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.

5 Scott Joplin Piano Pieces to Know

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: racist drawing accompanying 5th (last) piece discussed
What is a content warning?

1. Maple Leaf Rag (1899)

Maple Leaf Rag, as played by Scott Joplin on a piano roll

Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag (1899) was the first piece of written music to sell 1 million copies. It also set the standard for the Ragtime sub-genre “Classical Ragtime,” a phrase coined by one of Joplin’s primary music publishers, John Stark. Countless imitation and inspiration pieces followed. A notable one is Jelly Roll Morton’s Maple Leaf Stomp (1938), an adaptation of the rag into the stomp style.

It took years for Joplin to convince a publisher to take on his masterpiece. The financial success of Maple Leaf Rag enabled Stark to relocate his publishing business from Sedalia, MO to St. Louis, MO to New York, NY. While Joplin also benefited from the success of Maple Leaf Rag, he was only granted a 2% royalty for each copy sold.

Maple Leaf Stomp, as played by Jelly Roll Morton

Joplin’s own Gladiolus Rag (1907) was heavily inspired by Maple Leaf Rag. Some consider it to be even more refined than the original.

Gladiolus Rag, as played by Joshua Rifkin in his album Scott Joplin Piano Rags (1970). This album was among the catalysts for the ragtime revival of the 1970s and was nominated for a Grammy award.

2. Great Crush Collision (1896)

A piano roll performance of Great Crush Collision

This piece was written to commemorate the train crash in “Crush, TX.” The train crash was a marketing scheme for the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad Company. They built a fake town and named Crush after the railway agent William Crush who planned the event. Crush found two trains that were going to be retired and commissioned them to crash into each other, head-on. About 40,000 people showed up for the spectacle, including Scott Joplin. Two people died and many were injured, but spectators still rushed toward the collision to find a piece of the exploded trains as a souvenir.

More on the Crush Collision.

3. Bethena – A Concert Waltz (1905)

Bethena, as played by Joshua Rifkin in his album Scott Joplin Piano Rags (1970).

While rags are generally in a duple meter, there are ample rag waltzes in the literature. Bethena is said to be among Scott Joplin’s most masterful rag waltzes.

Bethena, as played by the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble under the direction of Gunther Schuller.

4. Solace (1909)

Solace, from the Motion Picture soundtrack of Sting (1973), which played a role in the 1970s ragtime revival.

Subtitled “A Mexican Serenade,” this is the only known Scott Joplin piece to utilize tango elements. Pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941) took this idea further, coining the phrase “Spanish Tinge.”

5. Original Rags (1899)

Original Rags on a pianola

This is the first Scott Joplin rag ever published. The original credits on the sheet music cover read “Picked By Scott Joplin” and “Arranged By Chas. N. Daniels.”

The racist imagery on the cover of Original Rags. From Wikipedia.

The term “picked” implies multiple meanings. This could refer to the phrase “picking the piano,” which was a slang term for Ragtime music. The second meaning could be in reference to rag-picking, or picking trash off the street. This meaning seems more intentional when considering the sheet music cover design, which depicts an elderly Black man picking up trash in front of a dilapidated cabin. The imagery is deeply racist, and unfortunately very commonplace for sheet music published in that era (late 1800s thru mid 1910s).

Ragtime scholar Rudi Blesh suggests that Charles Daniels’ name appears most likely because he was the one who suggested that the rag be published and it is unlikely that he made substantial – or any – musical contributions. This crediting practice may have been common-place as a way to help budding composers break into the industry. Years later, Scott Joplin gave up-and-coming composer Joseph Lamb permission to use his name on Lamb’s first published work, Sensation Rag (1908).

Pianist Cory Hall performs Sensation Rag

Are these the pieces you would include on your list? Let me know in the comments!

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.