15 - Contrasts Between Boogie Woogie and Ragtime

by John Tennison — History of Boogie Woogie

“They All Played Ragtime,“8 (But Only Some of Them Played Boogie Woogie)44

Although the words, “Boogie Woogie” and “Ragtime” have occasionally been used synonymously, there is no question that the modern meanings of these terms refer to different musical attributes.  Nonetheless, some of the same sensibilities, especially in the right-hand parts, informed both Boogie Woogie and Ragtime.

Although his exact place of his birth is debated, evidence indicates that Scott Joplin, the Father of Ragtime, was born somewhere between Texarkana and Marshall Texas, possibly near Linden, where his family was known to be living not long after Scott’s birth.  Scott Joplin’s father moved the Joplin family to Texarkana so that Joplin’s father could take a job with the Texas & Pacific Railroad.  Scott Joplin took his first piano lessons in Texarkana.  Joplin was known to have had a classically-trained German piano teacher, Julius Weiss, who was born in Saxony, one of the 16 states of Germany, circa 1841.  Weiss might very well have brought a Polka “oompah” rhythmic sensibility from the old country to Texarkana, Texas, where Joplin was his pupil.

Scott Joplin

The syncopated right-hand melodic parts of Ragtime are very similar to the sorts of right-hand parts and motifs heard in Boogie Woogie.  Indeed, Joplin’s real breakthrough was in bringing these syncopated and percussive right-hand motifs to the piano.  According to “The History of the Blues” (1995 by Francis Davis, Hyperion, New York), “Ragtime borrowed its harmonic schemes and its march like tempos from Europe, but the syncopations that marked it as new were African-American in origin, possibly derived from the music of rural fiddle and banjo players.”7 However, Joplin’s left hand Ragtime bass lines did not break new ground.  They were harmonically appropriate to support the right-hand parts, yet were not musically interesting or innovative in and of themselves.  Consequently, as a result of its simplistic left-hand 2/4 “oompah” bass line, the Ragtime style has never resonated with me as strongly as Boogie Woogie.  As compared to Boogie Woogie, Ragtime (mainly because of its left-hand parts) always felt too rigid, unvarying, and march like.

Indeed, in “The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz” (1987, Smithsonian Institution Press)38, Martin Williams states (page 13), “Ragtime was basically a piano keyboard music and, one might say, an Afro-American version of the polka, or its analog, the Sousa-style march.”  In this same publication Martin Williams also states (page 14) that “ragtime introduced, in the accents of its right-hand melodies, delightful syncopations onto the heavy 2/4 oompah rhythm of its cakewalk-derived bass line….“38 Yet, precisely because of the lack of syncopation in the left-hand bass lines, the poly-rhythmic potential of Ragtime was severely limited as compared to the simultaneous right and left-hand syncopations of Boogie Woogie, and other forms of Jazz that developed later.

The regular, and incessant, 2/4 “oompah” polka-like left-hand bass lines of Ragtime give it a distinctively different march like feel with less potential for the poly-rhythmic complexities when combined with right-hand parts.  In contrast, the shuffled, walking, swinging, or “rolling” bass line of Boogie Woogie can yield substantial polyrhythmic complexity when combined with intricate right-handed parts of Boogie Woogie.  Although some Ragtime had intricate right-hand parts, because of the unvarying, non-syncopated left-hand bass lines, Ragtime never realized the polyrhythmic heights achieved by Boogie Woogie.  Indeed, in Music in a New Found Land:  Themes and Developments in the History of American Music14, Wilfrid Mellers writes (page 278):

  “When Cow Cow Davenport plays Atlanta Rag (45) we feel that the discipline of rag-forms restricts the invention which he could exhibit as a boogie-woogie player.”

In the same book14, Wilfrid Mellers also writes (pages 277-278):

  “Yet while rag is a composed music, an emulation of white techniques that seems to belie the instinctual character of American Negro music, it is also in an odd way a parody music – like the Cake-walk from which it had descended.  And we cannot be sure whether it parodies the white man’s image of the Negro or the Negro himself;  We can only feel that there is a certain pathos in the Negro’s obsession with “white” rondo form as an attempt to tame, even to “civilize”, the rhythmic hysteria of barrelhouse stomp, especially as exemplified in the train pieces.  The essence of the rag is its unremittent rhythmic pattern which, though habitually syncopated, is never violent.  The melancholy, the frenzy, the ecstasy of the blues are all banished.  Instead of lament or orgy, we have a dead-pan manner that shuts out personal sensation.  The music is hard, bright, obstinately eupeptic and incorrigibly cheerful; in its machine-made way it is even elegant, like the Negro dandy wearing his straw boater at a raffish angle.  In so far as the inane grin and the prancing vivacity attempt to shut out the painful actuality of the Negro’s experience, there is an affinity between piano rag and the positively ebulliently entertainment music we referred to in the previous chapter:  rag is the Negro’s attempt at the buoyant optimism of the Sousa march and the brilliant elegance of the Gottschalk dance, and the mass feeling is depersonalized because personal feeling may be too much to bear.  In this sense, rags are an alternative to the blues; and their use of the discipline of military music becomes equated with the disciplined non-humanity of a machine.  This is literally true:  for many rags were transferred to the pianola roll and, even if not played by a machine, should be played like a machine, with meticulous precision.  Perhaps it is better to be a merry machine, the music says, than to be human but blue:  so the queer, sad poetry of the best rags comes from the flimsiness of the gay mask they wear.  Although this poetry may be inherent in the situation rather than in the music itself, the later rags of the master of the convention, Scott Joplin, unobtrusively readmit those elements of tension which the rag had tried to deny.  Euphonic Sounds (43), for instance, written in 1909, has some oddly elliptical modulations in its second strain, wandering from tonic B flat to B minor, to E flat, and then from G minor to D flat major, changing to the relative B flat minor, and so back to tonic major; in the first strain it also indulges in syncopations in which the beat is merely implied.  In the later Magnetic Rag (44) such elements of relative complexity are structural as well as incidental, for Joplin modifies the third and fourth strains so that they acquire some of the features of a sonata development.  Joplin thus confesses to an element of duality, even of dubiety, in his attempt to relinquish the blues’ tension.  Related to this, perhaps, is the fact that his rags are often quite difficult to play; one cannot merely take them in one’s stride – unless one’s stride happens to be exceptionally large and agile.”

© 2004-2008 John Tennison — All Rights Reserved

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