Coon songs are meant for minstrel shows. White men sing them in black face. This is called ragtime.
Ragtime, like jazz, is a musical genre that is hard to define. The most agreed upon definition according to the Library of Congress is "a genre of musical composition for the piano, generally in duple meter and containing a highly syncopated treble lead over a rhythmically steady bass. A ragtime composition is usually composed of three or four contrasting sections or strains, each one being 16 or 32 measures in length." Some also observe that ragtime is often composed for an audience, not meant for dancing, unlike "coon songs" or cakewalks, other syncopated music seen in minstrel shows of the time. While cakewalks were often written in 2/4 or 6/8 meter, ragtime was only in duple meter. This led to "smaller and more gyrating dance steps", like animal dances such as the grizzly bear, bunny hug, turkey trot, and more.
The term "ragtime" is a contraction for "ragged time", describing a style of music in which the melody is broken up into short rhythms while a steady overall beat is played. This name predates the premier ragtime musicians of the day, such as Scott Joplin, Charles Hunter, or Tom Turpin. The origin of the syncopated beat that is so common in ragtime music is thought to be a surviving influence of African drumming and slave spirituals.
Ragtime music found its heart in Missouri, specifically St. Louis because of the city's position on the river. Black entrepreneurs prospered in St. Louis, such as John L. Turpin who opened a saloon in 1887. Turpin's son, Tom, opened his own saloon in 1897; the same year, Tom composed "Harlem Rag" which became a ragtime standard that inspired future composers. Using the money earned from "Harlem Rag", Tom opened another saloon and brothel called Rosebud which became a destination for ragtime pianists hoping to learn from Tom Turpin himself. The pioneer spirit of Missouri combined with the constant flow of visitors to the riverside city made Missouri and Rosebud the capital of ragtime.
Because ragtime required such technical skill to play, "classic rags" were often not bestsellers. A less subtle, more popular form of ragtime music filled vaudeville houses, music boxes, and piano-playing contests across the country. Critics looked down upon this overwhelming popularity; ragtime was called 'unmusical rot' by the American Federation of Musicians, 'virulent poison' by music magazine The Etude, and 'sacrilege' by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
As jazz gained popularity around 1917, ragtime faded from the popular ear. A musical style that had defined an era became largely forgotten. The technical aspects of ragtime piano remained influential through 1920, creating its own genre called "novelty piano" or "novelty ragtime" by today's scholars.
Find examples of ragtime music under Videos. Thank you to this page from the Library of Congress for helping me make sense of the musical lingo! Head here for a more detailed history of ragtime music.
Dramaturgy for the Ragtime musical and novel.
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