By G.C. Watkins

Before there was Jazz, which is accepted as the first American style of music to influence artists worldwide, there was another unique form of music created in the United States –Ragtime.

Ragtime predates the “Jazz” genre by almost two decades and was the early influence that helped develop Jazz and Blues music.

But what are the origins of Ragtime music?

The answer can be found in a genre of music known as “Coon Songs.”

Most usually associate the early history of Ragtime with Scott Joplin and his historic “Maple Leaf Rag,” which was published in 1899 and sold over a million copies of sheet music.

But the origin of Ragtime actually predates Joplin’s creations by at least four years.

“Ragtime: An Encyclopedia, Discography, and Sheetography” defines Ragtime as “a musical composition for the piano comprising three or four sections containing sixteen measures each, that combines a syncopated melody accompanied by an even, steady duple rhythm.”

Bert Williams and George Walker He's Up Against The Real Thing NowIn the first decade of the 20th century, popular composers of Ragtime included Scott Joplin, who scored an even bigger hit with “The Entertainer” in 1902, as well as groundbreaking African American composers like Jim Europe, Jelly Roll Morton, Eubie Blake, Tom Turpin, Luckey Roberts.

The style of music became an influential force on popular culture internationally, from 1906 and the beginning of World War 1 in 1914.

Ragtime is a descendant of “Cakewalk” music. The Cakewalk was an intricate, elegant form of dance/music popularized by slaves on plantations, for the entertainment of their white masters, in which the prize was an actual cake.

After slavery, the rhythm of the music was being popularized by trained white composers like Robert Russell Bennett, Claude Debussy and John Philip Sousa, although ground breaking black composer Ernest Hogan helped produce “Walking for Dat Cake, An Exquisite Picture of Negro Life and Customs” at Theater Comique on lower Broadway in 1877.

Additionally, Ragtime was formed from the variations of the march music played by various black bands in the mid to late 1800’s, in addition to piano players in the African American saloons and pubs of St. Louis and New Orleans.

By the late 1880’s, “Rags” were powering “Coon Songs” and “Cakewalk” songs. The first known usage of the word “Rag” in popular can be traced to two Coon Songs, both written by African-American men.

Ernest Hogan’s 1896 song “All Coons Look A Like To Me” contains the first reference of stylization to the form of Rag, while Bert Williams song “Oh, I Don’t Know, You’re So Warm!,” uses the word in lyrics from 1896.