Features and Reviews
Missus Johnson's Rent Rag Ball
By Fred Hoeptner (February, 2013)
An early ragtime song affords insight into the once-common use of the word "rag" in the black community to refer to a social event featuring music and dancing, and to the improvised style of music performed there. In 1897, Missus Johnson's financial predicament inspired lyricist Fred Hamill to write a lyric lamenting her plight and recounting her solution (music by D.A. Lewis). Titled "Missus Johnson's Rent Rag Ball," it was published by National Music Company in Chicago and New York.1 According to his lyrics, Missus Johnson's husband had been killed one night while trying to arrest Slewfoot Bill in a craps game, leaving her alone and impoverished with a household full of "pickaninnies sweet." When the rent came due, she had a plan: "Now I must give a rag for to raise my rent or out I'll have to go. So she invited them yellow gals with their beaus…" As the party got underway, a "gold tooth band play'd 'Pas-a-ma-la,' [and] Miss Genive Brown did the Bam-bi-sha."2
In their study Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895, Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff documented the use of the word "rag" to denote a social event back to 1891.3 Several years ago I extended this tenure back ten years to February 4, 1881 by discovering an article headlined "Crittenden's Rag" in the Kansas City Star reporting an elaborate reception and dance given by Governor Thomas A. Crittenden in his mansion in Jefferson City, Missouri.4 My find also showed that this meaning of the word had extended beyond the black community. This function of the word seems to have been lost today.
A related term that has also been virtually forgotten is "rent rag." I discovered it via Google Books in a collection of essays by American humorist and playwright George Ade (1866–1944) entitled Pink Marsh, A Story of the Streets and Town, c. 1897.5 Known for employing contemporary vernacular, Ade had begun his popular "Stories of the Streets and of the Town" series in the Chicago Record in 1893. One of Ade's characters, Pink Marsh, a black shoeshine boy, mentioned attending a "rent rag" to a customer. When the customer asked, "What in the world is a rent rag?" Marsh responded thusly:
"You do n' know what a rent-rag is, misteh? I guess you ain't been 'round Deahbohn Street ve'y much. You see, misteh, 'ey's quite a numbah o' cullud fam'lies 'ats hahd up 'iss time o' yeah, an' 'ey can't ve'y well come up 'ith 'e rent. So, 'ey have pahties, and chahge ev'y one someping to come in—ten cents, sometimes, o' as much as two bits. 'At's 'e way some of 'em got to do to stand off 'e lan'lohd. Ev'ybody comes in and has good time, an' 'e fam'ly's two or three dollahs to 'e good. Yes seh, we had some ve'y wahm sessions at 'em rent-rags."
After posting my finding online I received two more citations for "rent rag."6 The first, dateline Milwaukee, which I have abridged, appeared in the Kansas City Star February 6, 1895, and so may precede Ade. It was reprinted in the Eau Claire Leader October 25, 1901:
It was about 10 o'clock at night…that a man saw a Chinese lantern swinging outside a third-story window…He knew [the building] to be a tenement house occupied almost exclusively by poor colored people.
…He couldn't understand why a Chinese lantern should be hung out a window. It had little decorative value, swinging against the lonesome front, and he couldn't recall that the day was an anniversary calling for any illumination.
A policeman happened along, and the man asked him about it.
"What's the meaning of that lantern up there?"…The windows up there are lighted and there seems to be something going on.
"That's a rent rag."
"Yes, but what's a rent rag?"
"Well, when some man gets down on his luck and can't pay rent, he has a kind of benefit dance. The other tenants come to it and chip in 10 of 15 cents apiece. They get a lot of fun out of it and he raises $3 or $4 to pay his rent. That's a rent rag."
"What's the lantern got to do with it?"
"That's the way a rent rag is advertised. When the lantern is out, the colored people know that someone is giving a dance to raise rent money. When someone else gives a 'rag,' he is supposed to come and put in his bit. It's a good scheme, only they say some of them try to work it too often."
Another is from the Washington Post November 20, 1898,7 reprinted in the Atlanta Constitution December 11, 1898:
That makes me think…of the struggles a French friend of mine has been having with the language.
"I have not much of trouble," says he, "with many words of English. I know that one goes fast when he moves rapidly, and stands fast when he moves not at all, and he is fast when he lives what you call gayly [sic], and fasts when he eats not at all. There is nothing of new. We understand all that in France. 'Rag' is a useless piece of cloth. Very well. But—now!—you 'chew the rag.' You have 'rag time.' It is two weeks I was in Chicago. They tell me 'rent rag.' I consult the dictionary. Rent rag is a torn piece of cloth. No. Not at all. Many of colored people give a soiree. They charge their friends for admittance. The money pays the rent. That is a 'rent rag.' There is of fighting at the end sometimes. Is it that I can learn such a language? No. It is terrible. It is unspeakable. I do not study any more. Jamais de la vie."
Although the term "rent rag" seems to have had roots in Chicago, the events themselves were part of a broad, ongoing "house-rent party" tradition that existed under various names at different times and places. Kathleen Drowne, writing in the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, cites African-American house parties in Southern cities known as "frolics" or "breakdowns" for "several generations" before the beginning of the renaissance in the early 1920s.8 She notes that by the turn of the twentieth century these events, referred to as "shin-digs," "stomps," "boogies," "breakdowns," "skiffles," "scuffles," "struggles," "shake-me-downs," "chitterling rags," and "struts," were being thrown expressly to raise money. (However, she omits "rent-rags," which suggests that the term may not have been as widespread in the South.)
The word "rag" in its musical sense denoted a certain performance style characteristic of the improvising black musician commonly incorporating syncopation. The first printed instance of the word in this sense thus far found is from 1894.9 Can we associate the word in its musical sense with a rent rag? Music was an essential feature of rent parties in general as evidenced by Missus Johnson's "gold-tooth band," and, later during the Harlem renaissance, by the performance of renowned pianists James P. Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith at these events. If I can infer from the score of "Missus Johnson's Rent Rag Ball," "ragging" was a common performance practice at a rent rag, for syncopation is present in almost every measure of the piano accompaniment. Both "tied" (classic ragtime) and "untied" (cakewalk) syncopation patterns were used as illustrated in Figures 1 and 2 (first half of first measure only), respectively.10 Thus "Missus Johnson's Rent Rag Ball," while illustrating another meaning of the word "rag," also corroborates the close association of its social and musical usages. The still unanswered question: which came first?
1. I thank RsH of Toronto, Ontario, for informing me of “Missus Johnson’s Rent Rag Ball.”
2. A popular song and associated dance of probable folk origin, “La Pas Ma La” is said to have been corrupted from the French and was known by various names (Possumala Dance,” “Pasumala,” “Possumala,” “The Possum-a-la”). “La Pas Ma La” was black entertainer Ernest Hogan’s published version (1895, words and music). Although much of the score is syncopated habanera bass, the composer later touted it as the first ragtime song, the accuracy of which depends on one’s definition of “ragtime.” Hogan’s lyrics refer to the Bumbishay, another dance known in New Orleans as the “Fanny Bump.”
3. University of Mississippi Press/Jackson, 2002, p. 443.
4. Fred Hoeptner, “Crittenden’s Rag,” American Music Review, Fall 2010, p. 11.
5. Herbert S. Stone and Company, Chicago.
6. I thank Sue Attalla for providing the newspaper articles from the Eau Claire Leader and the Atlanta Constitution and Ed Berlin for the Kansas City Star reference.
7. Anonymous, “Woman about Town,” p. 16.
8. “House-Rent Parties,” http://cw.routledge.com/ref/harlem/parties.html.
9. Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895, University of Mississippi Press/Jackson, 2002, p. 448.
10. For a detailed explanation of styles of syncopation, see Edward Berlin, Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History, University of California Press c. 1980, pp. 83 and 84. Because at that early date notational standards for ragtime were still inchoate, Figure 1 indicates a rest where a tied note would later have been placed.