About Ragtime


In 1974, Hollywood released a picture entitled The Sting. The film starred Robert Redford and won numerous awards–including Best Picture of the Year and Best Musical Score. Almost overnight, the American public was captivated with what some perceived as a new music–Ragtime!

Actually, the rebirth of Ragtime began several years earlier–in the mid-sixties when the nation, after a period of fifty years, began to take a new interest in this music form. And the music of Scott Joplin, the King of Ragtime, is now far more popular than was the case during the Ragtime Era (1897-1917).


No one today can say with any accuracy as to when, where, or under what circumstances Ragtime began, nor how the name originated.

In regard to the origin of the music there are many theories. One view contends that Ragtime syncopation first appeared in the classical works of the American composer, Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869). Others maintain that the music emerged from the minstrel show circuit, and thus was originally a vocal form. Another opinion is that Ragtime developed on the heels of the Cakewalk, and was primarily dance music.

The term “Ragtime” is equally obscure. It is said that the syncopated or “ragged” melody line gave rise to the term. Another view is that the music was first played by itinerant bands dressed in ragged clothing and the music was thus identified as “rag music” and subsequently as “ragtime.” Another opinion is that Ragtime was actually a dance form, known first as “jig music” and later as “ragtime.”

But, Ragtime as we know it today, first blossomed in the late 1890s, the creation of itinerant pianists–most of whom were black–and who lived and traveled throughout the Mississippi Valley.


Simply stated, Ragtime is a type of music in which a syncopated melody line is played against a straight or routine accompaniment. Its basic design consists of 16-measure themes, generally three or four in number, which are repeated.


Although the name of Scott Joplin–the King of Ragtime Composers–is most often associated with the music today, he was not the first to compose or publish ragtime compositions. William Krell, a white bandmaster whose Mississippi Rag was published in 1897, holds’ that distinction. Nor was Joplin the first black composer to publish a rag–that honor was earned by Tom Turpin, whose Harlem Rag followed Krell’s composition by a few months.

However, in December 1898, Joplin persuaded the Carl Hoffman Music Company in Kansas City to publish his Original Rags the following March (1899). Although the firm rejected his Maple Leaf Rag at that time, it was published later the same year by the firm of Joseph Stark in Sedalia (Mo.) and proved to be the only hit Joplin had during his lifetime.


An aspect of Ragtime that surprises many is its vastness. Far from being a few piano selections by a single composer that provided background music for a movie soundtrack, Ragtime was America’s first original published music. For a twenty-year period (1897-1917) it swept the nation and innundated western Europe. The demand for ragtime compositions created and established Tin Pan Alley. Most of the large music firms of today owe their origins to the Ragtime Era.

Because music publishing was in its infancy at the time, many rags were issued by printing firms in small towns and cities throughout the nation–often in lots as small as fifty to one hundred copies. It was once estimated that as may as three thousand rags and ragtime songs were published during the two decades; but as more obscure compositions have come to light in recent years, this figure has been revised upwards.


It is not surprising that because of its association with bordellos and sporting houses, Ragtime was condemned by the Establishment. But its treatment was something of a paradox. In 1901, the American Federation of Musicians commanded its members to cease playing Ragtime, stating: “The musicians know what is good, and if the people don’t, we will have to teach them.” But, eminent musicians such as John Philip Sousa not only played Ragtime and introduced it and the Cakewalk to Europe, he actually advertised for such compositions. And many of America’s popular composers such as Gershwin, Romberg, Kern, Berlin and Porter wrote ragtime compositions during their early years. Classical composers such as Charles Ives, Dvorak, Hindemith and Debussy utilized ragtime themes and rhythms in their works.

Today, it would seem that Ragtime may yet assume its proper place in the musical firmament. In 1980, music critic, Edward A. Berlin, stated: “The resurrection of Ragtime in the 1970’s is a phenomenon unprecedented in America’s musical history; never before has a long-buried type been so widely and eagerly embraced by a mass public.”

Scott Joplin Commemorative Postage Stamp
Issued by the U.S. Post Office on June 9, 1983

Scott Joplin Postage StampFor a number of years, particularly following the rebirth of ragtime in the 1970’s, various individuals and groups throughout America petitioned the U.S.Postal Service to issue a commemorative stamp honoring Scott Joplin, the King of Ragtime Composers. In October 1980, The Northern Virginia Ragtime Society , which was then one of only two organizations in the United States dedicated to the promotion and preservation of classic ragtime and related music, requested Congressman Romano L. Mazzoli [D] of Louisville, KY to assist the effort to revive an interest in issuing the Joplin Stamp.On November 20th, Congressman Mazzoli wrote to the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee of the U.S. Postal Service, expressing his interest and support of the proposal. In his initial letter to the Postal Service, Congressman Mazzoli stated: “Joplin died at the early age of 49. This multi-talented Black American never received the true recognition he deserved during the ragtime era. It is fitting to give posthumous recognition to him for his outstanding contributions to American art and culture.”
The following day, he also dispatched a letter to the other Members of Congress asking them to express a similar interest to the Postal Service. The response was so overwhelming and impressive that in July 1981, the Postal Service announced that such a stamp honoring Scott Joplin would be issued as part of the Black Heritage Series in 1983.On July 16, 1982, the Postal Service unveiled the design of the Joplin stamp at a ceremony aboard the Goldenrod Showboat at Riverboat Landing in St. Louis, MO. The Goldenrod, a Registered National Historic Landmark, is the last authentic showboat surviving on the Mississippi. The unveiling took place under the supervision of Nancy George, Assistant Postmaster General, with the assistance of ragtime historian Trebor Tichenor, during an 11 AM ceremony. Although officially issued as a 20c stamp, the Joplin stamp made its debut without denomination (inscribed simply “00c”) due to the advance unveiling.

The stamp was designed by Jerry Pinkney, Croton-on-Hudson, NY. The vertically-oriented, standard sized commemorative features a head and shoulders portrait of Scott Joplin based on a photograph found on the title page of The Collected Works of Scott Joplin, edited by Vera Brodsky Lawrence. Superimposed in the lower right of the stamp is a drawing of Joplin playing an upright piano.

In her address at the ceremony, Nancy George noted of Joplin that “Some regard his ragtime as a crystallization of all the ingredients that make up our nation in terms of style and scope; his works have been called the precise American equivalent of minuets by Mozart, mazurkas by Chopin and waltzes by Brahams.”

In the 1970’s, 60 years after his death, ragtime finally began to receive the academic recognition and respect it had long deserved. Contributing to the revival was the scoring of the popular award-winning motion picture, “The Sting”, with Joplin’s music in 1973. The renewed interest continued to build, and in 1976 the Pulitzer Prize Committee awarded exceptional posthumous recognition to Scott Joplin for his musical genius and talent. Indeed, ragtime has become known as a truly American art form. The issuance of the Joplin commemorative stamp on June 9, 1983 proved a suitable sequal.

A 16 x 24 enlargement of the Joplin Stamp was presented by Fairfax (VA) Postmaster, Mr. Dempsey White, to The Northern Virginia Ragtime Society at a performance on Sunday, June 19, 1983, in recognition of the NVRS’ key roll in organizing the support for the Joplin stamp.