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The Music of the Gilded Age (March 2021): Ragtime

by John Druesedow


A precursor of jazz, ragtime made its appearance at the end of the Gilded Age. It emanated from the African American community, and with its appealing syncopated style it was the predominant genre of American popular music from about 1899 to the beginning of the Great War, when all eyes turned to Europe. In 1950, Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis published They All Played Ragtime: The True Story of an American Music. The appearance of this book prompted the first revival of ragtime. In the 1970s, Nonesuch Records issued Piano Rags, a three-volume set of rags written by Scott Joplin. These recordings brought about the second, and critical, revival of ragtime. Featuring performances by Joshua Rifkin, who also wrote the liner notes, these records are a study in note-perfect elegance.

Jeffrey Magee provides an excellent overview in “Ragtime and Early Jazz,” his contribution to The Cambridge History of American Music, edited by David Nicholls. Magee designates Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” the “central work of classic ragtime” and calls attention to Joplin’s appearance at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.7 Another valuable resource on this important genre is Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History, by Edward Berlin. In the book’s preface, Berlin calls the 1970s revival of ragtime “unprecedented” in the United States. “Never before has a long-buried [musical] style been so widely and eagerly embraced by a mass public.”