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Ragtime (alternatively spelled rag-time) is an original musical genre which enjoyed its peak popularity between 1897 and 1918. Its main characteristic trait is its syncopated, or "ragged," rhythm. It began as dance music in the red-light districts of African American communities in St. Louis and New Orleans years before being published as popular sheet music for piano. Ernest Hogan was an innovator and key pioneer who helped develop the musical genre. Hogan is also credited for coining the term Ragtime. Ragtime was also a modification of the march made popular by John Philip Sousa, with additional polyrhythms coming from African music. The ragtime composer Scott Joplin became famous through the publication in 1899 of the "Maple Leaf Rag" and a string of ragtime hits that followed, although he was later forgotten by all but a small, dedicated community of ragtime aficionados until the major ragtime revival in the early 1970s. For at least 12 years after its publication, the "Maple Leaf Rag" heavily influenced subsequent ragtime composers with its melody lines, harmonic progressions or metric patterns.
Ragtime fell out of favor as jazz claimed the public's imagination after 1917, but there have been numerous revivals since the music has been re-discovered. First in the early 1940s many jazz bands began to include ragtime in their repertoire and put out ragtime recordings on 78 rpm records. A more significant revival occurred in the 1950s as a wider variety of ragtime styles of the past were made available on records, and new rags were composed, published, and recorded. In 1971 Joshua Rifkin brought out a compilation of Scott Joplin's work which was nominated for a Grammy Award. In 1973 The New England Ragtime Ensemble (then a student group called The New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble), recorded "The Red Back Book", a compilation of some of Scott Joplin's rags in period orchestrations edited by conservatory president Gunther Schuller. The album won a Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance of the year and was named Billboard's Top Classical Album of 1974. Subsequently the motion picture The Sting brought ragtime to a wide audience with its soundtrack of Joplin tunes. The film's rendering of Joplin's 1902 rag "The Entertainer" was a Top 5 hit in 1974.
Just before the twentieth century began, a craze for "ragged music" swept the United States. After enjoying great popularity for a few decades, ragtime faded, as all crazes do. But it left a permanent mark on American music. Not only was ragtime itself one of the first widely popular styles of music that actually developed in the U.S., but it also played a major part in the development of a style that has been called "America's music": jazz.
There are four main types of ragtime music. The only type still commonly heard today is the "classic" instrumental rag that was so popular in ragtime's heyday. This is usually a march-tempo piece for piano or band, with a steady "boom-chick" bass and a very syncopated, or "ragged", melody. Ragtime songs, many of which were not particularly ragged, and ragtime or syncopated waltzes, in 3/4 meter, were also popular in ragtime's golden age.
The fourth type of ragtime began well before the ragtime era and is still practiced today by jazz musicians. This is the practice of ragging an existing piece of music. To "rag" a piece of music is to take a well-known tune and change the rhythm of it to make it syncopated, or "jazzy"-sounding.
Syncopation was always a prominent feature of African-American music. While European (and European-American) music explored counterpoint and complex harmonies, the music of west Africa expressed most of its complexity in its rhythms. People taken from Africa to the Americas as slaves brought this rhythmic complexity with them to their new countries. There it could be heard in many places: the slaves' practice of "patting juba" or "clapping juba", Afro-Caribbean dance rhythms, banjo dances, and the practice of giving familiar songs a new "ragged" rhythm. The traditions of banjo dances and of "ragging" were both major influences in classic ragtime.
Dance: At the end of the 19th century, many Americans were becoming bored with the old music and dances, which were essentially those of their grandparents. The Twentieth Century was seen as a time to make great changes, so most people were ready for innovations, probably with the expectation that the changes would come from society's cultural leaders. But instead, many Americans began to find it "modern" to dance their Two-Step to the new Ragtime music from the rural South and Midwest. Some high society ballrooms embraced the African American Cake Walk as "the popular fad of popular society." In the early 1900s, Ragtime music gained a wider acceptance and was soon accompanying the new Four-Step (soon to be re-named the One-Step) and a spontaneous menagerie of "animal dances" such as the Grizzly Bear, Turkey Trot, Bunny Hug and Camel Walk, especially among the lower classes. By 1910, the popular phrase was, "Everybody's Doin' It Now," but in fact most of middle and upper class society was only talking about it. Many could not yet accept the new ragtime dances because of lower-class associations.
In 1911 the newlyweds Irene and Vernon Castle found themselves in the right place at the right time, exhibiting their versions of the new American dances in a Parisian dinner club. They became immensely popular in Paris, and their fame spread through Europe. When the Castles returned to Irene's New York home in 1912, their dancing set a new prototype for Americans to follow. The Castles were a young, elegant, attractive, wholesome, married couple who had become the rage of Parisian high society. In a word, they had class. If they could dance the new ragtime dances with propriety, then all levels of society could, and did. The Castles were joined by other exemplars, such as Joan Sawyer, Maurice Mouvet and Florence Walton, all becoming catalysts in an explosive new dance mania. And after two centuries of Americans dancing in the European manner, Europe was now importing the latest music and dances from America.