Ragtime | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Musical genre of Afro-American origin, dating from the 1890s, popular until the late 1910s, and revived in the mid-20th century. In its strictest form, ragtime adheres to a composed score of four themes, each of 16 bars, syncopated in rhythm, and ordered AABBACCDD.

Musical genre of Afro-American origin, dating from the 1890s, popular until the late 1910s, and revived in the mid-20th century. In its strictest form, ragtime adheres to a composed score of four themes, each of 16 bars, syncopated in rhythm, and ordered AABBACCDD. It takes its inspiration and unique character from the melodic and rhythmic vivacity of Afro-American folksongs and dances.

Ragtime was preceded immediately by the 'cakewalk' dance craze in both black and white societies, and by such racist (but popular) 'coon-songs' as 'The Bully,' sung on US stages by May Irwin (1862-1938, a native of Whitby, Ont) and recorded on her Victor 78s of 1907. Elements of both fads, especially their characteristic syncopation, prepared the North American public for ragtime.

Ragtime is dated generally from the first published piece called a 'rag' - William H. Krell's Mississippi Rag (1897), which in fact was a cakewalk. The genre proliferated in sheet-music form, the easiest pieces (or adaptations of more difficult works) receiving wide performance in North American and European parlours. Ragtime's leading figure is the composer-pianist Scott Joplin (1868-1917), and its most popular composition is his Maple Leaf Rag (1899). (The work was named after the Maple Leaf Club in Sedalia, Mo, where Joplin was working. The proprietors were Will and Walker Williams who, according to legend, were said to have come from London, Ont, and to have named the club after the popular symbol of their homeland.)

In the years following, ragtime was played by such bands as that of John Philip Sousa (often under the direction of Herbert L. Clarke), commercialized by Tin Pan Alley, and exaggerated into exhibitionistic and technically extravagant novelty pieces by Mike Bernard, Zez Confrey, and others, including, in Canada, Willie Eckstein and his protégés Vera Guilaroff and Harry Thomas.

Despite its black origins ragtime has had many white exponents, of whom Joseph F. Lamb (b Montclair, NJ, 1887, d Brooklyn, NY, 1960) is considered the greatest and, with Joplin and James Scott, completes the triumvirate of the genre's main composers. Lamb lived after 1901 in Berlin (Kitchener), Ont, while studying at St Jerome's College. There he wrote several songs and waltzes, published by H.H. Sparks, as well as his earliest rags (listed in They All Played Ragtime), including Walper House Rag (1903) and Rapid Rapids Rag (1905). By 1907 Lamb had moved to New York, working in the Brooklyn fabric industry and composing his finest pieces only as a hobby.

Many Canadian composers in this idiom also were white, with the exception of Shelton Brooks (whose 'Some of These Days' and 'Darktown Strutters' Ball' have been called ragtime songs), Nathaniel Dett (who wrote After The Cakewalk - March Cakewalk in 1900 while still in Canada), and Lou Hooper. The earliest, of whom little is known, were Toronto publisher W.H. Hodgins, who wrote A Rag Time Spasm (1899), and G.A. Adams, composer of The Cake Winner (Amey & Hodgins 1899).

Later Canadian or Canadian-born composers and/or pianists who worked, if only briefly, in the ragtime style included Tom (saxophonist) Brown of the Six Brown Brothers, Eckstein, J.B. (Jean Baptiste) Lafrenière, George E. Lynn (whose Ottawa Rag was published by Northern Music Co, Ottawa, in 1913), Geoffrey O'Hara (under the surname 'de Vere'), Charles Harrison, and Charles Wellinger.

J.B. Lafrenière (b Maskinongé, near Trois-Rivières, Que, ca 1875, d Montreal ca 1911) was a trained pianist. He worked in Montreal in the El Dorado Orchestra (1890s) and at the Ouimetoscope, Francais, and National theatres (1900s). Lafrenière wrote waltzes and marches (some published in Le Passe-Temps) as well as Balloon Rag, Taxi Rag, and (his best-known piece) Raggity Rag (Delmar 1907), which was reprinted in The Ragtimer (vol 6, no. 2, 1967).

Charles Edward Wellinger (b Hamilton ca 1889, d London, England 10 Aug 1956; buried in Toronto), apparently also a trained pianist, worked in Hamilton, Ont, with I.W. Lomas at the opera house and probably with Lomas' Royal Connaught Winter Garden Dance Orchestra. He wrote and published several songs, waltzes, and rags. His Intermission Rag (Roger Graham 1919) was arranged for orchestra, and his most popular work, That Captivating Rag (Wellinger 1914), was reprinted by The Ragtimer (vol 6, no. 1, 1967) and recorded by John Arpin.

The publication in 1950 of the history They All Played Ragtime marked the renewal of interest in the music, an interest that had faltered with the rise of jazz prior to the 1920s (though in Canada ragtime still was being recorded in novelty form during the 1920s by Eckstein, Thomas, and Guilaroff). During its revival ragtime found a champion in Canada in the pianist 'Ragtime' Bob Darch (b Detroit 1920) who appeared in various Toronto nightclubs, including, 1959-62, Club 76 (where he also presented, among others, Joseph F. Lamb, then in his 70s and only recently rediscovered). The Ragtime Society, founded in Toronto in 1962 by John Fisher and others, focused international attention on ragtime with its publication (The Ragtimer), its recordings (for the Scroll label), and its annual 'Ragtime Bash' which has drawn performers and fans from many parts of North America.

The leading pianist in Canada during the revival era has been John Arpin, a Darch protégé. A less formal approach to ragtime, heard in nightclubs rather than concert halls, was exemplified in the playing of (Douglas) Alexander 'Ragtime' Read (b Niagara Falls, Ont, 1923, d Mississauga, Ont, 1980), who performed on CBC radio and TV and who made five LPs 1962-7 for CTL.

Ragtime enjoyed a few years of mass popularity in North America in the mid-1970s as a result of the success of the US film The Sting (1974), whose score employed several Joplin rags. Various Canadian pianists of the 1970s and 1980s, concert and pop, made ragtime a part of their repertoires. These include Professor Piano (Scott Cushnie), Ron Davis, Bess Fell, David Fleury, Dave Flowitt, Monica Gaylord, Gordon Sheard, and Catherine Wilson of Toronto; Lou Hooper in Montreal and Charlottetown, Mitch Parks of Winnipeg; Charles Foreman of Calgary; and Buck Evans of Edmonton.

David R. Lee (b Hamilton, Ont, 1934), a Dundas, Ont, lawyer, began composing rags in 1974 and publishing and recorded several through his own Dun-Val Music. Austin Kitchen of Mississauga, Ont, Rodney J. Anderson of Cobourg, Ont, and Helena Bowkun of Toronto also have composed and performed their own rags. The guitarists Colin Linden and David Wilcox have included rags in their performances.

In the 1970s and 1980s ragtime compositions could be found in the repertoires of groups as diverse as Canadian Brass (whose LP Rag-ma-tazz includes pieces by Ben McPeek and Eldon Rathburn), Nexus, One Third Ninth, the Stratford Ensemble (see Raffi Armenian), Trio Vivant, and many traditional and dixieland jazz bands.

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