Ragtime and the Stark Music Company

Ragtime is a genre of music created by Black pianists that was popular between 1890 and 1920. Known by such a name due to its highly syncopated nature (which was originally referred to as “ragging the time”), ragtime emerged initially in the Mississippi Valley as bar, cabaret, and club music played by “piano-thumping… black piano professors” (1) that was mostly improvisatory. This early ragtime was referred to as jig music, and was all but shunned by white populations. During the Chicago World Fair, many Black jig piano players were hired to play music written by white composers at Fair events, but they were not allowed to play their own music. As a result, they would play in the clubs, saloons, and other social spaces around the perimeter of the fair, which is where their music thrived (1).

It wasn’t until 1895 when the first ragtime tune, “La Pas La Mas”, was actually published, starting a new subgenre within ragtime known as classic rag (2). Classic rag was published as sheet music and was not intended to be improvised off of, rather being played exactly as written. Arguably the most famous classic rag composer was Scott Joplin, with his “Maple Leaf Rag” being the most popular of his works (3).

Cover art and first page of Stark Music Co.’s version of Joplin’s “Rag-Time Dance”. Full PDF here (5).

Like many composers of classic rag, Joplin was initially a jig pianist who then ventured into classic rag. In 1898, he first began submitting scores to publishing companies, but it wasn’t until meeting John Stillwell Stark, a white music publisher and music store owner, and playing for him in his store in 1899 that he entered a publishing contract. For Stark, this was the first Black and first ragtime composer he conducted business with (3), and this proved to be extremely profitable. The “Maple Leaf Rag”, Joplin’s first work published by Stark, is considered one of the first hit songs on sheet music and sold over 500,000 copies in the first 10 years of its publication (4).

With Joplin’s massive success, Stark decided that if he were going to sell more ragtime music, he would focus on publishing classic rag. Ragtime was a largely Black genre, and, predictably, Stark did not want to be seen as someone who particularly uplifted Black voices, and said that he “[advocated] no class of music”, but alternatively a publisher popular music and anything he thought to be “interesting or useful”, and ragtime just so happened to fit into those boxes. Stark didn’t just limit his classic rag roster to Joplin, but to other accomplished names like James Scott and Joseph Francis Lamb, as well as several of Joplin’s protégés. This turned his company into the primary supporter of and place to purchase ragtime music (2).

Cover art and first page of Stark Music Co.’s version of Lamb’s “Cleopatra Rag”. Full PDF here (6).

One result of the Stark Music Company churning out works by a star-studded list of ragtime composers was the spread of ragtime into white households and communities as a palatable morsel of Black American culture. The acceptance of ragtime seems to have been just another example of Black culture being appropriated and taken advantage of among the many that comprise American music history. One could argue that Stark’s opinion of neutrality rather than support could have been a factor in this, but I doubt Stark was influential enough himself to have significantly challenged his white audience’s overwhelmingly racist views.

Sources

(1) “From Piano Thumping to the Concert Stage: The Rise of Ragtime.” Music Educators Journal 59, no. 8 (1973): 53–56. https://doi.org/10.2307/3394278.

(2) Tichenor, Trebor Jay. “John Stillwell Stark, Piano Ragtime Publisher: Readings from ‘The Intermezzo’ and His Personal Ledgers, 1905-1908.” Black Music Research Journal 9, no. 2 (1989): 193–204. https://doi.org/10.2307/779423.

(3) Reed, Addison. “Scott Joplin, Pioneer: Part 2.” The Black Perspective in Music 3, no. 3 (1975): 269–77. https://doi.org/10.2307/1214012.

(4) “John Stark, 1841-1927.” The Library of Congress. LOC. Accessed October 19, 2022. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200035817/. 

(5) Joplin, Scott. “Rag-Time Dance”. Sheet Music Consortium. St. Louis, MO: Stark Music Co., 1906. https://scholarsjunction.msstate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3681&context=cht-sheet-music. 

(6) Lamb, Joseph F. “Cleopatra Rag”. Sheet Music Consortium. St. Louis, MO: Stark Music Co., 1915. https://scholarsjunction.msstate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3482&context=cht-sheet-music.

Jazz at St. Olaf

Lentjazz It seems St. Olaf has been hesitant to embrace Jazz as a sound musical genre, especially in regard to liturgical music. In this 1968 article of the Manitou Messenger, Ms. Berglund summarized a student jazz liturgy setting performed in chapel and asks questions that point to Jazz as a potentially profane and intrusive art form for worship. “Is jazz profaned by its association with night-clubs or can it also be a song of praise?”[1]

jazzarticle

Contrast this with an article from 1977, when The Preservation Hall Jazz Band visited St. Olaf in what the Manitou Messenger calls the “most enthusiastically received concert at St. Olaf.”[2] The Preservation Hall Jazz Band is made up of a pool of musicians that rotate over the years, but was started by Allan and Sandra Jaffe in 1961 New Orleans, who were interested in preserving the traditional jazz style free from commercial imperatives.[3] Becoming famous by touring and recording, Preservation Hall is internationally known and remains one of the popular tourist sites of New Orleans, so of course it was a big deal that they came to our humble little bubble at St. Olaf.

jazzstolaf

The writer goes on to say that “everybody has heard Dixieland jazz before, but this concert gave us all a chance to see and hear a jazz band doing it the way it was originally done. This style influenced every form of American music since 1900, from Joplin’s rags to Chicago’s rock.” Perhaps due to a lack of curriculum on jazz at St. Olaf at the time, or general lack of scholarship, the writer has a misconception that jazz influenced ragtime, when in reality the syncopated rhythms of ragtime along with the blues style are cited as the origins of jazz. In addition, to assume that the concert of 1977 was a presentation of how jazz was originally done is a pretty bold claim, considering any time a performance claims some kind of authenticity, there are certain details/styles included and excluded. These two examples suggest St. Olaf is not a little bubble, filled with scholarly prowess and immune to the world’s ideals. The stereotypes about the origins of jazz and its perceived development as a “profane” style pervade music history as well as St. Olaf history. We can’t say St. Olaf, as an academic and music institution, was above these problematic notions about Jazz then, so my question is, has much changed?

[1] Marcie Berglund, “Lent services feature Heckman’s jazz liturgy,” Manitou Messenger, March 1, 1968.

[2] Mike Stiegler, “Original Jazz Preserved for Olaf Audience,” Manitou Messenger, March 4, 1977.

[3]  Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd ed, s.v. “Preservation Hall Jazz Band.”

What sells sheet music?

Have you ever noticed that many ragtime tunes sound the same? Listen to the following two clips for their similar harmonic motion/progressions, the similarity in rhythmic syncopation/complexity, and form. Each have a general intro and short repeated sections, which unless you have become very familiar with the tune are very hard to remember.

The Felicity Rag:

felicityrag

The Ragtime Goblin Man:

ragtimegoblin

How is it possible that publishing companies could sell something so similar sounding and make it popular? It is clear that the Felicity Rag’s cover draws on minstrel like, simian caricatures, while the Ragtime Goblin Man has an enticing cover with a devil-like character controlling two musicians who according to the lyrics will get caught by the goblin and be made to join his ragtime band. Even thought the tunes’ striking similarity make them seem unmarketable, they have been made unique and sensationalized by their evocative front cover art and titles/lyrics. Publishers, composers, and artists who could appeal to the popularity of minstrelsy, the exotic, or the romantic, had successful marketing strategies for popular music. On one hand, it is problematic to have popular tunes, that “represent” different meanings, sound the same because there is a whole lot more complexity to music across cultural/racial/imaginative boundaries. On the other hand, it would be inappropriate to put a minor mode or augmented second in the ragtime tune that is named for Jewish culture or another Other as was done in Schultzmeier Rag, a Yiddish novelty.172.106.000.webimage

Now, thinking about today’s popular music, with similar harmonic progressions, rhythmic variations, and subjects, the marketing strategies really haven’t changed that much. When you think about the image sold with the music, whether it is the caricatured lifestyle of a celebrity, or the sensational lyrics, today’s popular music continues these successful marketing strategies at the expense of perpetuating problematic stereotypes.