The Rediscovery of Ragtime and Timelessness in Music

The liner notes to Ragtime Jubilee, recorded in 1947 in New York and released in 1999,  suggest that ragtime is an undying art, in much the same tone that blues musicians have suggested that the blues has always existed. While the context of the record’s quite late release date might make one immediately wary that the publishers’ desire to make money outweighs their desire to provide an accurate representation of the varied history of ragtime, considering the perspective offered is worthwhile, because it sheds light on how ragtime has been successful both as popular music and as art music.

Photograph of Rudi Blesh with his dog

Rudi Blesh, 1975

Rudi Blesh (1899-1985), a jazz critic and enthusiast (and, notable for this class, a white man), writes about ragtime in a very positive light; it is the “warmest, gayest, liltingest music ever born here” to him, and held the greatest potential to create an American sound. He remarked that Europe immediately understood its uniqueness and vitality, and while American society forgot it for a time, it persisted until “we simply discovered what had been going on all the time.” To Blesh, ragtime was not a museum piece but a living and dynamic art form worth as much as the works of Mozart.

This suggestion, that ragtime somehow has shed its need for an audience and survives on its own, simply by being passed down from musician to musician, is both strange and familiar. It once again recalls images of the blues always existing, whether or not the public knows about it, but also images from the western classical tradition. That tradition is not part of popular culture, yet lives on as conservatories and teachers pass their practices to further generations. Some elements of classical music have permeated popular culture, such as the symphony orchestra being used in movie scores, but it has largely been relegated to a niche audience. Ragtime has since fallen from the public eye as well, but it is still passed down in some form, which I can personally attest to as a pianist.

From sheet music of Scott Joplin’s “Felicity Rag;” click for a pdf

This context makes a piece of art included in the liner notes a bit ironic, as it appears to satirize the (largely German) classical tradition by implying the performer is unable to play the “new fangled stuff” that is ragtime, choosing instead to play old music that is considered to be great and timeless–not unlike how ragtime revival artists return to an earlier style when popular music has moved on to new things. There are some notable differences between genres–their respective focus on complex harmony versus complex rhythm, the varying lengths of pieces, typical orchestrations, not to mention the predominance of black composers in ragtime–potentially referred to in this record by “Jubilee,” a word which appears in famous spirituals and the names of groups which sing them. These differences aside, however, the similarities between changes in these genres’ popularity over time, as well as the continued practice and interpretation by new musicians, helps to elevate ragtime as an art form and dignified link in the evolution of American popular music.



“Jazz Scholar Rudi Blesh; Historian, Biographer, Critic,” Los Angeles Times (1985).

Tony Parenti’s Ragtimers & Ragtime Gang: Ragtime Jubilee. Recorded January 1, 1999. Jazzology, 1999, Streaming Audio. 

The Success of Jazz: Blessing or Curse?

There is no question that jazz as a genre experienced much success throughout the 20th century. Around 1960, after it had begun to be replaced in popularity by rock n’ roll and bebop, its live performance was revived in part in New Orleans’ French Quarter.[1] Preservation Hall provided a space for aging jazz musicians to return to their art. “Almost all of the musicians have given up any work other than music, and have benefited from the new respect accorded to the New Orleans musician.”[2] Several jazz bands became affiliated with the space, among them the Wendell Brunious Band and Jim Robinson’s New Orleans Band. Manitou Messenger published an article in praise of the former,[3] and Halvorson Music Library has a record including recordings by the latter. But this success carried with it the baggage of preservation.

Jazz at Preservation Hall 2

The back cover of the record suggests overtones unsettlingly similar to those of the “Vanishing Indian” phenomenon. The album–indeed, even the name  of the hall which hosts the musicians performing on it–could be seen as portraying jazz as something which might fit well in a museum. If minstrelsy is understood to be an obsessive fascination with blackness, using primitiveness and exaggerated emotions as tropes to make something unsettling or intimidating approachable, seeing jazz as part of a bygone era that ought to be preserved meant society no longer feared blackness in music and could look to it for inspiration.

It should be noted that the founders of Preservation Hall, Allan and Sandra Jaffe, were white, and so could have had analogous attitudes toward jazz as MacDowell had toward Native music. That is, as a source of inspiration for new, less “other” art, even if the dominant race of performers at the Hall was still black.

Allan and Sandra Jaffe with their child

The Jaffe family

But this is not the only presentation of these groups on the album. While it clarifies that performers at the Hall don’t typically take requests (suggesting a static, less improvisatory style), it says that they do play popular and folk music alongside the traditional pieces that are being preserved, with more “consistently better” performance than before. Many of the performers also personally played at the turn of the century, when jazz was first taking off. The Mess also calls out the mixing of disciplines to create Preservation Hall’s style, as well as the improvisation which does in fact take center stage.

St. Olaf’s interest, in a region of the country comprised mostly of white people, could be seen as merely scholarly, fascinated by something which was unique and “other,” or as genuine interest in a revived tradition with new ideas to offer. Regardless, interest in jazz from all demographics has grown; whether this is seen as a black art being taken by white artists after its “death” or new creative cooperation, the genre has carved itself a lasting place in the repertory.


[1]   “History.” Preservation Hall. Accessed:

[2]   Pierce, De De, and Billie Pierce. 1963. Jazz at Preservation Hall, II. Atlantic.

[3]   Hosch, Jennifer. 1992. “Artist Series introduces traditional style of New Orleans improvisational jazz.” Manitou Messenger. Accessed:

An “American Sound” — Identity or Simplification?

“The Americans expect great things of me and the main thing is, so they say, to show them to the promised land and kingdom of a new and independent art, in short, to create a national music.” — Antonin Dvorak

“To classify music according to nationalities is to narrow its scope.” — Edward MacDowell

“To attain musical independence, more national consciousness is a present necessity for American composers.” — Henry Cowell

The more letters by composers one reads from the turn of the 20th century, the more clear it becomes that, just as much a focus as how to create an American sound, a primary issue of the time was whether to do so. Certainly many composers sought this end, including Dvorak and Cowell, as well as Gershwin, who suggested European composers like Dvorak may be more initially suited to extracting such a sound. Yet there were also voices like MacDowell’s, who resisted the others’ nationalism.

Photo of MacDowell

Edward MacDowell, image from

In a letter written in 1897, MacDowell replied to Mary M. Shaw regarding which pieces to program for an American-themed concert by saying the whole idea is unwise. Since audiences would only be able to compare between American composers, he believed they would elevate some composers to the disparagement of others. This problem does not disappear when comparing composers of all nationalities, but MacDowell did not advocate for a national sound. At the least, his approach prevents all of American music from being disparaged at once. His wishes advocate a different kind of independence: that of the composer from any restrictions on composition, rather than that of America from Europe.

This understanding of MacDowell’s argument is instructive with his second point as well, quoted briefly above. His choice of words is unfortunate, due to minstrel connotations–“In spite of Mr. Dvorak’s desire to clothe American music in Negro costume…”–but allowing composers freedom in their creativity is a worthy goal when separated from that institution, and being expected to conform to their national identity could be seen as restricting their expression.

The points MacDowell raised are not unreasonable (at least not outright, and without some problematic connotations), but they may have been futile. Virgil Thomson remarked on musical developments around the world, including American music. Young Italians, he said, would sit around late at night until world pop music came on the radio, waiting to have “the satisfaction of hearing real American music, by which they mean Duke Ellington and Bob Crosby . . . They don’t call that music jazz or swing or anything special; they call it la musica americana. And their hats are off to it.”

Art of Duke Ellington at the piano

Art of Duke Ellington by Leonid Afremov


Fisk, Josiah, and Jeff Nichols, ed. Composers on Music: Eight Centuries of Writings, 2nd Ed. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997.

Norman, Gertrude, and Miriam Lubell Shrifte, eds. Letters of Composers: an Anthology. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1946.

Page, Vanessa Weeks, and Tim Page, eds. Selected letters of Virgil Thomson. New York: Summit Books, 1988.

Lowell Mason and the End of Shape Note

Shape-note singing has roots which may stretch as far back as 11th century Italy[1]. Solmization has been used ever since to teach new singers to sight-read melodies, and in the distinctly American case of the Sacred Harp, written by Benjamin Franklin White, congregations have used the familiar intervals and rhythms to sing loudly and emphatically. The presence of a ubiquitous hymn book further reinforces the traditionalism of the genre, which is often praised as one which invites everyone to participate democratically, rather than creating an audience/performer dichotomy. The anthems are always in four parts, with uncomplicated rhythms and melodies to facilitate singing unrehearsed.

I include one of the hymns from the Sacred Harp below; a contemporary rendition of the tune can be found on YouTube.

Shape Note sheet music, included for comparison.

A digitized copy of Windham, from the Sacred Harp, published 1844.

Perhaps in stark contrast, Lowell Mason is credited with popularizing European Classical music in the United states[2]. Mason is known to have derided shape-note singing as being a barrier to scientific musical study; he and his brother published a book called The Sacred Harp in 1835, but this was done to supplant the shape-note tradition which existed, replacing rural American tunes with European part-writing. The authors preface the work as “the introduction of an elevated style of Sacred Music arranged on the immovable basis of science and correct taste.”[3]

Mason later went on to write some 1600 hymns in his lifetime, some of which are incredibly popular today, such as Bethany, the tune of “Nearer My God To Thee.” I include here one of the more dramatic of his works I could find, with dotted rhythms, dynamics, and an instrumental part setting it apart from the above hymn. There is call and response among singers, and ornamented instrumental interludes. Sadly, I could find no existing rendition of this piece–it has since become a popular Lutheran hymn, with a changed musical setting.

An example of Lowell Mason's hymn-writing

Excerpt from Watchman, Tell Us of the Night, written 1830.

However, another piece of Mason’s, a setting of the Lord’s Prayer, has an existing rendition available here. This composition complicates the distinctness between all the examples I’ve used. The sheet music is written in a completely different style, with vocal and instrumental parts combined, but it doesn’t seem to require an instrument. The part-writing may be European, but the rhythms look more alike to “Windham” than “Watchmen.” This is not a purely performer-audience example. There are leaders, but all congregants sing. The shift toward a plainer “Watchmen” is telling–Mason may have diminished the popularity of shape-note singing, but the style his music ended up in was not as much a copy of European music as he intended.

Four-part setting of the Lord's Prayer

A composition of Mason’s from 1879.

[1]  David Warren Steel. 2010. “Shape Note Singing.”  Encyclopaedia Britannica. Accessed

[2]  “Lowell Mason.” Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

[3]  Nathan Rees. 2017. “From the Collection: An Earlier Sacred Harp.” Original Sacred Harp. Accessed

The Far Reach of Minstrelsy

Program for the Amateur Minstrel Show and Dance

Program for a later performance of the same event, found at Heritage Auctions site.

The legacies of minstrelsy touch many corners of popular culture today (for examples of these legacies, scroll through other blog posts on this page), but even when it was the country’s primary means of entertainment, its reach stretched further than one would reasonably expect. The sobering reality is that it was enjoyed by members of all demographics of American culture–including African Americans.

In 1924, near the end of minstrelsy’s reign as a cultural juggernaut, The Broad Ax published an article glowing with praise for the “Amateur Minstrel Club” of Chicago. Known for its founder and editor, Julius Taylor, the paper advocated tolerance and equality and occasionally featured inflammatory language.1 Most relevant to my argument, it was catered to black readers. The writer extended praise toward every component of a performance by the aforementioned club, from its “soul-inspiring” music to its “peppy” jokes and “real fun makers [sic].”2

Description of the event, praising colored attendance and the performance itself.

Clipping from the Broad Ax, 26 April, 1924.

It is hard enough to swallow the reality of minstrelsy with regard to white audiences. That a black newspaper could describe minstrel acts as “twenty times better than . . . regular traveling old time minstrel shows,” with an audience comprising “the best class and the leading colored people residing in all parts of the city” which were led to “forget their aches, pains, troubles, sorrows and suffering in this world,” is a sobering reality. But this last quote should not be too quickly cast aside; while sorrows exist for everyone, it could easily be that the paper intended to affirm the struggles African Americans were facing to change institutions and bring about the equality Julius Taylor sought. If true, this lends the reader a glimpse into a complex reality of racial politics of the time.

Assuming African American participation in the club, it seems to me that this particular group was making a bid to control black identity through commercialization. Given the support of this paper, it is unlikely it perpetuated as many harmful stereotypes as other minstrel acts. Significantly, the benefits from the performance–some $3000 dollars, worth well over ten times that much in today’s money3–were donated to a place called the Old Folks Home. This commercial success, coupled with generosity, would neatly fit into a story which shifted societal ideas about African Americans away from poverty toward ability. Even if this was a case of ceding one’s dignity in the name of making a living, their philanthropic act, coupled with the Broad Ax’s praise of the artistic skill of the performers, does foster respect for the troupe–and African Americans by extension.

Advertisement to recruit minstrels

Advertisement found in a Freeman paper in June 1916.

While the popularity of blackface minstrelsy was and is a disturbing reality, African Americans have found ways to claim this popularity to succeed financially. More than that, and on a much more optimistic note, the stories constructed about minstrelsy by African Americans can re-frame otherwise disturbing performance to also include ability, rather than mere comedy.

1 “About The broad ax.” Library of Congress.

2 1924. “Easter Monday Evening the Amateur Minstrel Club Gave Its Twenty-Eighth Annual Minstrel and Dance.” Broad Ax.

3 “Consumer Price Index.” Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A Gaelic Bluegrass

Formed by Crockett Ward, the Ballard Branch Bogtrotters are, by their appearances alone, precisely the sort of people a record company of the mid 20th century would market as Bluegrass musicians. They are shown playing stringed instruments, including the emblematic banjo and fiddle, Crockett (front and center) is in a farmer’s coveralls, they are in an ensemble (including family–with Crockett’s brother, Wade, on banjo, and Fields Wade on guitar), and all are white.

[Members of the Bog Trotters Band, posed holding their instruments, Galax, Va. Back row: Uncle Alex Dunford, fiddle; Fields Ward, guitar; Wade Ward, banjo. Front row: Crockett Ward, fiddle; Doc Davis, autoharp]

Found in the Lomax Collection of the Library of Congress

Yet, when the group is viewed through the speech Rhiannon Giddens gave at the 2017 IBMA conference (linked here), Bluegrass is not comprised merely by these attributes. However, I would like to spend a moment to reflect on the Scots-Irish influences Giddens is–rightfully, mind–pushing back on. While these cultural roots certainly don’t tell the whole story, there may be insights hidden beneath the simplistic veneer of “Bluegrass-as-white” which so frustrates Giddens.1

The Gaelic roots which inform this group are apparent in two places. The surname of three of the members of the band, Ward, has origins in that culture ( Perhaps more interestingly, “bog-trotting” has distinct Irish connotations which add more detail to the study of Bluegrass. Contemporary bands have taken up the name, including the Galax Bogtrotters.

A depiction of peasant bogtrotters, including some falling into the bog

Found at the British Museum website

“Bogtrotter,” according to Merriam-Webster, is a usually disparaging term used to refer to a “native or resident of Ireland.” Somewhat defensively, the Irish Times reports that the term unfairly implies a lack of knowledge; to the contrary, they say, the very real act of bog-trotting is strenuous and filled with potential missteps.2


This presents a charming portrait of the self-debasement alongside showy technical skill typical of American country music, and clearly involves the Gaelic culture in Bluegrass. But which culture can claim possession of the band? As I pointed out in my last post, it may not be so simple. The Bogtrotters certainly fit in the mold crafted by record companies named “Bluegrass,” they come from the Appalachian region where “Old Time” sound is said to have originated, and they probably have Gaelic ethnicity. Reality is, here as always, more complicated than the categories we use to make sense of it. It seems to me that the Bogtrotters are just as much a Gaelic band playing non-Gaelic Bluegrass as they are proof that Gaelic culture plays some role in Bluegrass, yet another case study in the interdependence of musical expression.


1     Povelones, Robert. 2018. “Rhiannon Giddens Keynote Address – IBMA Business Conference 2017.” International Bluegrass Music Association.

2     2000. “Bog Trotters.” The Irish Times.

Indian Tunes and Protestant Hymns: Early Assimilation of Native Music

Many people have a clear and narrow impression of Native American music, broadly amounting to a simple, percussive beat and non-syllabic unison melody atop it. As is the case for many such clear-cut descriptions, this is a gross oversimplification. Through the work of musicologists such as Frances Densmore, we can be secure in the understanding that the music of North America’s native tribes in the 20th century was far more complex than that impression, and assuming that complexity extends both forward and backward through history is natural.

Exemplifying the diversity of Native repertory is a collection of shape-note hymns called Indian Melodies, compiled by Thomas Commuck, a member of the Narrangaset tribe from the East Coast, now living in Wisconsin [1]. The Christian verses, set to choral, sometimes-chromatic textures, are a far cry from the stereotype. Yet its distance raises another concern: that of appropriation.

Sheet music of a shape-note hymn, Missionary

An example of the distinctly European harmonization of “Indian Melodies.”

While Commuck himself professes Christian sentiments–referring to himself as being enlightened “under the blessing of God” and expressing a desire to “spread the knowledge of the Redeemer”–it is informative that his work be titled as it is. The combination of traditional tunes with Protestant verse is seen by the author as an expansion of Indian repertoire in a collaborative, rather than parasitic, light. But that is still not enough to pick apart the dialogues surrounding this work. In the preface, Commuck makes his intentions with the writing clear.

“[The author] feels willing to acknowledge frankly and openly the truth, and he assures his friends and the public, that notwithstanding all other ends which may result from the publication of this work, his object is to make a little money.”

This statement opens up the possibility for concessions made in the interest of financial sustenance. Perhaps, as James Page suggests [2], Thomas Hastings’ involvement in arranging the music was forced by the publisher, thereby obscuring the intended blending of worlds with the one-sided use of the Native as a touchstone for American identity, thereby contributing to the story of the Vanishing Indian. If Commuck was desperate enough for the publishing of the book, it is at least plausible.

However, as a refutation of this line of thought, Commuck’s parting words in the preface emphasize the merely ceremonial usage of the Indian elements of the work. After stating that the tunes will use Native titles, he insists that “This has been done merely as a tribute of respect . . . also as a mark of courtesy.”

If these final words can be taken as genuine (without financial concern forcing his hand), Commuck himself may have been a participant in the era of the Vanishing Indian, at least in part. Referring to the elements of Native American culture which inform the work in such brief terms suggests their non-importance. At the same time, the most apparent part of the book remains the most potent proof of its expansion, rather than narrowing, of Indian culture–its title. Protestant hymns may also be Indian tunes after all.


  1. Thomas Commuck, Indian Melodies, (New York, Lane & Tippett, 1845). Accessed at
  2. James Philip Page, “Thomas Commuck And His Indian Melodies, Wisconsin’s Shape-Note Tunebook”, (1989). Accessed at