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A Long Story

Ragtime’s time was

short and sweet

Ragtime music has its roots in the black communities of Missouri and Southern Illinois. It sprang up from a variety of forms, according to music historians, and spread along the rivers, the Mississippi and Missouri.

It was a rough, ill-defined musical genre that finally found a form and exploded in popularity with the publication of Scott Joplin's “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1895.

“That piece set the standard, and ragtime found


Scott Joplin House in St. Louis keeps the rhythm alive.

Site administrator found the passion early in life.

a structure with the ‘Maple Leaf Rag,’ ” said Jan Douglas, the administrator of the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site in St. Louis.

Ragtime thrived during the time Joplin lived in St. Louis. The phonograph had not yet come into full use, and the most popular musical medium of the day was the written composition and the player piano. Because Joplin composed most of his works for piano, it was aptly suited for mass distribution.

Ragtime eventually fell from favor by 1920, three years after Joplin's death. What killed it?

“There were a lot of factors,” Douglas said, citing the advent of the phonograph record and the dissemination of other musical forms. Another factor was that ragtime was viewed as “popular,” and it died much the same as, say, disco died in the 1970s.

Like disco, it also was not considered a very serious musical form, an assessment Douglas takes issue with. “There are at least two styles of performance with ragtime,” he said. “There is a saloon style where it is played as an entertainment, with a lot of barroom jokes and that sort of thing. And there is a more formalized performance, which tries to elevate it into a more serious form. That's what Joplin was all about and what I find most interesting about it.”

Douglas cites the complexity of Joplin's pieces and their formalized structure, and he points out that Joplin also wrote other forms of music, including an opera. Joplin was a serious musician who pushed to improve his art, Douglas said. But Joplin’s work more often than not was not regarded as serious art, and the composer, the king of ragtime, died with the frustration of that rejection.


Collected written works  |  Gary Marx


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