The Rise and Fall of Popular Music
[A polemical history]
The Ragtime Era and the Coon Shouters
The history of modern popular music may be seen as the repeated rescuing of a moribund scene by the music of African-Americans. Stephen Foster's songs were a brilliant oasis in a desert in the mid-nineteenth century. Not only were his minstrel songs sympathetic, but they had some of the feeling of the Negro church in them. He died after emancipation but before the end of the Civil War, and the black influence in mainstream songwriting temporarily disappeared with him.
When British art critic Giles Auty visited the Soviet Union in 1988, a Russian painter said to him, 'We are told that we have this thing called freedom now, but nobody knows what it is.' Auty pointed out that the rapid re-establishment of a genuine Russian identity in art would have a welcome effect on stale western criticism and the sale-room mentality, but also that it would take many years of perestroika before the artists found out what they wanted to do. The newly freed American slaves were in the same position after 1865, which is partly why popular music in the second half of the nineteenth century was dominated by good-time jingles and maudlin songs like 'Cradle's Empty, Baby's Gone'.
In the almost thirty years between 1885 and the First World War the modern American popular song began to emerge. The rhythms of minstrelsy continued to percolate into the mainstream; the cakewalk demanded something that the waltzes, polkas and marches of European music simply could not supply. The trauma of the Civil War was slowly left behind as the South was ignored and the North became richer and more powerful; a new American identity generated songs which could not have been written anywhere else. Many of the ex-slaves and their families drifted across the country, establishing themselves in their own neighbourhoods in most northern towns of any size. Coon songs came out of minstrelsy, and were already established in vaudeville, when all this culminated in ragtime.
Ragtime used a march-type (oompah) bass line, but set syncopated melodies against it. It swept the world between 1897 and 1900. In retrospect, ragtime is widely regarded as a solo piano music, but that was only its most highly developed and most enduring manifestation. Ragtime songs, music for small groups and brass bands and ragtime waltzes were all important, as was banjo music: ragtime may have begun with attempts to imitate the banjo on the keyboard.
The concert pianist and composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk was born in New Orleans. He studied music privately in Europe, and was praised by Berlioz and Liszt; he could be described as America's Liszt, in the way that the ladies swooned at his recitals. Like Edwin Christy, he was influenced by the dancing at Congo Square. Instead of playing florid keyboard imitations of Wagnerian operas, he used Creole and Afro-Hispanic idioms. His piano pieces, such as 'Bamboula', 'The Banjo' and 'La Bananier', and his more ambitious works might have made him America's Glinka (the great Russian nationalist) had he not died (probably of peritonitis) while on tour in Rio de Janeiro.
Gottschalk had left San Francisco suddenly on a night boat in 1865. He had taken two young ladies for a late-night carriage ride, one of whom happened to be from a prominent family. The incident was exaggerated by an enemy, who was also angry because Gottschalk preferred the Chickering piano (competition between Steinway and Chickering was intense). Gottschalk was a sensualist, and also capable of sentimentality; his biggest hit, 'The Last Hope', was written in 1850 for a Cuban fan who claimed she would expire if he did not do something about her passion; along with 'The Dying Poet', it was later a staple of pianists accompanying death scenes in the silent cinema. ('The Last Hope' also became a Protestant hymn called 'Mercy'.)
As well as Gottschalk's 'The Banjo', there was a piano piece called 'Imitation of the Banjo' (1854), by one W. K. Batchelder, which was dedicated to Christy's banjoist Thomas Briggs. If the 'banjar' is thought to have come directly from Africa, African music also features the additive rhythms that became a principal feature of ragtime. While European music has often been polyrhythmic as well as polyphonic (as for example in Italian and English madrigals), it divides its rhythms by means of bar lines, whereas the African was unrestricted by sheet music, and loved to add rhythms in a different way. Western musicologists discovered that a chorus of several percussion instruments in an African piece, if notated in the style of western orchestral music, would have bar lines that do not coincide vertically, as they would in a European manuscript. In their dancing, in minstrelsy and then in ragtime, black Americans were insisting on setting European-style music free by refusing to be restricted to a ground beat. The dancing in Congo Square was described as in 'ragged' time in 1886; in 1888 a banjo player in Nebraska wrote to a music magazine requesting music in 'broken time' like the 'earplayers' played, but none had been printed yet.
The Chicago World's Fair of 1893, also called the World's Columbian Exposition, was a watershed in national American culture. Chicago then had more railways going in and out of it than any other city in the country, and the fair attracted tourists from all over the world; every American performer wanted to play there. One of the stars of the show was John Hutchinson, of the Hutchinson Family, thirteen brothers and sisters who had known national fame since beginning as a quartet in the 1840s. Their harmony was so close and accurate that the individual voices could not be heard. They sang in England in 1846, and in the White House for Lincoln in 1862. They hated slavery, and preferred smaller venues where they might find sympathetic audiences for abolitionist songs. During the Civil War they sang Root's 'Battle Cry of Freedom' and Kittredge's 'Tenting on the Old Camp Ground'; later they sang the spirituals of Fisk's Jubilee Singers, taking them to white audiences who might not otherwise have heard them. By 1893 the Hutchinsons' stardom was over, having spawned uncounted imitators, but John was one of the grand old men of American popular music.
Florenz Ziegfeld, a prominent local music teacher, was music director at the 1893 Fair, and sent his son to Europe to hire exciting talent. Florenz Ziegfeld Jr did not do that very well, but made some money by exhibiting the World's Strongest Man in Chicago (with flesh-coloured tights) and never looked back, soon becoming the greatest impresario on New York's Broadway. Meanwhile, the Fair attracted itinerant pianists, who were already playing ragtime.
Ragtime seemed to emerge in the Midwest, chiefly in Chicago, St Louis and Louisville, Kentucky; but, like jazz later, it probably grew up in many places at once, and certainly spread rapidly. The first compositions that were labelled as ragtime were published in 1896: songs called 'My Coal Black Lady', by W. H. Krell, and 'All Coons Look Alike to Me', by Ernest Hogan; the latter included optional 'Negro "Rag" Accompaniment'. In 1897 the first tunes calling themselves rags, Krell's 'Mississippi Rag' and Tom Turpin's 'Harlem Rag', appeared; the first recordings were made, on the banjo by Vess L. Ossman, who became an international celebrity, and by the Metropolitan Band; and pianist-composer Ben Harney published his Rag-time Instructor.
Between two and three thousand instrumental rags and a similar number of ragtime songs were published, as well as about one hundred ragtime waltzes. Most of the songs are forgotten now, but the instrumental rags remain the essence of ragtime today, and the best-known composer of these was Scott Joplin.
Born in Texarkana, Arkansas, as a young man Joplin played cornet in the Queen City Negro Band of Sedalia, Missouri, in the 1890s; he probably played at the Chicago World's Fair. He sold his first compositions ('Please Say You Will' and 'Picture of Her Face') in 1895 and his first rags in 1899. 'Original Rags' was sold outright to a publisher in Kansas City, but 'Maple Leaf Rag' was published in Sedalia by John Stark, with whom Joplin made a royalty agreement. It was the highest ragtime hit of all: on the strength of it Stark moved his business to St Louis and then to New York. By 1915 Stark had published an orchestral folio, Standard High-class Rags, which became known as the 'Red Back Book' because of its binding.
Joplin wrote about fifty piano rags of his own, as well as collaborations (such as 'Sunflower Slow Drag', with Scott Hayden). He wrote the best ragtime waltzes, for example, 'Bethena' and 'Pleasant Moments'. Joplin and Stark tried to establish the classic rag in the face of a national obsession with ragtime as 'rinky-tink' party music; it became the fashion in Joplin's lifetime to play rags at breakneck speed, partly because of coin-operated player pianos in penny arcades, which were speeded up to make money faster, like some jukeboxes in more modern times. This was despite the fact that some of Joplin's pieces were printed with the admonition 'Ragtime should never be played fast'.
Joplin knew minstrelsy and vaudeville, having worked in both; he was exposed to opera by the conductor of the St Louis Choral Symphony Society, who played some of Wagner's Tannhaüser for him; he may have heard the great piano virtuoso Ignacy Paderewski and he probably met Harry Lawrence Freeman, the first black American to compose operas. In Joplin's time educational opportunities for blacks were few, and there were not many who had the chance to study music formally. The diminished-seventh chords which Joplin often used are found in abundance in barber-shop quartet singing, and there is a considerable body of evidence to suggest that that style was also developed by black Americans: the well-known vaudevillian Billy McClain recalled that in the 1880s 'about every four dark faces you met was a quartet'.
Joplin aimed to create a body of serious American music in the ragtime style, but even if the form could have borne the weight of Joplin's ambition for it, he was doomed to disappointment. He worked on ballets and operas, but had little success; he died in a mental hospital in 1917. His opera Treemonisha was produced in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1973, and a recording was made; it received a special Pulitzer Prize in 1976. That the Pulitzer committee gave this bouncy pastiche a prize it would not give to Duke Ellington while he was alive is unfortunate, but Joplin's picture on a US postage stamp in 1983 was appropriate: his rags will live for ever.
Other rag composers whose work is often considered equal and sometimes superior to Joplin's include Tom Turpin, James Scott, Eubie Blake and Luckey Roberts, all of whom were black, and white composers Joseph Lamb (a close friend of Joplin, for whom he played part of Treemonisha in 1908), George Botsford, Charles L. Johnson and Percy Wenrich. Artie Matthews wrote fine rags, worked for Stark as an arranger and was later one of the first to publish songs with the word 'blues' in the title; his 'Weary Blues' became a jazz classic. Women also wrote fine rags, the most prolific being May Aufderheide and Irene Giblin, both white. Prominent banjo players apart from Ossman included Fred Van Eps, father of jazz guitarist George Van Eps.
When Douglas Gilbert published Lost Chord, a history of American popular music, in 1942, he thought that Ben Harney was the greatest of ragtime artists, and possibly the inventor of the genre. In fact, it was Harney who brought ragtime to New York, where he was billed at Tony Pastor's theatre as the 'Inventor of Ragtime', in the same year he published his instruction book. He wrote the hit songs 'You've Been a Good Old Wagon But You've Done Broke Down' and 'Mr Johnson, Turn Me Loose' (1895-6). The former especially has survived, possibly in variants: the Bessie Smith song of that title (recorded in 1925) is credited to John Henry, a pseudonym of Perry Bradford, and its ownership has changed hands since then. (At the turn of the century 'Mr Johnson' was black argot for a policeman.) It is not clear from most books on the subject whether or not Harney was black; Eubie Blake stated most definitely that he was. In any case, we cannot tell from the sheet music how he played his own songs: it was edited by somebody else, and the notation is old-fashioned.
It was not so much the rhythmic pattern of ragtime in each bar which distinguished it from other musics, but the fact that it was tied across to the next bar, and that the next note of the melody (in the treble clef) was not supposed to be struck on the first beat of the second bar: this is what made the melody syncopated. By this definition, as far as popular songs were concerned, a great many ragtime songs (including Harney's) were not ragtime at all, but, as with 'jazz' and 'rock' in the future, the term 'ragtime' was widely appropriated. Classical instrumental and operatic pieces were 'ragged' (played in a syncopated way); it seemed that almost any uptempo song could be called ragtime: so Irving Berlin became the most famous ragtime composer of all, thanks to 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' (1911), though Berlin is said to have confessed that he did not know what ragtime was.
Mama Lou (mentioned in the last chapter) was playing and singing 'There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight' and 'Who Stole the Lock on the Henhouse Door', as well as 'Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay', in St Louis. (The first of these, with cleaned-up lyrics, became a marching song in the Spanish-American War.) Two enormously popular songs forever described as ragtime, despite their lack of technical qualifications, are 'Hello! Ma Baby' (1899), by Joseph E. Howard, and 'Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home' (1902), by Hughie Cannon. These and many others, however, were also coon songs, the black-face vaudeville genre which was already established when ragtime came along. It was the combination of ragtime and coon songs (probably the same thing to the public of the 1890s) that led to the mainstream pop songs of the next century.
One of the first coon hits was 'New Coon in Town' (1883) by J. S. Putnam. The singers were called coon shouters, and included May Irwin, who was famous for the 'Bully Song' and Harney's 'Mr Johnson, Turn Me Loose'. The biggest coon hit was Ernest Hogan's 'All Coons Look Alike to Me' (1896), about a woman rejecting her lover for another man with more money. While a great many writers of coon songs and other hits of the era were Irish, Hogan was black. His real name was Reuben Crowder, and he began his show business career as a child in Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1876. (The play was first staged in 1852, before the book was published, but it was well over twenty years before a producer had enough nerve to use 'real Negroes'.)
Not only did 'coon' soon become an obnoxious epithet, but Hogan's title became an obnoxious catchphrase; Hogan is said to have regretted his greatest success. In the original version of the 'Bully Song' Mama Lou herself sang 'I'm a Tennessee nigger and I don't allow / No red-eyed river roustabout with me to raise a row'.
Edward Berlin, a noted authority on ragtime, wrote of the 1890s and early 1900s that many African-Americans, especially those who were well educated, took offense at the word 'coon', but many, probably most, did not. In his research he saw an item in an African-American newspaper listing the program of a concert band performing in a black church, including the song 'Coon, Coon, Coon'. In another item, a prominent black columnist, while complaining about the 'N' word as used in songs, specifically said that the term 'coon' was acceptable. (A few years later, he had changed his mind.) Berlin went on to point out that any group easily identified by skin color, dress, or accent, would be mocked on stage: Jews, Germans, Italians, Irish, Chinese, etc, and almost everyone laughed, 'and the offended groups often took part in offending others. Thus, there were black performers who specialized in impersonating Jews, Chinese, etc.' Ethnic stereotypes of all kinds were taken for granted by a polyglot nation that still attracted millions of immigrants each year, and the institutionalization of racism was less complete in the North than in the South. Later in the twentieth century ethnic humour would be one of the casualties of racism.
Other performers who were described as ragtime singers or coon shouters were Dolly Connolly, Billy Murray, Bert Williams, Sophie Tucker and Al Jolson, all very different. Connolly was married to rag composer Percy Wenrich; her hit records in 1911-12 included 'Waiting for the Robert E. Lee' (by Lewis F. Muir). The southern or 'Dixie-land' flavour of such songs helped them into the ragtime category. Billy Murray was one of the best-known stars in the history of recording; his 'The Grand Old Rag' (1906, by George M. Cohan, and soon retitled 'You're a Grand Old Flag') was said to be the biggest hit in Victor's first decade.
Bert Williams was born in the West Indies and became the first and most successful black performer in vaudeville and then on Broadway, with his partner George Walker; in 1903 they were the stars of the first full-length musical show to be written and performed by blacks on Broadway, In Dahomey. Williams had a streak of melancholy; W. C. Fields described him as 'the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew'. In his personal life he had middle-class tastes and aspirations, but he had to wear blackface during his entire career as a singer, dancer and comedian. Later, when he became a star of the Ziegfeld Follies, he had to be defended against the racism of fellow performers by the producer. On one occasion, when Williams and his wife went to visit the Ziegfelds at home, a doorman refused to admit them until Ziegfeld threatened to move out of the building. Williams made two short silent films, which had to be withdrawn; racist reaction was violent when they were shown, though he was an accepted star on the stage. His most famous number was 'Nobody', a sort of half-sung, half-spoken bit of pathos which he recorded twice (reworked by Ry Cooder on his Jazz album in 1978). He made dozens of recordings from 1902, and was immortalized by Duke Ellington in 'A Portrait of Bert Williams' in 1940.
Sophie Tucker was billed as a coon shouter early in her long career, but made no blackface appearances after 1911, by which time she was a top performer. She sang 'I'm the Last of the Red Hot Mamas' in a film in 1929, and that became her billing. Always plump and not very pretty, she astonished audiences with her costumes and her powerful stage presence, and a repertory much of which could not be broadcast. Born in 1884 somewhere between Russia and Poland while her family escaped from tsarist pogroms, she later played the wife of the American ambassador to the Soviet Union in a Broadway musical. At her first Royal Command Performance in London in 1934 she greeted King George V with 'Hiya, King!' She was still performing three years before she died in 1966. Her best-known songs were 'Some of These Days', written by Shelton Brooks, who also wrote 'Darktown Strutters' Ball', about Chicago's State Street when the black culture scene was located near the Loop, and 'My Yiddishe Mama', by Jack Yellen and Lew Pollack, who also wrote 'Cheatin' on Me', later a hit for Jimmie Lunceford. (Yellen co-wrote 'Ain't She Sweet?' and 'Happy Days Are Here Again'.) Tucker recorded 'My Yiddishe Mama' in 1928, in English on one side of the record and Yiddish on the other, and sold a million copies.
Al Jolson billed himself as 'The World's Greatest Entertainer', not without justification: he was the biggest star vaudeville ever had. Born Asa Yoelson in Russia in 1886, he was an inspiration to many later artists, such as Bing Crosby, not for his style (he milked blackface for sentimentality decades after everyone else had dropped it), but for his professionalism and dedication to pleasing his audience. His first used his catch-phrase 'You ain't heard nothin' yet!' when he followed Caruso at a benefit in 1918.
We have already seen that Jolson was the best example of a successful artist who was given co-writing credit from Tin Pan Alley in return for singing a song. Tucker was first to sing 'When The Red Red Robin Goes Bob Bob Bobbin' Along', but it was identified with Jolson. He made the first talking film, The Jazz Singer, in 1927. (He was no jazz singer, and the film, though a sensation, was only partly a 'talkie'.) He sang George Gershwin's 'Swanee', 'My Mammy', by Sam Lewis, Joe Young and Walter Donaldson, and 'Sonny Boy' in blackface and white gloves, and typically on one knee. 'Sonny Boy' was written by one of the most successful songwriting teams of all time, DeSylva, Brown and Henderson, as a joke. When they sent it to Jolson, to their astonishment he liked it, and sang it along with 'There's a Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder' in the 1928 film The Singing Fool.
Of Jolson's eighty or so hit records between 1912 and 1930, many were probably the equivalent of number one hits, most of them in the acoustic era, long before pop charts. Many were probably considered ragtime songs, such as 'California, Here I Come', 'Swanee' and 'Toot Toot Tootsie (Goo'bye)', as well as 'You Made Me Love You (I Didn't Want to Do It)' and 'April Showers'.
'Hello Central, Give Me No Man's Land' was a First World War success in 1918; Jolson sang it in the show Sinbad which made him Broadway's biggest star, along with 'Rock-a-bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody'. The next year, after the war, Irving Berlin's 'I've Got My Captain Working for Me Now' was topical. 'My Mammy' was introduced in vaudeville by William Frawley (who became famous decades later as Fred Mertz in the ianoI Love Lucy show on television); Jolson added it to Sinbad after the show's New York opening.
Jolson turned producer in 1944, and sang on the soundtrack of The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949) (handsome Larry Parks played him on screen, so teenaged girls bought Jolson's records). Jolson entertained troops in Japan and Korea a month before he died in 1950.
Ragtime also led to novelty piano music. Felix Arndt's 'Nola' and Gus Chandler's 'Canadian Capers' were hits in 1915; 'Kitten on the Keys' and 'Nickel in the Slot' were played by composer Zez Confrey at the concert that premiered Gershwin's 'Rhapsody In Blue' in 1924. Novelty piano pieces, based on ragtime but exploiting the idiomatic possibilities of the keyboard, became a minor industry. Confrey's 'Stumbling' used rhythmic patterns of three over a basic beat of four, foreshadowing Gershwin's 'Fascinatin' Rhythm', while Gershwin himself wrote 'Rialto Ripples' in 1917. Rube Bloom's piano pieces were a prelude to his first-class popular songs, such as 'Fools Rush In' and 'Day In, Day Out'; Nacio Herb Brown's 'The Doll Dance' has never been out of print; his 'When Buddha Smiles' was a hit during the Swing Era, and he also went on to be a successful songwriter. The novelty genre died with the 1920s, but not before having its influence. Britain's Billy Mayerl continued playing his own pieces until he died in 1956.
The overall effect of ragtime on popular music was permanent, and classic ragtime has never really gone away for long. It was part of the revival of early jazz, which began in the late 1930s, and in 1947 bands led by Bunk Johnson and Mutt Carey recorded selections from Stark's Red Back Book. They All Played Ragtime by Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis was a revelation in 1950, though it has since been superseded by better books. Ragtime was kept alive in the 1950s by studio musicians Dick Hyman (as Knuckles O'Toole) and Lou Busch (as Joe 'Fingers' Carr), and the novelty aspect was milked by Fritz Schulz-Reichel in Germany ('Crazy Otto') and in the USA by Johnny Maddox (a staff musician at Dot Records, whose recording of a 'Crazy Otto' medley was a huge pop hit in 1955). Whereas many of the players of ragtime had cause to complain about the state of the piano in the average tavern, in the 1950s it was sometimes deliberately made to sound tinny, often by sticking thumbtacks on the hammers. Winifred Atwell in the UK made 'the other piano' part of her act.
Max Morath, William Bolcom, Joshua Rifkin, Gunther Schuller and André Previn all played ragtime properly in recent decades. Rifkin's three Nonesuch albums made the USA pop album chart in 1974, after the soundtrack of the film The Sting (1973) gave ragtime its biggest boost in fifty years. It was Schuller who conducted the 1973 performance of Treemonisha and made an album of arrangements from the Red Back Book.
The fact that a ragtimer's left hand rarely indulged in syncopation is perhaps less important than the fact that it sometimes did, as in the third strain of Joplin's 'The Cascades'. Ragtime pianists, like the banjo players in minstrelsy, played things that were not on the page. They took part in 'cutting' contests (where they tried to outplay each other), ranging from tavern entertainments to spectacular events, for example at Tammany Hall in New York in 1900 (sponsored by Police Gazette magazine) and at the St Louis World's Fair in l904. Some of the contestants in these affairs must have been presented with unfamiliar music to play, and many of them must have been capable of faking it, or improvising. Edward A. Berlin thinks that virtually every ragtime pianist was expected to improvise. There are also 'variation' rags, such as Tom Turpin's 'Harlem Rag' (the first rag by a black musician to be published, in 1897), and 'Lion Tamer Rag' (1913), by the mysterious Mark Janza, of whom nothing is known. We have to wonder whether these were written-down improvisations.
Some of the rag composers did not approve of improvisation. Artie Matthews wrote 'Don't Fake' on some of his, and Joplin was explicit: "'Joplin ragtime" is destroyed by careless or imperfect rendering . . . [It is] harmonized with the supposition that each note will be played as it is written, as it takes this and also the proper time divisions to complete the sense intended.'
But the valuable tension with European rules was well advanced in American black music. Controversial in its day, and seen as a racial threat by some, ragtime encouraged the posing of questions about what American music was and could be. It had made another contribution even as the first rags were being published: ragtime was one of the final ingredients in jazz. Many early jazzmen thought of themselves as ragtimers, and equated the term with improvisation.
While popular musics since the eighteenth century had been written down, with jazz the role of performer as composer was rediscovered. But it would not have developed in the way it did without another invention, already decades old when jazz began: recorded sound.
Thomas A. Edison invented his phonograph in 1877, Emile Berliner invented his gramophone in 1888, and before 1900 there was a thriving worldwide record industry. The 'phonograph parlour' was the beginning of the penny arcade, and the ancestor of today's amusement parlours with their computerized games, while many of the songs mentioned in this chapter and in the last one made million-selling hit records during the acoustic era. (The greed and constant litigation characteristic of the industry were also present from the beginning: in 1900 the Gramophone trademark disappeared in the USA, even though Berliner's invention was overtaking Edison's, and Americans used the word 'phonograph' to describe either type of record player.) Then the invention of electric recording in 1925, along with broadcasting, changed everything again: singers like Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong did not have to be shouters, like the singers of the coon-song era, but could use the microphone to sing apparently to each individual in the audience or listening at home; this in turn influenced the way composers wrote their songs.
The performing styles of earlier times can only be approximately re-created; thanks to recording, we are more influenced musically by our immediate ancestors than ever before. Yet paradoxically, the worldwide availability of the latest trends also means that the pace of change has been accelerated. The access of African-Americans, country folk and other minorities to the recording studio means that never again can the music of the 'common people' be ignored. To use an appropriately modern metaphor, sound recording meant that popular music became a whole new ball game.