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A Sound That Rippled in Time

Ragtime, a style of music that fell out in favor of jazz in the early 1900s, enjoyed a short, momentous run between the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Ragtime’s most prominent figure, Scott Joplin, was an African-American railroad laborer who traveled the United States and as an itinerant musician, even performing at Chicago’s World Fair. There he contributed to what would soon become a national craze. 

Ernest Hogan, the first African-American entertainer to star in and produce in a Broadway show, helped to popularize Ragtime. His songs were among the first published in the genre, and he used the term "rag" in his sheet music. However successful his songs and performances were, some explicitly employed racist and stereotypical images of African-Americans. He often performed in blackface before a predominantly (and subversively impressed) white audience, and the song “All Coons Look Alike to Me” (1895) is among his most popular compositions. Still, he gained praise and recognition from a crowd that clearly denounced his race. 

The compositions of these ragtime pioneers (including Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag) influenced future ragtime and early jazz musicians like Jelly Roll Morton and Eubie Blake, the composer of the Charleston Rag (1917). Ragtime, one of the earliest forms of American music, performed originally by African-Americans, impacted jazz, swing, country, and other genres. The 1938 musical film Alexander’s Ragtime Band tells the story of a well-to-do son who chooses to pursue an exciting career in ragtime as opposed to the more serious music that typified persons of his station; the film symbolized of the spirit of ragtime music. 

Literature was also reflective of the changing social landscapes and underwent changes of its own. The Jazz Age saw writers like Claude McKay, whose collection of poems Harlem Shadows (1922) resonated with millions of African-Americans similarly stereotyped by their white counterparts, and Jean Toomer, whose 1923 work Cane combined, short stories, prose, and poetry to detail the issues facing African-American education. (Stylistically his work was on par with Ernest Hemingway and T. S. Eliot, writers who also published during that time.) Ragtime, an important precursor to jazz, helped artists and writers push the boundaries of music and literature.

By Logan Williams

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