Ragtime gets closer

Last week we started our story with a broad overview of ‘Ragtime’ from both sides of the Atlantic.  This week we’ll have a look at early British popular music. This music can be seen as originating in the 16th and 17th centuries and from this we can trace the arrival of printed musical copies which were sold cheaply and in great numbers through to the 19th century.

Most of the instruments used by British brass bands had existed for some time but they only became a mass activity in the 1840/50s out of village, church and military bands. For many these brass bands were an expression of the local solidarity and their newly formed and often rapidly growing communities.

This developed as a result of a steady increase in the number of households with enough surplus cash to purchase musical instruments and instruction in music and with the leisure time and cultural motivation to engage in recreational music-making. This high point of the parlor song came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a distinction arose between ‘art music’ and ‘popular music’, even if it was not expressed exactly in those terms.

The increase in urban populations and the rise of the bourgeoisie brought a need for public demonstrations of social standing, since it was no longer common knowledge who was important. Attending concerts was, among other things, a means of displaying status.  What for a working-class audience might be down-to-earth, plain-speaking and funny – for the bourgeois audience might appear as rude, vulgar, and silly! Perhaps this is why inversion was common in popular form – for example, lust not love, crudity not politeness, degradation not sublimity, materiality not spirituality.

For the middle class, culture was in itself instructive but first required that people be instructed in it; hence the didactic character of attempts to encourage working-class ‘appreciation’ of music. The People’s Concert Society, founded in 1878, was an amateur organization dedicated to making high-status music known among the London poor. The Society began Sunday concerts of chamber music in South Place, Moorgate, in 1887. From the succeeding year, admission was free, or a voluntary contribution could be made, and attendance was good.

The British Brass Band Movement, in the second half of the century, was another example of ‘rational recreation’, with the willingness of factory owners to sponsor works bands. These bands had their roots in the industrial North, but the steel, ironworks and shipping companies of east London also had bands in the 1860s. Some of the difficulties and distractions facing London bands compared to bands further north have been discussed by Dave Russell. Huge annual contests were held at the Crystal Palace during 1860-63. The first of these, a two-day event with entrance prices of 2s 6d for the first and 1s for the second day, attracted an audience of 29,000. The test pieces for the contests at the Crystal Palace placed an emphasis on high-status music: selections from Meyerbeer’s grand operas were the favourite choices, as at the Belle Vue contests in Manchester that same decade.

The labouring poor may have been sung about and even felt to be understood in certain socially-concerned drawing-room ballads, but their lives often lay outside the experience of those who sang the ballads. Antoinette Sterling, who so movingly sang ‘Three Fishers Went Sailing’, confessed that not only had she no experience of storms at sea, but ‘had never even seen fishermen’. Actual acquaintance with fishermen was undoubtedly unnecessary, since the subject position such ballads addressed was that of the middle class.

So we have now had a glance of both sides of the water in the years as music met with the changing needs and attitudes.
Our story, though, was born as being from ‘Ragtime to Rock ‘n’ Roll’. That arrives next week – on Wednesday 25th April 2018.   Please be there!

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