I first started pulling the pieces of this story together some 15 or so years ago. At that time I was a tutor/speaker for the Workers Educational Association (WEA) and, among many other courses I presented, I offered ‘From Ragtime to Rock ‘n’ Roll’. In due time I moved on, my activities changed and ‘FRT to R’n’R’ went on the back boiler. I now feel that the time is right to bring it back to life.
I hope you will enjoy it as much I am sure I will.
Ragtime music came from the work camps linked to the railway’s expansion in the USA. The words of Max Morath – ‘Scorned by the establishment as ephemeral at best, trashy at worst, Ragtime was the fountainhead of every rhythmic and stylistic upheaval that has followed in a century of ever evolving American popular music’ – sum up his view of the establishment’s view of the new music. But, as we shall see, this response to new popular music repeats itself time & time again.
[Max Morath (born October 1, 1926) was an American ragtime pianist, composer, actor and author. He is best known for his piano playing and is referred to as “Mr. Ragtime”. He has been a touring performer as well as being variously a composer, recording artist, actor, playwright, and radio and television presenter. Rudi Blesh billed Morath as a “one-man ragtime army”.]
Very few people ever listen by choice to music that they don’t like so, for music to be popular, it has to match or reflect the desires, feelings, conditions and attitudes of its listeners potential and real. Therefore, no commercial composer or performer can afford to ignore their chosen market. As a result all, strands of composed music can be taken as a reflection of the social environment of the listeners the composer expected. For the purposes of this course we are interpreting ‘popular music’ as music with mass appeal to the ‘man and woman in the street’ – the ‘Person on the Clapham Omnibus’. This first session laid the foundations for our exploration of this look at our social history. What I want to do is tell the story of the popular music as created, released and, above all, enjoyed.
Very few people ever listen by choice to music they don’t like so, for music to be popular, it has to match or reflect the desires, feelings, conditions and attitudes of its listeners potential and real. Therefore, no commercial composer or performer can afford to ignore his chosen market. As a result all strands of composed music can be taken as a reflection of the social environment of the listeners the composer expected.
Almost everybody has a favourite tune or song, something that can instantly bring back a very special memory – good or bad. However, the power of music to bring back that personal past is not limited to a single tune – or even a single event.
‘If music be the food of love, play on’ from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night conjures up one social aspect of music and Noel Coward’s comment in 1930 that ‘Strange how potent cheap music is’ from Private Lives gives musical meaning a different slant. I think us, though, should start our path to understanding and enjoying the social underpinning of popular music with Ragtime and Scott Joplin’s 1899 Maple Leaf Rag
New Orleans was its birthplace – 1896 legislation created institutionalized segregation and tended to drive classically trained coloured musicians into the black community. Changing work patterns took the black population north to Chicago, and the 1919 prohibition act created the illegal, gangster owned speakeasies. Ragtime morphed into Jazz – music that was an integral part of this; music that was variously described as ‘the ultimate in rugged individualism and the creative process incarnate’ and ‘a manifestation of a low streak in man’s taste that has not yet come out in civilization’s wash’
In Britain we had our Music Halls that developed out of do-it-yourself pub entertainment & reigned supreme as the source of popular entertainment. The ‘Halls’ were frequented by ‘sporting aristocrats’ as well as the ‘working classes’, and made performers like Marie Lloyd national idols.
We’ll come to those next week and hope you do too!