3 Compelling Stories from They All Played Ragtime

Reading Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis’ seminal work They All Played Ragtime (1950) was a transformative experience. Each page was packed with information, but presented as compelling stories, a page-turner. As the first full-length book chronicling the birth and development of ragtime, Blesh and Janis piece together the fascinating, sometimes tragic, stories of the pioneers who created and championed the music.

My fascination with ragtime is fairly new and there is still so much of it that I need to hear, read, and experience. Here are three moments from They All Play Ragtime that have really resonated with me.

The strenuous life of John Stark

John Stillwell Stark is best known as the primary publisher of Scott Joplin’s music. However, he has a fascinating story of his own. Stark was born into a large family, the 11th of 12 children, his youngest sibling and mother dying in childbirth. He was raised by an older sibling. Stark had several ventures before becoming a music publisher – serving in the Union army, farming, selling ice cream, and selling Jesse French cabinet organs with the help of his Conestoga wagon. Tired from his labor-intensive occupations, Stark moved to Sedalia, Missouri and opened a music store. He went on to coin the term “classical ragtime,” the sub-genre of the music exemplified by Scott Joplin. Stark championed music by composers across gender and race, even in the face of the booming Tin Pan Alley publishing industry that emerged toward the end of his career.

The Ragtime School of Axel W. Christensen

Pianist Axel W. Christensen created a network of nearly 100 music schools across the United States that specialized in teaching ragtime piano technique. He also published numerous popular method books that were used at his schools and beyond. At the peak of his business, Christensen had about 200,000 students enrolled in his ragtime schools across the nation. While Christensen’s entrepreneurship was impressive, some felt that his methodology oversimplified ragtime and promoted a level of mediocrity. Regardless, Christensen’s schools and books were responsible for engaging countless new fans of the music.

James P. Johnson on bebop

In an interview for They All Played Ragtime, stride pianist James P. Johnson shared his thoughts about the musical trends contemporary with the book (late 1940s, 1950):

Why do these composers, and the beboppers, too, try to get away from melody? It shows a weakness. No melody is in them and they know it.

They All Played Ragtime, p. 205

The so-called “beboppers” such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie introduced a new fiery technique and complex harmonic language to jazz that has irreversibly influenced how jazz is created and taught today. The faster tempo of the music challenged dancers (though it could be done) and the melodies jam-packed with rapid notes and angular leaps challenged vocalists and lyricists (though this could also be done). Perhaps these are the words of a man who was disgruntled by what the young people were doing with music, but I personally think there is more to it. His words made me think, what would jazz sound like today if bebop never came into being? We will never know for sure, but perhaps this could be an interesting idea to explore in a future post…

While these are a handful of the stories that have stayed with me, there are many others I could share. I highly recommend that anyone with an interest in ragtime read this book. Much of the information comes directly from the source with contributions being made by James P. Johnson, Joseph Lamb, Eubie Blake, and the families and peers of Scott Joplin, John Stark, Tom Turpin, and many others.

Listening Log: Week 7

Election Day – Sissle & Blake

After reading They All Played Ragtime, I started looking further into the music of Eubie Blake. This song from his groundbreaking collaboration with Noble Sissle, the musical Shuffle Along. It still rings true today, especially in the face of the upcoming election.

Lyrics for “Election Day.”

High Heart – Ben Wendel

Ben Wendel’s latest release High Heart is full of delightful melodies that gradually unfold throughout each piece. The way his saxophone blends with vocalist Michael Mayo to create a unified sound is remarkable.

Tom Sails Away – Charles Ives

This is a difficult song about Charles Ives watching the United States join World War I. The rendition I am familiar with is on Helen Boatwright’s album Songs of Charles Ives and Ernst Bacon.

Listening Log: Week 6

I have deeply missed putting out my weekly Listening Log. October has been an intense month as school and work have ramped up. I also released a new single with Henry Godfrey called Cabin Fever. To make my posts less daunting to write, I decided to trim down my log to three entries rather than five. I’m ready to bring back the Listening Log and look forward to sharing more wonderful music with you.


Ragtime Dance No 1 — Charles Ives

I am fortunate to be taking an incredible class about the music of Charles Ives. I am just beginning to explore his Ragtime Dances and am fascinated by how he honors the aesthetic of the music yet carries it forward in a new direction with rhythm, form, and orchestration.

Sunflower Slow Drag — Scott Joplin & Scott Hayden

This collaboration between two important figures in establishing the classic rag is a delightful piece. I have enjoyed listening to Richard Zimmerman’s solo piano rendition and the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble’s brisker take on the piece.

Charleston Rag — Eubie Blake

Eubie Blake, along with Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Willie “The Lion” Smith, and Luckey Roberts, pioneered the Eastern take on Ragtime, which evolved into the stride piano style. Preceding his performance of Charleston Rag on the album The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake, he shares that he composed the rag in 1899, the same year that Scott Joplin’s groundbreaking Maple Leaf Rag was published by Stark & Son. Blake also explains how he combined the walking bass line (sometimes referred to as a boogie-woogie bass, but Blake preferred the term walking bass) with ragtime rhythmic ideas.

I was also able to find this incredible live performance of Charleston Rag as played by Blake at the age of 85.

Eubie Blake performs Charleston Rag live in 1972.

What music moved you this week?

The Ragtime Revival of the 1970s

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. [1] 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. [2] 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). [3] 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. [4] The release of The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake gave Blake’s career a second wind. [5] As one of the few surviving musicians from the Ragtime era, Blake became a beloved celebrity and torchbearer for the music. [6]

A playlist of The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake

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 [6], Rifkin treated Joplin’s music with the utmost respect and taking into account all of Joplin’s directions. [7] In 1971, the album was nominated for two Grammy awards for Best Album Notes and Best Classical Performance – Instrumental Soloist or Soloists (Without Orchestra). [8] It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame this year. [9]

A playlist of Scott Joplin Piano Rags

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. [10] The New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble became in-demand for performances and events across the country. [11] 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. [12]

A playlist 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. [13]  

The Sting soundtrack

5. Producing Treemonisha

The 1970s also saw the first performances of Joplin’s second, though only surviving, opera entitled Treemonisha (c. 1911). [14] In 1972, the Atlanta Symphony and the Morehouse College Music Department gave the first full performance of the opera. [15] 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. [16] Joplin tragically passed away at the age of 49 without living to see his opera produced.

A playlist of Treemonisha, as recorded by the Houston Grand Opera and orchestrated by Gunther Schuller

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.