88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music

88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music

From 1897 to America’s entry into the Great War of 1917, the great Ragtime craze hit the States, and in fact all of the Western world. The new style had been developed in the small towns of the Midwest and the Mississippi Valley during the 1880s and 1890s by a first generation of mostly self-taught African-American pianists (such as the legends William Turk and One-Leg Willie Joseph). They had been improvising on popular quadrilles and piano transcriptions of brass-band marches, particularly those of John Philip Sousa. According to Eubie Blake (composer of “The Charleston Rag,” (1899) at age 16, and the first all-Black musical, Shuffle Along, in 1921), Joseph was said to “bring the house down” with his rendition of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” which he would play first in march time, then in “ragged” time, and then in “sixteen” which was an early form of barrelhouse boogie-woogie, a style whose rolling or chugging bass patterns are sub-divided “eight to the bar” in two-bar phrases.

The boogie style developed from many influences including barrelhouse and honky tonk piano, and the rapid high energy acoustic guitar of the Fast Western blues heard in the lumber and turpentine camps; it has had a long underground life from the 1880s to the present: some of its notable recorded exponents have been Speckled Red (esp. his “Wilkins Street Stomp,” 1929), Cow Cow Davenport (the three against two of his “State Street Jive,” 1928), Cripple Clarence Lofton (the exciting figurations of his “Blue Boogie,” 1939), Meade Lux Lewis (the low range baritone melody of his “Far Ago Blues,” 1939), Montana Taylor (“Detroit Rocks,” 1929), Jimmy Yancey (the heavily accented offbeat broken chord bass of his “The Fives,” a.k.a. “Five O’Clock Blues,” 1939), Pine Top Smith (“Jump Steady Blues,” 1929), Pete Johnson (“Lone Star Blues,” 1939), Albert Ammons (“Woo Woo,” c.1939), Bob Zurke (“Cow Cow Blues,” 1940), Memphis Slim (44 Blues), Big Maceo Merriweather (the amazing right hand rotating patterns of his “Chicago Breakdown,” 1945), Jimmy Blythe (the wide-ranging bass lines of the “Mr. Freddy Blues,” 1926), Sammy Price (“Lagniappe,” which switches between boogie, stride and chromatic bass lines), and Billy Maxted (the clean, chromatic contrary motions in his “Memphis Blues”).

The boogie, ragtime, guitar blues, etc. rhythms originated along the West African Gold Coast, and especially in Benin/Dahomey where most of the slave trade took place, the traditional (polyrhythmic and polyphonic) music is in a lilting triple feeling which is often joined by claps in duple meter. (In Muslim African nations, the music is basically in duple meters). This internalized rhythmic sensibility was carried to America to become manifest in field shouts, work and play songs, slow unaccompanied vocal laments, in vocal with guitar blues in the various country styles of Texas, Georgia, and the Delta region with their considerable freedom of pacing (stay in one place for many extra beats meditating on a feeling, add extra or cut beats from a line, etc.) and in the later Chicago blues style of the 1940s with more defined urban forms (like 8-bar, 12-bar, 16-bar blues), and the later African-American rural church practice of “lining-out” a hymn in a call-and-response manner, spontaneously improvising on the words and music of the preacher, choir and congregation.

When you “think in three, play in two”, the dynamic tension between those pulse groups creates a natural, irresistible physical (kinetic) tendency to:

(1) accent anticipatory beats, to

(2) place staccatos in the bass on off-beats (so that even steady, un-syncopated march beats can be “ragged” as is heard today in the bands that play going to (slow drag march) and returning from (upbeat march) funerals in New Orleans, to

(3) slightly “drag” walk-up or walk-down bass lines and to

(4) expand or contract the rhythmic units of a phrase, riff, or melody (this could be said to have inevitably led to the swing feeling in jazz, explored by the profound inventions of Louis Armstrong) and

(4b) in later music to offset or shift musical figures onto other beats (like the accompaniment patterns in 30s and 40s Swing, the “second line” rhythms heard in New Orleans parades, the complex seemingly random accents of bebop piano ‘comping), and

(4c) to play “outside” the beat (Bebop and later).

In Ragtime, the left hand bass typically provides the steady duple meter and the right hand plays the tune whose notated syncopation actually comes from an internal triple feel interacting with the external duple beat. In fact, ragtime piano was originally called “jig” piano, a term which referred to the triple meter of the Irish jig (a beat not imitated on the keyboard but felt internally).

Scott Joplin had published six rags before the “Maple Leaf Rag” (1897) but that one piece fired the public imagination. Born in Texarkana, Texas, Joplin taught himself on a neighbor’s piano, then studied piano and theory with a local German teacher. He left home at 14 and wandered throughout Texas and the Mississippi Valley states playing in honky-tonks, saloons, sporting clubs and bawdyhouse parlors. At the age of 17, he arrived in St. Louis, formed a band to play at the World’s Columbian Exposition, moved to Sedalia, and then back to St. Louis once his royalties from the “Maple Leaf Rag” began to come in.

Joplin published 53 piano pieces consisting of rags, marches, waltzes, a tango, songs (incl. “Snoring Sampson,” and “When Your Hair is Like the Snow”), seven collaborative pieces, an arrangement of a Joseph Lamb rag, and his short instructional pamphlet “School of Ragtime – 6 Exercises for Piano” (1908). The rags have interchangeable subtitles such as cakewalk, syncopated march, two-step, rag, slow drag. Joplin wrote rags with sound effects, such as “The (Great) Crush Collision March” (1896) depicting a train wreck on the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway, in which “the noise of the trains running at the rate of 60 miles per hour” becomes a chromatic bass run with stabbing chords above, the train whistles are a major second dissonance, and the “collision” is a deeply resonate F major seventh chord. Joplin’s “Stoptime Rag” instructs the pianist to stamp their foot throughout the piece. “The Wall Street Rag” (1909) is also programmatically optimisitc: there is “Panic in Wall Street, Brokers feeling melancholy” then “Good times coming” and finally “Good times have come”.

“The Searchlight Rag” (1907) features a ragtime stride bass alternating with a chromatic “barrelhouse” walking bass. “The Ragtime Dance” (1906) features a wonderful stop-time section during which the pianist stamps his foot to emphasize silences and unusual gestures (falling chromatics, for example). There are several fine melodic rags with delicate, chromatic harmony such as the “Heliotrope Bouquet – A Slow Drag Two Step” (1907) by Joplin and Louis Chauvin, “Sun Flower Slow Drag” (1901) with Scott Hayden, the “Magnetic Rag” (1914), “Euphonic Sounds” (1909), “Pleasant Moment – Ragtime Waltz” (1909), “Gladiolus Rag” (1907), “Antoinette” (1906) a march and two-step in 6/8 time, “Bethena” (1905) a ragtime waltz, “The Chrysanthemum, An Afro-American Intermezzo” (1904). “The Entertainer” (1902), dedicated to James Brown and his Mandolin Club (ensembles of up to 50 mandolins were not uncommon at this time), had a re-birth of popularity in 1973 when it was used along with many other fine Joplin rags in the soundtrack for the movie The Sting.

(The names of many other fine African-American, Caucasian-American and Creole ragtime composers can be found in the classic book They All Played Ragtime (1950) by Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis.)

Ragtime music entered European concert works such as Claude Debussy‘s piano preludes “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk” and “General Lavine” and Igor Stravinsky‘s Piano Rag Music. Even Brahms is said to have considered creating a ragtime piece shortly before he passed away, being deeply enamored of the sound of the banjo. Joplin’s own concert music pieces included “The Ragtime Dance,” a ballet filled with a variety of rags and steps, and his two operas A Guest of Honor (1903) the score of which has unfortunately never been located, and the splendid Treemonisha (1911) with its impressive ragtime finale “A Real Slow Drag.” Joplin was a friend of Harry Lawrence Freeman who was the first African-American composer to have an opera produced. Freeman’s The Martyr (1893) was given in Denver; his Voodoo was produced on Broadway in 1928; he penned over a dozen more operas.

From 88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music
by “Blue” Gene Tyranny
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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