The banjo influence on Ragtime

Have you ever played a type of music for a long time and then suddenly discovered something new about it? Even if others have made this discovery before, it’s still very new and fresh for you!

This just happened to me with ragtime. I’ve enjoyed playing this lively style of pre-jazz piano music since I was a teen and have often been curious about the diverse array of musical influences that went into its creation.

I’ve been playing Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag recently, and coincidentally went to an American Roots concert while I was teaching at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival in Alaska. While listening to some lively banjo music at that concert, it suddenly dawned on me: “The syncopation in ragtime music came from imitating banjo players!”

Wow! I had never thought of this before, but it now seems so obvious. Think about it for a minute: A fast, syncopated melodic line, sometimes using a semi-repetitive grouping of 3 or so notes, played over a steady “boom-chik” accompaniment. That’s traditional banjo music and it’s also the basis of ragtime.

Most of the literature I had read about ragtime dwelt on it’s derivation from marching band music. While this is also true (especially in regard to its musical structure), there’s no question that the syncopated “jazziness” came largely from the banjo music which was so prevalent during the mid-to-late 19th century in America.

When I decided to do a quick internet search for “origins of ragtime,” I came up with all the usual misinformation we often find, even on websites that initially look authoritative. I found wrong statements such as:

“Simple syncopation”: In fact, the music was considered so complex that the publisher John Stark was surprised the sheet music sold so well!

“The left hand was supportive and never syncopated”: Good thing nobody told Scott Joplin about this!

“The harmonic movement was essentially that of tonic to dominant (I to V)”: Check out The Entertainer, Maple Leaf Rag, of dozens of others to see a rich, varied harmonic palette.

One of the best overviews of ragtime I found is actually a short video made by a student, as a class project: A Short History Of Ragtime. The video is amazingly concise and well-made, giving us a well-rounded overview of the ragtime style as well as the culture from which it arose.

Best of all, concerning my banjo hypothesis, is the section that begins at 4:50, featuring banjo music! The narrator says: “When music critic Rupert Hughes first heard piano ragtime in 1899, he described it as ‘banjo figurations.'” Violá! This means that it was so much like the prevailing banjo music of the time that the influence was obvious and immediate.

So now when we play ragtime music on piano, we can hear both marching bands and banjos, as well as it’s future development into early jazz. Either way, it’s great music. (BTW, I’ve heard that Keith Jarrett practiced a lot of ragtime pieces at one point!)

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