Ragtime Music - it's History, Composers and Influences

Playing the Piano - close-up Ragtime emerged as a form of music towards the end of the 19th century, and this was one of a number of musical styles which had their roots in this time period. This increasing diversity resulted from the fusion of African and European musical ideas in the Southern States of the U.S. It wasn't so much a deliberate crafting by music scholars, but more the result of experimentation and informal learning by example, often by self-taught musicians who played in streets and bars. This informal folk music became formalised into Ragtime by composers like Harney and Joplin who played the music to large audiences and published it so that its popularity spread across the country.

A Brief History of Ragtime

scott joplin piano rolls CD cover In its purest form Ragtime was played as an instrumental on a solo piano, an instrument which most honkytonk bars and saloons possessed. The word Ragtime means "syncopated time", the main characteristic of these pieces being the Right Hand playing a syncopated tune while the Left Hand plays a simple regular line of alternating bass notes and simple chords, not unlike the "Alberti Bass" used in classical music by the likes of Mozart and Haydn. Despite the fact that the Right Hand syncopations were far in excess of anything produced in classical music, the structure of these pieces was nevertheless quite strict in a classical sense. They were usually in 2/4 time, and consisted of a number of contrasting 16 bar sections (sometimes with a middle "trio" section), with repetitions and returns to previous sections or a "Da Capo" (return to the begining). This structure is similar to the classical form known as a Rondo, and to various dance forms and marches. Indeed ragtime may have drawn some inspiration from the military style marches of John Philip Sousa (1854-1932). Towards the end of each section or phrase there might be rising bass lines, changing harmonies or accidentals to give colour and emphasis to the cadences (phrase endings). Another possible inspiration to Ragtime composers is the classical composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) who almost anticipated ragtime with some of his lighter piano works which exhibit a blend of influences including Carribean music.

Scott Joplin 18 rags in easier versions - sheet music book cover Ben R. Harney was one of the first practitioners to bring ragtime to the Vaudeville shows in New York. An all round entertainer, he did much to popularise ragtime allowing it to spread beyond its humble beginings. He was closely followed by Scott Joplin, who with the publication of the Maple Leaf Rag had the equivalent of a top ten hit. It's easy to see why this style became popular. The tunes and rhythm are "catchy" and foot-tapping, the syncopations lively and with humour (often poking fun at serious or pretentious music), and anyone with a piano could participate. Joplin continued to lead this new art form producing a large number of piano rags, many named after dances such as Two Steps, Cake Walks and Slow Drags, and even demonstrating that ragtime could be adapted with different time signatures including the 3/4 Waltz time. Although many performers had a tendency to play ragtime very fast for comic effect, Joplin frequently indicated on many of his rags that they should be played quite slow or "not fast", and the piano rolls which he created and left for posterity demonstrated the desired slow tempo.

Such piano rolls are the main audio record of the ragtime era, because this was before the days of recorded music. Instead the commercial aspect of the music business was driven by the supply of sheet music. In those days many more homes than today had a piano, and so sheet music sales plus live performances were the main source of income for ragtime composers.

Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis: They All Played Ragtime - book cover At the time of its inception and for many years afterwards, no-one realised that the emergence of a new form of music was in itself a culturally important phenomenon, and no-one thought to document the emergence of ragtime for posterity. It wasn't until many decades later that Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis thoroughly researched the subject, interviewing surviving ragtime composers, pianists and publishers to create their book which has been called the Bible of Ragtime. "They All Played Ragtime" was originally published in 1950 and has been re-issued and revised since then. It is a major source of reference material about ragtime and includes 16 complete scores. Though currently out of print, copies of the book are available at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

Influence of Ragtime in Popular Song and other Genres

black upright piano with sheet music Ragtime was an influence on songwriters of the day, who wrote songs called rags although they were only loosely based on the conventions of genuine ragtime. Many of Ben R. Harney's works were songs, and the song "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee" composed by Lewis F. Muir and L. Wolfe Gilbert in 1912 (and later sung by Al Jolson) owes an obvious debt to ragtime. Among other songwriters, there was Irving Berlin who wrote "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "Everybody's Doing It" among many other popular songs. The composer Eubie Blake (1887-1983) published his "Charleston Rag" in 1915, but then turned to songwriting with the Broadway musical "Shuffle Along" which included the song "I'm Just Wild About Harry". Felix Arndt (1889-1918) a composer of light popular music best known for "Nola" also used elements of ragtime, and he was in turn an influence on George Gershwin. Thus it is not an exaggeration to say that ragtime has had an impact on the development of modern song-writing, and popular songs now frequently use lots of syncopation.

In the same way that Jazz was later to influence classical composers like Ravel, Ragtime also had an influence on some classical composers. One of those was Claude Debussy who wrote a number of piano pieces in this style, including the Golliwog's Cakewalk, while Erik Satie used ragtime in his piano piece "Le Piccadilly" and fragments of ragtime in his ballet music "Parade". Igor Stravinsky was also inspired when he left Russia and heard jazz and ragtime music in France, and as a result he composed his "Piano Rag Music" though this work is not true ragtime but an impressionistic piece with only subtle hints of ragtime and jazz.

Scott Joplin: The Ragtime Dance - original sheet music cover A small number of ragtime pieces use a musical device called "stop-time" where the rhythmic pattern of the music seems to pause for a few bars before generally resuming. In his "Rag-Time Dance" (subtitled "A Stop Time Two Step" and published in 1902), Scott Joplin introduces stop-time towards the end of the piece. The left-hand rhythm stops and Joplin indicates in his score that the pianist should stamp the heel of one foot to maintain the beat. The halting motion in his "Rag-time Dance" was used to good effect on the soundtrack to "The Sting". Joplin later released a piece called "Stoptime Rag" which uses foot-stamping throughout. Although there are analogues of "stop-time" in classical music, these ragtime works seem to be one of the earliest uses in popular music and stop-time later became an important musical device in jazz and blues music. The "middle eight" and "bridge" are related structures used frequently in popular music and many ragtime pieces seem to have anticipated this need with a similar device, though often 4 bars in duration rather than 8. This "middle eight" in ragtime music acts like another introduction in the middle of the piece, often heralding the final or penultimate section of the music or acting as a short bridge before a return to repeat a previous section.

Other ragtime devices include the use of 3 against 4 rhythms and frequent upward arpeggios, often with built-in syncopations. These became combined in an arpeggio roll which is the basis of the "black and white rag" for example, with 3 notes of an upward arpeggio providing a counter rhythm to a duple beat. This technique is also used in the song "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee", and was later to find a new home in the "banjo roll" prevalent in blue grass music and popularised by Earl Scruggs.

Ragtime was less popular by the 1920s by which time Blues music was gaining in popularity. Indeed W. C. Handy (1873-1958), often called The Father of Blues, composed a few ragtime works (such as Pattona Rag and Ole Miss Rag) before turning almost exclusively to Blues. In the 1920s Jazz music was also making an impression which unlike ragtime placed an emphasis on improvisation. Many early Jazz pianists such as Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941) and Fats Waller (1904-1943) also came from a Ragtime background, and built upon ragtime traditions while introducing new techniques such as a swing rhythm. A lot of Morton's works are called "Stomps" which seem to develop the concept of "Stoptime", such as his "King Porter Stomp" composed in 1905 but not published until many years later. Jazz itself had many roots, though one of the earliest gigging and recording bands was "Stein's Dixie Jass Band" formed in 1916 by drummer Johnny Stein before leaving the group when it became known as the "Original Dixieland Jass Band" (before "Jass" became "Jazz"). Under this new name, one of the Band's most popular early pieces was "Tiger Rag" which can be considered as a transitional mix of ragtime and "dixieland" Jazz. First published in 1917 "Tiger Rag" became a Jazz Standard and versions of it have been released by numerous artists, as an instrumental or a song.

Pure Ragtime was unstoppable however and made a number of comebacks. Both ragtime and boogie-woogie piano were popularised in the 1950s and 60s by Winifred Atwell who played and recorded her own versions of various pieces in these styles such as the "Black and White Rag" and made many stage and TV appearances. In the US from 1959 to 1961, Max Morath wrote and presented a highly successful TV series called "The Ragtime Era". He has continued to popularise the form through the release of numerous albums, earning him the title "Mr. Ragtime". Another key proponent was Joshua Rifkin who released a number of best-selling ragtime albums starting in 1970 which contributed to the Ragtime revival in that decade.

Ragtime Revival(s) and its use in Film and Computer Game Music

Marvin Hamlisch and Scott Joplin - The Sting soundtrack CD cover While the artists above may have been a catalyst, a key step in the popular revival of ragtime in the 1970s happened when Marvin Hamlisch used Joplin's music extensively in the soundtrack to the movie The Sting. "The Sting" soundtrack included The Entertainer as its main theme, together with Solace and other rags, played in the original piano versions or as arrangements. More recently the soundtrack to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button included another Scott Joplin piece at the end of the movie, called Bethena: A Concert Waltz. Certain film composers have composed new tracks in a ragtime style for their film scores. Two of the best known examples of this are when John Williams used a fusion of alien ragtime, jazz and latin for the "Cantina Band" music in the original "Star Wars" (IV: A New Hope), while Jerry Goldsmith composed the "Gremlins Rag" (with whacky electronics) for the film Gremlins. Some other tunes with lots of syncopation are not authentic ragtime but owe the genre a debt, such as Alan Silvestri's Feather Theme in "Forrest Gump" and Hans Zimmer's theme for "Driving Miss Daisy". And in the world of musicals for stage and film, there are set pieces such as the famous "Herod's Song" from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Rock Opera "Jesus Christ Superstar".

Children playing Computer Games Ragtime music also found a niche providing background music for many early computer games, particular those titles involving cartoon characters exploring levels and solving fun puzzles (see our article video game music history for more detail). Sometimes existing ragtime pieces would be employed directly such as on the "Repton" series released for the BBC micro and other platforms. The original Repton game used George Botsford's "Black and White Rag" and the sequel Repton 2 used Scott Joplin's The Chrysanthemum. Joplin's "Fig Leaf Rag" has also been used in computer games, while the arcade game "Ms. Pac-Man" (later converted to NES) used a short original ragtime piece for its "Chase" music. Also on Nintendo platforms, Koji Kondo used a lively amalgam of ragtime and calypso styles for his music to the original "Super Mario Brothers". The Super Mario Brothers Theme stayed with the game series in a variety of different arrangements.

More recently the TV Series "Westworld" has used some ragtime music (among many other classical and popular tracks). For the most part the ragtime is associated with the saloon bar, which is in keeping with the origins of the genre. So far in Series 1 we've spotted "Pineapple Rag", Peacherine Rag and "Weeping Willow Rag" all by Scott Joplin, although often arranged or adapted by the series composer Ramin Djawadi.

An Introduction to Ragtime Sheet Music

Below you will find a list of the key ragtime composers and a selection of ragtime pieces which are free to download for personal use. However it is fair to say that many piano rags are a little bit difficult to play, particularly for young players with small fingers. However much ragtime has been arranged into simpler versions so that even the less-experienced pianist can have a go. If you want to sample some of our mfiles sheet music then scroll down to the composer section below, but if you prefer your sheet music to come in books then we suggest the following collections which can be found on Sheet Music Plus:

Now scroll down the page to find links to ragtime sheet music by Scott Joplin, James Scott and other composers.

Ragtime composers and selected Sheet Music:

We list just a few of the better known ragtime exponents, and some of their works.

Ben R. Harney (1872-1938)

Ben R. Harney photograph Benjamin Robertson Harney (a white American) is sometimes credited as the originator of Ragtime. That claim is uncertain but he was certainly one of its early practitioners and popularisers, and his "You've Been a Good Old Wagon but You Done Broke Down" is thought to be the first published rag in 1895. In 1896 Harney moved to New York where, in addition to publishing more sheet music, he also published the book "Ben Harney's Rag Time Instructor" which explained how to turn well-known melodies into rags. He played and sang in several venues in New York, and also toured across the USA and the world with his wife and other entertainers performing his Vaudeville style show. Many of his works are not the familiar instrumental ragtime of Joplin and others, but more like popular songs with a ragtime chorus. His works include:

  • You've Been a Good Old Wagon but You Done Broke Down
  • Mister Johnston, Turn Me Loose
  • I Love My Honey
  • The Cake Walk in the Sky
  • The Only Way to Keep A Gal is to Keep Her in a Cage

James Scott (1885-1938)

James Scott photograph James Scott's skills as a pianist became obvious when he worked in a music store demonstrating the pianos there. Some of his own compositions which he played there became very popular and the store owner Charles L. Dumars published his "A Summer Breeze" in 1903. Scott moved to St. Louis in 1906 where he met Scott Joplin who introduced him to his own publisher John Stillwell Stark who published many of his compositions after the success of "Frogs Legs Rag". Over the next decade or so Scott composed a large number of successful ragtime works though, once ragtime started to lose its popularity, Scott became a music teacher and an accompanist for silent movies. Among his most popular works are:

Joseph F. Lamb (1887-1960)

Joseph F. Lamb photograph Joseph Francis Lamb was an American composer of Irish descent. He was a self-taught pianist with a passion for ragtime music. He was purchasing some sheet music by Joplin and Scott in the New York office of publisher John Stark when he met Joplin himself. Joplin was impressed by Lamb's own ragtime compositions, and (like he had previously done with James Scott) he introduced Joseph Lamb to his regular publisher John Stark. Stark duly published Lamb's sheet music with "Sensation" being the first to go into publication. Over the next decade many more rags were published and Lamb became one of the "Big Three" ragtime composers along with Scott Joplin and James Scott. Among his works are:

  • Sensation Rag
  • Ethiopia Rag
  • American Beauty Rag
  • Ragtime Nightingale
  • Cleopatra Rag
  • Reindeer Rag
  • Bohemia Rag

E. J. Stark (1867-1962)

E. J. Stark - Billiken Rag - sheet music cover E. J. Stark (Etilmon Justus Stark) was the son of John Stillwell Stark, the publisher who published many famous pieces by Scott Joplin and other ragtime composers. E. J. Stark was a music instructor at the Marmaduke Military Academy in Missouri, and then bandmaster at the Wentworth Military Academy where one of his first compositions was "The W.M.A. Cadets' March" in 1898. He went on to compose a number of ragtime works which were published by his father including Kyrene (1903) sometimes published as "Classical Rag" because it uses techniques associated with classical music such as counterpoint. His later Billiken Rag (1913) also featured some classical elements. He also supported his father's business helping transcribe ragtime works by composers who couldn't notate their own works, and by making arrangements of other's ragtime pieces. His ragtime orchestrations (collectively given the nickname "The Red Back Book" due to its colour) were many years later the inspiration for director George Roy Hill, who then asked Marvin Hamlisch to arrange The Entertainer and other pieces for his movie "The Sting". Since Stark survived into his 90s, his knowledge of the major contributors to ragtime became a key input to the book "They All Played Ragtime" by Blesh and Janis.

  • Trombone Johnsen: Rag-Time Cakewalk
  • Kyrene
  • Brainstorm Rag - using the pseudonym Bud Manchester
  • Clover Blossom Rag - again as Bud Manchester
  • Billiken Rag

Tom Turpin (1871-1922)

Tom Turpin photograph Tom Turpin (Thomas Million John Turpin) was born in Georgia. As an adult he became something of an entrepreneur, opening and managing saloon bars in both Missouri and St. Louis. These bars were substantial businesses supporting different forms of entertainment, and were typically locations where pianists and early ragtime players congregated to show off their latest works. Turpin started to compose himself and his "Harlem Rag" is credited as the first published rag by an African-American in 1897 (though it was composed in 1892). In between his various business ventures he continued to compose rags on an intermittent basis including the following:

  • Harlem Rag
  • A Ragtime Nightmare
  • St. Louis Rag
  • The Buffalo Rag
  • Siwash: An Indian Rag - unpublished
  • Pan-Am Rag

Fred S. Stone (1873-1912)

Fred S. Stone: Belinda sheet music cover Fred S. Stone (Frederick St. Clair Stone) was born in Canada, and his family moved across to Detroit and became U.S. Citizens when Fred was a boy. Fred and his older brothers Charles and William were musicians and played various brass instruments in various Bands in the Detroit area. Fred started composing at the age of 18, and published several marches, waltzes and other dances. His first ragtime success was "Ma Ragtime Baby" which was originally published in 1898 as a piano instrumental, and then quickly republished as a song with lyrics provide by his brother Charles. It would appear that Detroit was a centre for new music, long before it was called "Motown", and Fred was active playing, conducting and arranging for local Bands, while continuing to publish ragtime pieces including "Bos'n Rag" in 1899, "Sue" in 1902, "Belle of the Philippines" in 1903 and "Belinda" in 1905. Stone was also an active participant in the black musician's union in Detroit, but he died in 1912 in an unfortunate accident boarding a trolley car before reaching his 38th birthday.

  • Ma Ragtime Baby - republished as a song with lyrics by Charles H. Stone
  • Bos'n Rag - also with a "catchy singing chorus"
  • Sue
  • Belle of the Philippines
  • Belinda

George Botsford (1874-1949)

George Botsford: Black and White Rag - sheet music cover George Botsford was another American composer who helped to pioneer ragtime with his first publication being "The Katy Flyer Cake Walk" in 1899. He was born in South Dakota and grew up in Iowa, where he received a formal musical education and gained experience as a performer. He published both ragtime and non-ragtime works, with his most famous piece being the "Black and White Rag" which he published in 1908. Although this work was popular in many decades, it became well-known in the UK when it was used as the theme tune to the Snooker television programme "Pot Black". Another popular work was the Grizzly Bear Rag which became a song when Irving Berlin added lyrics to it. Using animal names for music and songs was popular at the time, and this is when the "Turkey Trot" and "Fox Trot" originated. Botsford moved to New York and worked in Tin Pan Alley as a successful Bandleader and arranger.

  • Black and White Rag
  • Sailing Down the Chesapeake Bay
  • Chatterbox Rag
  • Grizzly Bear Rag - later turned into a song with words by Irving Berlin
  • Honeysuckle Rag
  • Boomerang Rag
  • Hyacinth
  • Eskimo Rag (a ragtime song with lyrics by Jean C. Havez)

Arthur Marshall (1881-1968)

Arthur Marshall was born in Missouri and he was still a teenager when he met Scott Joplin. Joplin became a friend of the Marshall family and he stayed with the Marshalls for a time. Arthur Marshall became a protege of Joplin and the pair co-wrote "Swipesy" and "The Lily Queen". Marshall also published a number of rags without Joplin's direct help including "The Pippin" and others:

  • Swipesy Cakewalk (with Scott Joplin)
  • The Lily Queen (with Scott Joplin)
  • The Pippin
  • The Peach
  • Kinklets

Scott Hayden (1882-1915)

Scott Hayden was another young Missouri-based musician who learned ragtime from Scott Joplin. Together the two men wrote the "Sun Flower Slow Drag" and three other popular rags. In his short life Hayden did not complete any of his own composition - "Pear Blossoms" was unfinished when he died in 1915.

  • Sunflower Slow Drag (with Scott Joplin)
  • Felicity Rag (with Scott Joplin)
  • Kismet Rag (with Scott Joplin)
  • Something Doing (with Scott Joplin)
  • Pear Blossoms - unfinished

Scott Joplin (1868-1917)

Scott Joplin photograph While Ben R. Harney is known as the Father of Ragtime, then Scott Joplin is known as the King of Ragtime (though in both cases these labels were part of their own publicity). Certainly Scott Joplin is the best-known of all ragtime composers. He had the 19th century equivalent of a chart hit with his sheet music for the "Maple Leaf Rag" and published many more hits after that. He was the most ambitious ragtime composer who wanted ragtime to be viewed as equal to classical music. He wove ragtime into a number of serious musical forms including his opera Treemonisha, but that failed to live up to his expectations. Long after his death it was also Joplin's music which spearheaded a revival of interest in ragtime during the 1970s, due mainly to "The Entertainer" being used as the theme music for the movie "The Sting". On mfiles there is a dedicated Scott Joplin page with a biography and list of his works, and the following are available for download:

Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton (1890-1941)

Jelly Roll Morton - 1923/24 Recordings CD cover Ferdinand Morton's early musical development was similar to many early ragtime composers. He started working from age 14 as a pianist in a brothel, where he adopted the nickname "Jelly Roll". He began touring initially as a pianist playing his own compositions, and then later formed and toured with jazz groups such as "The Red Hot Peppers". His early music is closely related to ragtime, but he was one of several musicians who developed ragtime music in new directions and helped to build the foundations of early jazz. Although many of his piano compositions date from around 1905 onwards, he initially didn't publish his music to prevent it being played by other performers. His first music publications date from 1915 and he left both piano rolls and early recordings of his playing. Among his compositions are:

  • New Orleans Blues
  • Mamanita
  • Frog-I-More Rag
  • King Porter Stomp
  • Jelly Roll Blues
  • Wolverine Blues
  • Kansas City Stomp
  • Mr Jelly Roll

Morton was one of several composers who claimed to have composed the "Tiger Rag" (or "Hold that Tiger") which became a standard for Jazz Bands.

Irving Berlin (1888-1989)

Irving Berlin photograph Irving Berlin was an American composer and song-writer of Jewish Russian origin. He was certainly not a true ragtime composer like Scott Joplin, but he incorporated the syncopation of ragtime into popular song to become one of America's best known composers. His first big hit in 1911 even mentioned ragtime - it was of course "Alexander's Ragtime Band". In a way he softened the strict form of ragtime, to create accessible and popular song forms (often performed as a dance) which caught the public appeal at a time when recorded music was becoming more common. There is some controversy about the melody in "Alexander's Ragtime Band". Scott Joplin felt that Berlin had taken the idea from "A Real Slow Drag" (a song from his opera Tremonisha). He showed Berlin the score but Berlin went ahead and published his song anyway, and then Joplin revised his "Real Slow Drag" so that people would not accuse him of stealing from Berlin. Nevertheless, though he wasn't a ragtime composer, Berlin kept the idea of ragtime in the public consciousness and "Alexander's Ragtime Band" became a musical in 1938, and the song was also used in the musical "There's No Business Like Show Business" in 1954.

Ragtime Era Infographics

An infographic is available which illustrates the Ragtime Era, showing major events on a timeline and summarising the main features of ragtime music and its key composers. The infographic is available in two formats: horizontal and vertical, and below is a small version of the horizontal infographic. Click the image to view a larger version in a separate window or tab, or here is the Ragtime Era Vertical Infographic. Both can be printed like a poster to put on a wall.

Ragtime Music Era: Timeline Poster (horizontal)


Biographical note

Although my piano teacher tended to disapprove of anything non-classical, as a boy I discovered and enjoyed various non-classical forms of music. One of those discoveries was a sheet music book of ragtime which included the "Black and White Rag" and other items. This was before the Ragtime revival triggered by "The Sting" so I feel as though I discovered Ragtime before everyone else! There is something about that era which is so appealing. Fortunes and reputations where there for the taking, and the music was so informal and inclusive. Everyone with a piano could join in. Of course I've tried writing my own ragtime music, and here's a piece on Soundcloud which I wrote back in 1999 called Ragtime for Bedtime. The sheet music is available on ScoreExchange.