very little and I am not sure I know the difference between Ragtime and “Stride piano” type music … I think people are too quick to jump to Ragtime is old music, stuck in the past and yet we have several group using Ragtime or slide techniques that are very commercially successful (like Scott Bradlee and Postmodern Jukebox) … thanks for the info, keep up the good work / Larry
Thanks for reading, Larry! I am just starting to learn more about this area of music history as well. I think there’s a lot of confusion between Ragtime and Stride because they are both primarily pianistic styles of playing with some similar elements, such as an active left-hand technique. Also, the styles probably sound more similar to our modern ears compared to the people living during the 1910s. It’s definitely an area I want to explore more in a future post – the intersections of “Ragtime,” “Stride,” and “Jazz.” I also agree that Ragtime is a living art form with broad influence. Thanks again for checking out the post and letting me know what you think!