History and Origins of Ragtime

This style of music was a precursor to American jazz

Photo of Scott Joplin
Stringer/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Considered the first completely American music, ragtime was popular towards the end of the 19th century and into the first two decades of the 20th century, roughly 1893 to 1917. It is the style of music that preceded jazz.

Its rhythms made it lively and springy, and therefore ideal for dancing. Its name is believed to be a contraction of the term “ragged time,” which refers to its rhythmically broken up melodies. 

Origins of Ragtime Music

Ragtime developed in African American communities throughout the southern parts of the Midwest, particularly St. Louis. 

The music, which predated the explosion of sound recordings, became widespread through the sale of published sheet music and piano rolls. In this way, it contrasts sharply from early jazz, which was spread by recordings and live performances.

The first ragtime composer to have his work published as sheet music was Ernest Hogan, who gets credit for coining the term "ragtime." His song "La Pas Ma La" was published in 1895. Hogan is problematic in the history of ragtime because one of his most popular songs contained a racist slur, which angered many African-American fans of the genre. 

Here are some of the most well-known ragtime composers. 

Scott Joplin

Perhaps the most famous composer of ragtime music, Scott Joplin (1867 or 1868 -1917) composed two of the genre's most well-known and popular pieces, “The Entertainer” and “Maple Leaf Rag.” He was often referred to by the nickname "the King of Ragtime," and was a prolific composer, writing nearly four dozen original ragtime works during his brief career, including a ballet and two operas.

Joplin died in 1917 at age 48 or 49 (there's some confusion about when he was actually born). His music enjoyed a revival in the 1970s, thanks in part to the 1973 film "The Sting," which starred Robert Redford and Paul Newman and featured "The Entertainer" as its main theme. Joplin received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976.

Jelly Roll Morton

Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe (1890 – 1941), better known as Jelly Roll Morton, later became known as a bandleader and jazz musician, but his early compositions, when he was playing clubs in New Orleans, included songs such as "King Porter Stomp" and "Black Bottom Stomp." Morton was a prolific performer and outspoken personality, known for his ability to promote himself. 

Eubie Blake

James Hubert "Eubie" Blake (1887 – 1983), co-wrote "Shuffle Along" the first Broadway musical to be written and directed by African-Americans. His other compositions included "Charleston Rag" (which he may have written when he was just 12 years old) and "I'm Just Wild About Harry." He got his start playing ragtime piano in vaudeville acts.

James P. Johnson

One of the originators of the style known as stride piano, Johnson (1894 –1955) combined elements of ragtime with the blues and improvisation, leading the way towards early jazz. He was an influence on such jazz greats as Count Basie and Duke Ellington. He composed "Charleston," one of the signature ragtime songs of the 1920s and was considered one of the best jazz pianists of his generation. 

Joseph Lamb

Encouraged by his hero, Scott Joplin, Lamb (1887–1960) had many of his rags published between 1908 and 1920. He was a member of the “Big Three” ragtime composers, which also included Joplin and James Scott. He was of Irish descent, one of the only ragtime composers not of African-American heritage. 

James Scott 

Another member of ragtime's "Big Three," Scott (1885 – 1938) published "Climax Rag," "Frog Legs Rag," and "Grace and Beauty" from Missouri, ragtime’s hub.