The period known as the Progressive Era in American history – spanning from the late 19th century through about 1930 – saw swift social and political reform in response to the rise of industrialization and modernization. Cultural changes during this time also created a fertile climate for the commercialization of entertainment. As people gained more leisure time, they eagerly sought new forms of diversion and amusement.
In this environment, American popular culture was born.
The first best-selling book lists were published during the Progressive Era. Vaudeville emerged as theater that cut across class and racial lines; and was soon replaced by the equally democratic “moving pictures.” Increasingly, people were also able to tune in for live broadcasts of drama, comedy and music from the comfort of their homes via the radio.
In addition, mass production of sheet music gave musicians and their audiences greater access to songs that reflected a wide variety of musical styles and influences, including the rhythms and melodies of African American artists.
From here, a completely original – and controversial – sound emerged. Ragtime, a precursor to jazz and relative of the blues, commonly considered the first purely American style of music, sparked a craze in the Progressive Era, to the dismay of those with more conventional musical sensibilities.
In researching the origin of ragtime and reactions to this new genre of music – which ranged from the equivalent of up-turned noses to full-blown alarm – I was struck by how much the criticism sounded like concerns to the advent of other revolutionary forms of popular music, particularly rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s and rap in the ‘90s.
Cultural phenomena don’t just sprout out of a single person or environment, and several credible theories exist about the origin of ragtime. Some music scholars follow the trail back to a song and dance fad of the 1890s called “the cakewalk” which started in the antebellum South. According to an article by David Hinckley for the New York Daily News1, slaves would entertain plantation owners by dancing in a circle.
Often, these steps would mimic the movements of plantation owners, “with overly dignified walking, low bows, waving of canes and high-kicking grand promenades,” according to Hinckley, who continued, “[A]s more generous plantation owners began baking a fancy cake that was awarded to the winner of the night’s dance, it became more and more widely known as the cakewalk.”
By the late 19th century, the cakewalk was performed in minstrel shows, especially in New York, and musicians were inspired to put a twist on the era’s popular marches to create songs especially for the dance. From this new style of music, ragtime emerged.
Hundreds of cakewalk songs were published by the early 1900s, Hinckley noted, and many of their titles, along with the illustrations that accompanied sheet music, reflected the attitudes of the plantation where white audiences enjoyed the spectacle of Black performers, who were believed to have a “natural sense of rhythm.” Critics expressed concern not about the problematic depictions of the musicians and dancers, but with the moral influence of the cakewalk, calling it a “sex dance” and a “milder edition of African orgies.”
In spite of such objections, this new style was a hit among people on both sides of the color line.
Other origin stories contend that either in Louisville, KY, or St. Louis, MO, the first notes of ragtime were ever heard. According to Charles Hamilton Musgrove of Louisville Courier-Journal2 in 1899:
A waltz or a two-step, accompanied by the jerky, slurring note thrown in to harmonize in some measure with the tattoo of the foot on the floor, were the first negro ‘rag-times.’ In this way, rag-time music floated about for years before anyone really knew what it was. It possessed a most pleasing individuality, but lived a precarious, desultory life in the concert halls and resorts of the tenderloin. It was sung and whistled up and down the obscure thoroughfares, and the dive piano players, after the rust of the night, amused themselves by beating it out of the jaded piano…
Because those original ragtime artists didn’t read or write music, the style remained unknown outside local circles until the African-American composer Ben Harney of Louisville put the first ragtime on paper and published the song, according to Musgrove. That song didn’t quite take off, but Harney soon established himself as a pioneer of the increasingly popular music.
Yet, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch3 claimed that ragtime was first played in a divey St. Louis juke joint, where a mysterious “rich-voiced” woman known only as “Mammy” sang with a “strangely alluring and exciting rhythm…a veritable call of the wild, which mightily stirred the pulses of city-bred people.”
What set this music apart was an exaggerated syncopation which, according to the legend, caused someone to declare “that song sounds so ragged” and “ragtime” was born. Syncopated rhythm, where the stress is placed on an unexpected beat, has long been used in many kinds of music, including classical compositions by the likes of Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, but in subtle ways that were quickly resolved. In ragtime, however, it was the defining trait and this unusual rhythm made people want to get up and get down. And that’s where the fun – and the trouble – came in.
In 1909, that same St. Louis Dispatch article declared ragtime dead, calling it a “mere empty rhythm, uninformed by a single musical idea,” though in its heyday, “millions of people, probably of every race on earth, have felt the current of their blood swiftly accelerate and their feet temptingly quickened by its pulsating rhythms.”
Predictions of the demise of ragtime coincided with its peak – and fears of its corruptive influence. The overwhelming appeal of the music meant, for many critics, that it just couldn’t be good – let alone moral. In 1908, The Violin World magazine, in response to a reader’s curiosity about this new genre, compared ragtime to “the cheap popular novel,” both of which “may be vicious, but of recent years the tendency has been to make them innocuous, so that moral objections no longer hold.”
Ragtime was considered low because it joyously, shamelessly appealed to the body rather, according to critics, than the spirit or the mind. Often these complaints were lodged in blatantly racist language and imagery, including frequent references to the jungle and voodoo and primitive sensuality – much like how critics of the cakewalk compared it to an African orgy.
It wasn’t just the rhythm of the ragtime tunes that moralists found alarming – many of these songs do contain risqué lyrics cloaked in euphemisms; others have words that are downright nasty (a friend recently informed me that ragtime artist and jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton wrote “the dirtiest songs ever made.” 6) But flouting of conservative conventions was also part of the music’s appeal – this rebellious, naughty subversion of all that’s “proper” is what has always made popular musical cool.
In Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture 1900 to Present6, scholar Matthew Mooney cited a letter to the editor of The Musical Courier which wondered:
[Is] America falling prey to the collective soul of the Negro through the influence of what is popularly known as ‘rag time’ music? Some sociological writers of prominence believe so; all psychologists are of the opinion. One thing is infallibly certain: if there is any tendency toward such a natural disaster, it should be definitely pointed out and extreme measures taken to inhibit the influence and avert the increasing danger…
But ragtime music didn’t go away. It morphed into versions of jazz and the blues, and paved the way for other new forms of controversial popular music, specifically rock ‘n roll and rap.
“Mass produced popular music, of course, never disappeared from American life,” Mooney wrote, “and the genres that eventually replaced ragtime and jazz, such as rock ‘n’ roll and rap, would have been just as upsetting, if not more so, to the traditionalists who denounced [those] ubiquitous creations.”
A quick search in the ProQuest Historical Newspapers database uncovers abundant examples of how rock and rap indeed upset later generations of traditionalists who expressed many of the same charges of lowness and moral depravity of new genres of popular music.
Consider this 1956 article from the New Journal and Guide7 called “Rock ‘n Roll Beat Irks People the Nation Over,” featuring objections to this “new” craze from assorted experts, including Mitch Miller, “one of the canniest musicians in the industry” who complained that when “white musicians began to pick up the beat (a syncopated rhythm, in which the second and fourth beats are heavily stomped out) it took on a ridiculous frenzy.”
In the same article, a Denver DJ said, “Perhaps the most hopeful thing about Rock ‘N’ Roll is that it’s so bad. It cannot endure indefinitely,” and professor of psychiatry Dr. Jules Masserman called it “primitive quasi-music that can be traced back to prehistoric cultures.”
Two years later, The New York Times8 printed an in-depth report on this “fad” called “Why They Rock ‘n’ Roll – and Should They?” which wondered “is this generation of teenagers going to hell?” and included a quote from Frank Sinatra: “[Rock ‘n’ roll] is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons and by means of its almost imbecilic reiteration, and sly, lewd, in plan fact, dirty lyrics.”
And by the 1990s, traditionalists were directing their outrage at the latest form of pop music – rap. As early as 1991, The Globe and Mail9 was predicting “The Last Days of Rap” even as that same year NWA’s first album became the country’s bestseller. “This kind of consumption,” the article’s author David Samuels warned, “of racist stereotypes, of brutality toward women or even uplifting tributes to Dr. Martin Luther King is of a particularly corrupting kind.”
In 1993, George Yancy in the Philadelphia Tribune10 penned a defense of rap music when one critic said the music “is not intended to incite hatred: it is hatred, set to an insistent, brutal jungle beat. Their lyrics are not euphemisms: they are pure, open unadulterated filth…”
The following year, William Raspberry of the Washington Post11 compared rap music to cigarettes, which the FDA just started regulated as “a dangerous, mood-enhancing and addictive drug.”
“Rap seems to share many of the dangerous qualities of nicotine,” he argued, citing a psychological study on “the deleterious effects of rap music” which claimed that “violent rap increases the consumer’s tolerance of – and predisposition to – violence” while “nonviolent rap exacerbates the tendency toward materialism, reduces interest in academics and makes long-term success less likely.”
There is so much more to be mined in tracing the lineage from ragtime to rap, especially for researchers with a passion for music, American culture and race. It’s overwhelming! But to help you get started, the following is a mix of unique content that work together to provide exceptional and often surprising insights.
For further research
Music Online: American Music – Basically everything you need to hear the history of American music, including fantastic original ragtime recordings, and 1405 results on the topic of African American music.
American History in Video – Find documentaries related to the evolution of African American musical tradition, including The Mighty Mississippi, which explores the development of ragtime, blues and jazz along the Mississippi River region.
Historical Newspapers – Eye-opening perspectives from around country, over the decades, on the evolution of American popular music.
Music Online: Music Periodicals of the 19th Century - Explore the impact of music on the social, political, and economic history of the United States, through publications devoted to musical life in the 19th to early 20th centuries.
History Vault: Southern Life, Slavery, and the Civil War – Plantation records, personal diaries, and correspondence illuminate social and cultural life within a slave society.
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