Features and Reviews
On the Use of Swing in Ragtime Performance
By Fred Hoeptner
While the infusion of swing into a ragtime performance is obvious to the listener, it is not easy to define "swing" in a written context, especially for those unfamiliar with the technicalities of music notation. But I'll make a stab at it: as applied to ragtime (in 2/4 time, the usual ragtime meter), "swing" is the term used to describe a rhythmic style in which sixteenth-note intervals, normally of equal duration, are instead played in a certain regular pattern of unequal durations whereby the first of a pair of notes is held longer than the second. This produces a swinging or lilting effect, or in the extreme, a jerky or galloping effect.
In ragtime music notation, swing was formerly indicated by the use of dotted notes. A dot indicates that the duration of a note is to be increased by an amount equal to half its value. The following note is then halved in length. Two sixteenth notes, swung, would thus become a dotted sixteenth note followed by a thirty-second note. Thus, swing rhythms have been referred to as "dotted rhythms." Anyone wishing a more complete explanation should refer to chapter VIII, "The Erosion of a Distinctive Style," in Edward Berlin's book Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History.
Today it is recognized that the dotted notation is inaccurate. More accurate would be the replacement of the two sixteenth notes by a set of triplets with the first two triplets tied together. Bob Pinsker, superb pianist and frequent attendee at the Rose Leaf Club, has thoroughly explored the issue of swing timing, using James P. Johnson's "Caprice Rag" as an example. He presents the results at his Geocities web site linked here. Because of the complexity that results from an attempt to notate swing formally, and because the degree of swing is normally optional with the performer, composers usually handle the matter with a quick note on the score.
In ragtime music notation throughout the first decade of the 1900s sixteenth-note intervals were evenly spaced. Ragtime authority Edward Berlin, in the chapter previously cited, reports that the transition to dotted rhythms began soon after 1910. The yearly proportion had increased to 46 percent of all ragtime compositions by 1913 and 58 percent by 1916. Berlin viewed this transition as a step in the erosion of ragtime as a distinctive style because "the rhythmic animation inherent in dotted figures evidently reduced the need for syncopation in ragtime." Some of the "classic" ragtime composers (generally considered to include Joplin, Scott, Lamb, and sometimes a few others) experimented briefly with dotted rhythms in the later period. Joe Lamb included them in the trio of "American Beauty" and James Scott in "Troubadour Rag" and "Dixie Dimples," which indicates that they knew how to notate swing to achieve particular effects. But they then returned to earlier conventions.
In my opinion the evidence is persuasive that the composers of classic ragtime did not intend their pieces to be swung except in the special cases noted. In his book King of Ragtime (pp. 178 and 179), Berlin quotes Joplin's entreaty to play each note as written and to adhere to "the proper time divisions," which would seem to preclude the infusion of swing. Probably the best evidence is a recording that Sam Charters made of Joe Lamb playing his own compositions in 1959 at his home. Except in the trio of "American Beauty," swing is notably absent.
Today, opinion varies on when and to what extent classic rags should be performed with swing. Although many ragtime performers and devotees strenuously object to swinging a classic rag, in my opinion it is not necessary to slavishly obey a composer's intent. In making the choice, the performer should also consider the nature of both the audience and the composition. If the audience expects a performance conforming to classical conventions or to an authentic emulation of the ragtime era, in general the score and especially its note durations should be played essentially as written. Joshua Rifkin, who initiated the "ragtime revival" in 1970 and legitimized ragtime as classical music, typifies the strict approach. More recently, Scott Kirby has modified this approach to what may be a reasonable compromise. He has recorded Joplin's rags interpreting them with prudent embellishments (for example, added base runs and repeats an octave higher) but maintaining the note durations as written. Kirby's additions seem to reasonably compensate for the simplification of scores that publishers reportedly made to conform to the abilities of the average pianist. In less formal performance situations, Joplin's compositions where rhythmic elements strongly predominate ("Swipesy," "The Easy Winners," "Something Doing," "The Entertainer") can probably tolerate moderate swing. However, his more formal concert pieces ("Rose Leaf Rag," "Magnetic Rag," "Country Club") would suffer from such treatment. Similar considerations would apply to the rags of James Scott and Joe Lamb.
Bob Pinsker has pointed out the linkage between swing and tempo. Dick Zimmerman's studies, presented in a series of articles in the Rag Times in 1998 and 1999, showed that, on average, tempos during the ragtime era were faster than are usual today. The slower the tempo, the more feasible it becomes to infuse swing into the performance. Bob theorizes therefore that at today's tempos performers are more inclined to swing than they were during the ragtime era.
Contemporary rags, even those in the classic vein, can often benefit from swing, but the performer should try to discern the composer's intent, not always a simple matter. Although the score of William Bolcom's 1971 "Graceful Ghost" is not notated with swing, and no notes on the score address the issue, Bolcom performs it with full "triplet" swing on his recording. On the other hand, David Thomas Roberts, considered by many as the premiere contemporary ragtime composer, does not employ swing in his compositions, and has been known to excoriate performers who deviate from his scores.
On this issue obviously few hard and fast rules are possible--only prudent judgments formed with knowledge of the historical perspective. My best advice is, when in doubt, play it straight--that is, "as written," yet perhaps with some prudent embellishments.