Features and Reviews
Under the Tent
By Alan Ashby
(Note: This article appeared in the June 2002 Sacramento Ragtime Society Newsletter and is reprinted with the permission of the author and the SRS. I thought it dealt very thoughtfully with a problem that has given our club some concern recently and that the membership would appreciate reading it. Coincidentally, the author was in one of my eighth grade classes during my first year of teaching in 1953. Small world! —Bill Mitchell)
The editors have agreed to let me take a stab at writing a column about ragtime. I warned them I'm more opinionated than most people can tolerate but they said go ahead anyway. So here goes.
First, it needed a name. I recalled a wonderful quote from Trebor Tichenor, which Marty Eggers once related to me. "Ragtime is a big tent." It's a thoughtful line and suggests a nice title for a column. Trebor might have said it during some discussion about whether a particular style on the outer fringes of our music was really ragtime or not. "Ragtime is a big tent." It's an inclusive definition rather than an exclusive one, meaning there's room for lots of different styles and musical approaches within ragtime, and there's a chair for almost everybody. It has a warm feel to it and is reminiscent of many activities that have taken place under tents in American life for many years, including circuses, revivals, political rallies, and lots of music festivals.
So, what is under the ragtime tent?
After the West Coast Ragtime Festival moved from Fresno to Sacramento in 1997 that became a very practical problem, because the festival director and later the board's selection committee have had to make hard decisions about who to invite. The festival runs for three days on four stages (five this time! –Ed.), year after year, so the several dozen Joplin-Lamb-Scott classics are exhausted pretty quickly. Ragtime had better be a big tent, or after a while, people will just stay home and listen to their Joshua Rifkin records. Booking a variety of styles and approaches became necessary to ensure that attendees could still hear something fresh and interesting after many hours of listening. Many excellent performers are available now, and picking them has become a painful process because of the good ones who have to be left out. Rotation of favorites has become more and more necessary.
The time span of ragtime, which had its heyday from roughly 1895-1920, really has to start with the florid music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who usually sounds like Franz Liszt might have sounded if he had been born in Havana, and whose dates are much earlier: 1829-1869. While Gottschalk was more comfortable with Latin rhythms than anything else, his effort to capture American folk styles in Le Banjo and a few other pieces like Bamboula so directly anticipated the four-beat syncopation of ragtime that he deserves a place under the tent. Stephen Collins Foster can't be overlooked either.
And ragtime composition has never stopped since then, so the time span runs all the way from Gottschalk through cakewalks to classic ragtime, saloon ragtime, salon ragtime, Tin Pan Alley ragtime, novelty ragtime, stride, silent movie ragtime, western movie ragtime, Crazy Otto ragtime, country and bluegrass ragtime, all the way to whatever piece Tom Brier composed last week and the fine pieces Tom and other contemporary composers like David Thomas Roberts, Scott Kirby, Frank French, and their wacky friend Terry Verde, and many others have yet to bring forth.
In complexity and function, ragtime varies from the folk ditties that found their way into the music of Blind Boone and early Joplin, through straight-away dance music, gee-whiz pyrotechnical blizzardry, all the way to sit-down-and-keep-quiet art music—even from a mainstreamer like Max Morath.
Geographically ragtime is all over the place too; the Midwest of Joplin and the others, Jelly Roll's New Orleans and Tijuana, Eubie Blake's Baltimore, Tony Jackson's Chicago, Handy's blues-ragtime from Memphis, the New York of James P. and Fats and many other striders, Euday Bowman's Texas, Charlie Daniels on the West Coast, Mimi Blais and Mr. Lafreniere in Quebec, Messrs. Debussy and Satie in Paris, a host of novelty music from England, Morton Gunnar Larsen in Norway, and Professor Ittsas Tomas from Hungary. Not to mention a host of others we probably haven't found about yet from places like Atlanta, des Moines, Birmingham, Buenos Aires, Capetown, Melbourne, Berlin, Moscow, Tokyo, and, God help us all, maybe even Pasadena.
With almost 150 years and the whole world to draw from, it's a big tent indeed.