Q & A

Feel free to send in a question. I'll do my best to answer it for you. 

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The below questions were sent in by two high school students in Missouri as part of a "Music Missouri History project.  

How would you define ragtime?


            Ragtime, formerly known as “Ragged Time,” began as syncopated folk music, meaning the melodies and beats were not being played at the same time. An old fashioned way of defining it was, “you’ll know it when you hear it.”

Keep in mind that the folk musicians never heard the term “syncopation,” nor did they understand what was “right and wrong” in music according to the western cultures.  


Why do you think ragtime is historically significant?

              Ragtime is historically significant because, with its syncopation, it influenced every type of music that followed it. Big Band music, for instance, contains all kinds of syncopations, but they sound smoother than the 1800s cakewalks and early rags. Compare “In The Mood” with “Dill Pickles Rag.” The rhythms are exactly the same (at the beginning.)

Boogie-woogie was known as “ragtime” for 30 years before it picked up the moniker “boogie-woogie,”  and boogie-woogie became rock n’ roll. There’s many more spin offs of the type. Be aware if the people of the ragtime era (1896 – 1917) called it ragtime, they were right. In later years historians reclassified different styles for publishing and discussion values, but that doesn’t change the fact that the people of 100 years ago called it ragtime. Louis Armstrong once named about six different styles: blues, boogie-woogie, stride, and some others. He then said that “back in my day those styles were all called ragtime.”


How do you think that ragtime influenced American culture?

              Ragtime gave a voice to those who didn’t listen to classical music or music at all. It was barroom music, and the ‘problem’ was that everyone liked it. So while Carnegie Hall was hosting the classicists (great stuff: I love it), the foot-tapping was going on in the saloons and joints. New dance styles erupted onto the scene. Where waltzes and minuets once held forth, suddenly the jitterbug, two-steps, and Charleston took over. This is a huge question you’re asking, because the barn dance music of Tennessee and Kentucky had already been in full sway for over 200 years. But now ragtime culture? Look up an old song from 1900 called “I’m Certainly Living the Ragtime Life.”

Be aware that the Cakewalks went far back into the 1800s. You might want to look up minstrel shows and see how they contributed to it. Also, ragtime became the movie music during the silent film era, and is still recognized today as being appropriate for the style.


In your opinion, who (Scott Joplin, James Scott, Joseph Lamb, or someone else) composed the most musically complex works?


              That’s a strange question. Sometimes the most complex piece is the simplest sounding. Mozart, for instance, is feared by many pianists because of its apparent simplicity which is actually fiendishly difficult. What does musically complex mean? The most chords? (that can turn into a disaster in a hurry). The most time or tempo changes? Pure difficulty in performing? Tom Brier, a modern day composer, has written some of the most difficult pieces on earth. If you’re talking about the composers of the early 1900s I really don’t know of one who wrote complex music. Be aware that the publishers of this music required it to be playable by the general public, so you don’t find many double-handed runs and such in the written music of that era unless you delve into novelty rags (composed by classical piano players to display their own techniques). James P. Johnson was an incredible ragtime/stride player of the 1910s – 30s, and his music is regarded as complex. James P., along with many other great composers and players, never played their own music the same way twice. This is also true among the classical music players. In fact, during the classical era, you would hear the phrase “playing with taste.” This meant that the performer was playing it better than the printed version. Verify this by looking up Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Franz Liszt, and others.


What do you think would be most helpful to research in our project?


              The magical internet contains far more than you’ll ever be able to research. I wish something like that had been around when I was younger. The best way to research ragtime, or any music for that matter, is to not be narrow. Cast a wide net. Study folk music: ragtime was derived from it. Study the Irish dance and the Scottish reels: you’ll find many of the same rhythms in it. Study Stephen Foster: it’s not ragtime but it was so good that it’s still played today. Study classical music: you’ll learn it was considered “low life” when first began. (Church music was “Real” music back then.)

              There’s too many people who study only ragtime, comparing one person against another and so forth. Stay away from stuff like that. Remember that ragtime was a playing style long before it was a written style. And once it became a written style it was still a playing style. Eubie Blake told me that everyone of his era (1900s-1940s) played everything in their own style. He said, “if someone actually had to us the music to learn it, as soon as it was learned they’d pitch the music and play it their own way.” Be aware that the great players Never played anything the same way twice. (That issue alone is easily the topic of a two-hour lecture.) And, like any historian, be aware that there’s a lot of stuff to be learned yet. It’s a great journey to be on. Keep an open mind. Realize that “Ragtime should never be played fast” doesn’t work if you want the audience to stick around very long.


How do you think the public views ragtime, both in the early 1900's and now?


              The public enjoys it very much. I know because I played it for the last sixty years to crowds that went wild. I was sent around the world multiple times because people wanted to hear it. Back in the 1900s it was accepted the same way.


Lastly, just out of curiosity, who is your favorite ragtime composer?


              Ha! They’re all different. Joplin is strong in one department, whereas James P. walks away with the crowd. Joseph Lamb’s rags are beautiful and creative, but playing more than one of his in a concert is too much. In fact, when I played concerts (many thousands of them) I always played many different styles in order to keep the attention of the audiences. The trick that performers have to know is this: “avoid boredom in the audience.” Boredom can be caused in many different ways: always playing in the same key, playing too much in the same style, playing too many fast ones (Wow! Look at how good I am!), playing too many slow ones, and lack of spontaneity is a real killer. So you’re asking who is my favorite ragtime composer? Whichever one I’m playing at the moment. (True answer).


              Thank you for asking me these questions. I’m pleased to know that someone thought of me. And lastly, feel free to call me if you want more information. Send a text first to let me know when you’re calling. I’d be most pleased to share anything I can with curious people such as yourselves.


              Bob Milne