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 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?

Jazz and Trains: A Connected History

It is no secret that Jazz musicians, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, had a fascination with trains. Piece after piece has train whistle imitations and train references in its title. Where did this interconnectedness between Jazz and trains come from?

Constructing Railroads in the United States

American music has a long-standing connection to trains that reaches back before the advent of Jazz in the late 1910s.

Railroad construction in the United States began in the late 1820s, the first railway to charter freight and passengers being the Baltimore and Ohio constructed in 1827. By the 1870s, there was already a vast network of railroads spanning the country, allowing for unprecedented travel of goods and people.

One of the reasons that railroads were able to be constructed so rapidly was the use of slave labor. Southern railroad companies began buying slaves in the early 1840s and used enslaved labor almost exclusively to construction their lines. Thousands of enslaved African Americans were working on Southern railroads by 1850. In spite of the immense hardship of this labor, trains became a “symbol of hope and transformation” for enslaved people and their descendants (Davis, p. 82).

Pullman Porters and the Great Migration

Shortly after the Civil War, businessman George M. Pullman hired thousands of African American men to work on his luxury railroad sleeping cars. While these men were often severely overworked and underpaid, porters were paid more than many other Black workers at the time.

In 1925, Pullman porters established the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union to represent Black workers because the American Railway Union refused to include them. They were trailblazers, securing the first-ever agreement between a union of Black workers and a major U.S. company, successfully bargaining for a more reasonable work schedule and better wages. This accomplishment was monumental and lead to further economic mobility for Pullman porters and their families.

The Great Migration was crucial to the development of American music and every facet of society. From 1916 to 1970, more than 6 million African Americans moved from the rural South to the cities of the North, Midwest, and West. They sought better economic opportunities and an escape from the segregation of the Jim Crow South. In moving, they brought their music, cuisine, and customs with them. This newfound means of travel allowed for a broader and more rapid exchange of ideas.

Trains in Early Black American Music

The Crush Collision March, Scott Joplin

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 it Crush after the railway agent William Crush who planned the event. Two soon-to-be retired trains were commissioned 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.

Linin’ Track, Lead Belly

Huddie Ledbetter (c. 1888–1949), better known as Lead Belly, performs Linin’ Track. He was legendary for picking a 1,000 lbs of cotton a day, and lining the railroad tracks.

Famous Jazz Pieces Incorporating Trains

Daybreak Express, Duke Ellington

Ellington uses his orchestra to emulate the sounds of a speeding train.

Chattanooga Choo Choo, Glenn Miller

In his WBUR interview, Rob Kapilow breaks down the music and lyrics behind Chattanooga Choo Choo. Regarding the lyrics:

“The lyrics immediately give you a feeling of what the Civil Rights situation was at the time. I mean, it’s amazing how lyrics embed American history within them. You know, ‘pardon me, boy, is that the chattanooga choo choo?’ Then they go, ‘yes, yes, track 29.’ ‘Boy, you can give me a shine.’ I mean, in just those few lines yo get the whole situation of the south in the 1940s with luxury train travel in which white passengers are served by Black pullman porters and Black shoeshine boys, which was almost the only regular employment that you could get at the time. And in just those few lines, you get the world of Plessy versus Ferguson, of separate but equal, of segregated luxury train travel.”

– Rob Kapilow

Further Learning

This is an area of American history that I am just beginning to explore. I was inspired to learn more after reading Gunther Schuller’s Early Jazz, in which a passing reference to train whistle imitation sparked my curiosity dig deeper.

Here are a few more resources to explore:

Choo Choo Boogaloo: 5 Jazz for Trains, A Blog Supreme

Railroads in the African American Experience, book

Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class, The Syncopated Times

The Train in Jazz & Blues podcast, from the The Joys of Jazz

FRIDAY: The Ragtime Project EP and Book Launch

On Friday, August 7th, I am going to be releasing my Ragtime Project EP on Bandcamp! The recording will consist of three tracks – Rag in Fourths (released as a single last month), Imitation Rag, and a third track loosely inspired by the Ragtime aesthetic.

And if that wasn’t exciting enough, I am going to be self-publishing my first book! The book will contain some of the material from my Ragtime Project blog, plus additional material.

I am so excited to share this project with you. It is undoubtedly the most ambitious feat I’ve taken on as an artist, combining my passions for performance, composition, research, and writing. I hope my music brings joy and my writings spark curiosity during this trying time in our lives.

Jelly Roll Morton: Bridging Ragtime and Jazz Traditions

Ragtime and Jazz are two musical traditions that are closely related, yet distinctively unique. In a previous blogpost, I wrote about the defining features of these two styles pertaining specifically to the piano. Now I would like to explore the works of a specific artist who was crucial to bridging these traditions – Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe, better known by the crude moniker “Jelly Roll” Morton (1890-1941).

Morton claimed that he invented Jazz, a bold statement. Nonetheless, Morton was active as a pianist and composer during the shift between Ragtime and Jazz. Morton’s influence on American music was well-documented in his 1938 interview series with Alan Lomax.

Using Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag, Morton demonstrated the difference between a Ragtime and Jazz interpretation of the piece.

Morton performing Maple Leaf Rag in a Ragtime and Jazz style in his 1938 interview with Alan Lomax

In his critical book Early Jazz (1968), Gunther Schuller singles out this particular recording as a prime example of the evolution of swing feel. Schuller purports that the key to Morton’s “smoothing out” of the “rhythmic tightness” found in Ragtime is due to the improvisation in his right hand (Schuller p. 144). “By means of his improvisational methods, Morton was able to horizontalize the music, as it were, and to suppress the vertical, harmonic emphasis of ragtime and other musical forms” (Schuller p. 144).

In other words, Morton’s rhythmic language was less predictable and contained more forward momentum than Ragtime. The side-by-side comparison Morton offered makes the difference strikingly clear.

I agree with Schuller’s observations, but I also need to add that there is more in the music than can be expressed in mere words. We are fortunate to have this recorded history of a primary innovative source demonstrating the nuances of the music he grew up around and went on to advance irrevocably.


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.

Stop-time Across American Art Forms

Stop-time, now a commonly used musical device, once sounded like a radical means of ambiguating the pulse of a piece of music. Barry Kernfeld wrote for the Grove Music Dictionary this description of the technique:

 An ensemble or pianist repeats in rhythmic unison a simple one- or two-bar pattern consisting of sharp accents and rests, while the soloist takes command. Metre and tempo remain intact; only the texture of the accompaniment changes.

Grove Music Dictionary

Stop-time became a prominent musical device around the turn of the 20th century and was important to the rhythmic vitality of Ragtime. Some of the first examples of this in written music are in Scott Joplin’s rags such as The Ragtime Dance (1906) and Stop-time Rag (1910). In these pieces, Joplin discontinued the steady, predictable left hand patterns, leaving the melody line exposed. Joplin did compose an accompaniment for the melody, not to be played by the left hand as expected, but rather by the feet. In the sheet music, Joplin indicated intricate feet tapping patterns with the word “stamp” and a line pointing to the melody note with which the stamp was supposed to co-occur.

Stop-time Rag, as performed by Joshua Rifkin

Reaching beyond the musical world, stop-time became a prominent feature of the emerging popular dance at the time, tap dance. Like Ragtime, tap dance originated from global traditions that converged in the United States. The Irish Jig and the African American Juba derived from the African djouba or gioube coalesced on plantations in the 1700s. [1] But, it was around the turn of the 20th century when tap dance underwent its most significant transformation. {2] It absorbed the highly syncopated rhythmic vocabulary of Ragtime, including stop-time figures, and evolved into the sub-genre jazz tap. Or, perhaps rather than tap dance taking from Ragtime the relationship between these two art forms was more of a cross-pollination. This bond between American music and dance is something I want to explore further in the future.

Around the same time as Joplin’s stop-time pieces were published, another important innovation in music was under way – the invention of the drum set. Prior to this consequential development, the various instruments that comprise a drum set were each played by individual musicians. Percussionists in theater orchestras and dance bands realized that they could position their drums in such a way that they would only need one performer. [3] In order to play more drums at once, drummers created pedals to allow one foot to depress a lever that sent a beater toward the bass drum’s batter head. [4] In 1909, William F. Ludwig patented a design for a bass drum pedal with a cymbal striker. [5] Is it possible that the drum set’s evolution, particularly the use of foot pedals, be informed by Joplin’s foot-stamping stop-time technique? Or, perhaps, were the foot pedals merely employed to allow a single musician to play more percussion instruments simultaneously, with no regard for Joplin’s innovations? I have yet to be able to answer these questions.

Examples of Stop-time in the First Half of the 20th Century

Here are a few examples of how stop-time was utilized in music following the Ragtime Era.

Louis Armstrong, Potato Head Blues (1927)

There are numerous solo breaks where the accompaniment stops, but the most brilliant example is Louis Armstrong’s solo starting at 1:50.

Benny Goodman, Sugar Foot Stomp (1937)

In Benny Goodman’s rendition of Sugar Foot Stomp, there is a great example of stop-time during the trumpet solo starting at 1:10.

Ralph Brown, Ornithology (1946)

Throughout this dazzling take on Ornithology, Ralph Brown takes incredible breaks when the time “stops,” the first one being at 0:21. At 1:16, Brown trades fours with the band (i.e. the band plays for four measures, followed by Brown soloing without accompaniment for the next four measures).


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.

Waltz into the Week with Scott Joplin

Ragtime music is often associated with duple meter pieces played at a march-like tempo. However, Ragtime repertoire is rich with beautiful waltzes. Look no further than the “King of Ragtime” Scott Joplin to hear some of the finest waltzes of the era. Here are a few of my favorites. For each waltz, I have included a solo piano performance as well as an arrangement for a larger ensemble.

Harmony Club Waltz (1896)

This is one of Joplin’s first published works. It begins with a brief introduction in 4/4 time, but quickly transitions into a waltz (3/4 time).

William Albright’s rendition of Harmony Club Waltz
J.S. Ritter’s arrangement of Harmony Club Waltz for flute and piano

Bethena – A Concert Waltz (1905)

This sentimental waltz was composed about a year after Joplin’s second wife passed away from pneumonia only ten weeks into their marriage. Some considered one of Joplin’s finest waltz.

Bethena as recorded by Joshua Rifkin on his first Scott Joplin Piano Rags album, which was an important catalyst for the Ragtime Revival of the 1970s.
Gunther Schuller’s arrangement of Bethenam as played by The New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble

Pleasant Moments (1909)

While this waltz is overshadowed by Joplin’s masterworks such as Bethena and Maple Leaf Rag, Pleasant Moments still offers a “bright and festive” listening experience that is pure Joplin.

Pleasant Moments as performed by pianist Cory Hall
The Southland Stingers’ rendition of Pleasant Moments

Sources

Bethena – Wikipedia
Joplin’s ‘Bethena’ Sounds As New As It Is Old – NPR
Scott Joplin : Bethena, A Concert Waltz – mfiles
Pleasant Moments Ragtime Waltz, for piano – allmusic.com


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.

Ragtime and Stride – Two American Piano Styles

Ragtime and Stride are two styles of American piano playing that are closely related and often mistaken for one another. Both styles are virtuosic with an active, steady bass line with a syncopated melodic line in the right hand. The styles developed over a short period of time, first Ragtime and then Stride.

Here’s a breakdown of some features that set these two styles of playing apart.

Repertoire

Ragtime repertoire consisted primarily of “rags,” a compositional form and style inspired by marches. These pieces of music were typically written down and played as the sheet music dictated. Most rags were composed in duple meter (2/4 or 2/2), though there are a fair selection of waltzes (3/4) in the repertoire. They often consist of four strains, melodic ideas typically 16 measures each that are organized in the following form:

||: A :|| ||: B :|| A ||: C :|| ||: D :||

A common formal variation is to include a final playing of the “A” strain at the end of the piece. Rags often start with a short introduction before the first playing of the “A” strain. Other modifications to the form are possible, even prevalent.

Stride repertoire was more open-ended. It included songs from the Great American Songbook as well as original compositions. Tin Pan Alley songs were typically published in the form of a very generic piano arrangement. This gave stride pianists room to add their own personalities into these songs rather than being beholden to the sheet music.

Improvisation

Ragtime music did not involve improvisation. It stayed true to the written music. Sometimes, performers would repeat sections of pieces more times than indicated to add length to the pieces, particularly during social functions.

Stride allowed for more embellishments and improvisation as part of the performance of pieces. This component was critical to moving forward from Ragtime into the Jazz tradition.

Origin

Ragtime originated in the southern and midwestern United States in the 1890s. Missouri was a central hub for the music, perhaps in part because legendary Ragtime composer and pianist Scott Joplin made Sedalia, MO his home for much of his life.

Stride originated in Harlem, New York City around 1920. James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, and Willie “The Lion” Smith were the three pianists credited with being innovators and masters of Stride piano. These artists were aware of Ragtime and drew from its rich tradition in their own music.

Recorded History

Ragtime waxed and waned in popularity before recorded music was commonplace. The music was primarily preserved in the sheet music published during the time. Toward the end of the Ragtime Era, player pianos came into prominence and some Ragtime performances were preserved as piano rolls. Once music recording technologies advanced, some of the surviving pianists of the Ragtime Era, such as Eubie Blake and Joseph Lamb, recorded their works.

Stride developed alongside early recording technology. This is a true gift because we, a century later, can hear how Stride was played at the time of its creation by the artists who created it.

I hope this explanation helps bring clarity to how Ragtime and Stride are distinctive approaches to pianistic performance and composition in the United States.

Sources

About Stride Piano
Harlem Stride Piano
History of Ragtime
Stride Piano: Bottom-End Jazz
Stride Piano


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.

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.

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.