A Tale of Two Songs


I’m learning to play two piano pieces right now – Scott Joplin’s “Magnetic Rag” and “St. Louis Blues” by W. C. Handy. At one point I realized that these two songs, both of which were written by giants of African-American music, were both published exactly a hundred years ago in 1914. I found the juxtaposition interesting because whereas Joplin’s work signals the end of an era, Handy’s heralds the advent of another…

Scott Joplin was a seminal American composer who almost single-handedly popularized the vivacious syncopations of ragtime music in the late 1800s. Through timeless and indelible compositions such as “Original Rags”, “Maple Leaf Rag” “The Entertainer” and “Sunflower Slow Drag”, Joplin supplied the soundtrack for an entire era. The irresistible off-beat quirks of the rag have become synonymous with the optimism and prosperity of turn of the 20th century America.

W. C. Handy, meanwhile, gave the budding blues music of the early 1900s enormous exposure when he came into contact with Delta blues. It would be a stretch to call Handy the “Father of the Blues” (a description he himself propagated), but he contributed immensely to spreading this musical form with two songs he wrote, namely “Memphis Blues” (the first published song to use the word “blues” in the title) and, more importantly, “St. Louis Blues”, which is arguably the most influential blues song of all time. With this popular composition, the blues reached not only all corners of the United States, but of the world as well.

This song incorporates conventions established by ragtime composers, such as alterations between complementary and contrasting themes. So it has a minor section with a distinct habanera rhythm, giving way to the main theme, which is a standard twelve bar blues. Also, by Handy’s own admission, the piece attempts to combine ragtime syncopation with a spiritual-style melody. He was using these traits of the fading rag tradition as supportive devices for a new song form that would come to define popular music in the 20th century. Even the subject of St. Louis is interesting as this city was strongly associated with Joplin and ragtime.

“Magnetic Rag” was Joplin’s swansong (he would die only 3 years later). It is already an unusual piece for the King of Ragtime with its unconventional mixture of moods. But it is also noted for its C section, which is oddly reminiscent of the nascent twelve bar blues form, and which departs from the ragtime “oom-pah” left-hand pattern, changing to a walking bass line. Interestingly, several bars in this part are often performed with a broken octave boogie-woogie (a type of piano-oriented blues) bassline, which seems strangely suited for this section, fitting seamlessly as in the version by Ann Charters above.

So these are two different songs stemming from two distinct traditions which did in fact overlap here in 1914 (and most likely elsewhere as well). They illustrate and encapsulate, from two opposing angles, the changing dynamic in American popular music of this time.

The Big Easy vs. The Big Shots

“Get Funky Jazz Performers” by Renie Britenbucher

“Life without music is unthinkable, music without life is academic. That is why my contact with music is a total embrace.”

- Leonard Bernstein

In early 20th century Western classical music, there was a growing, conscious effort to move away from ‘the confines’ of diatonic harmony and create a ‘modern’ approach to music. Ever-growing disdain for consonance and tonality was a hallmark of this period, and atonality – the ultimate musical ivory tower – the inevitable result. Touted as the most important musical development of the century, atonality has had almost no real impact on the music people actually listen to – unless we’re talking about ear-grating horror movie scores.

At the same time, New Orleans, Louisiana (including, to a large extent, the Mississippi River Valley all the way up to St. Louis, Missouri) had become perhaps the most potent musical hub in the world. As opposed to the official music capitals Vienna and Paris and the big Western universities, The Big Easy’s influence was undeniable and enormous; yielding the most influential musical styles of the last hundred years, including ragtime, jazz, blues, doo-wop, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, funk and disco.

Even if conservative, diatonic harmony were indeed starting to sound hackneyed to some, these offered solutions. For example, the blues employed blue notes (flatted 3rd, 5th and 7th notes) as well as adding 7ths to the tonic, subdominant and dominant chords, while maintaining their original functions in the harmony. Jazz involved unconventional improvisation, with harmony- and melody-bending interpretations of existing music that also moved away from, yet remained in the orbit of tonal music.

African-Americans such as Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton and all sorts of intriguing characters of early rhythm and blues or jazz directly or indirectly shaped the destiny of of 20th century music. What is interesting is that the progenitors of these lively and groundbreaking styles weren’t at all interested in pushing the envelope; they just loved playing music. If the mainstream musical culture of the time had reached a self-wrought dead end, this explosion of unabated, raw creativity provided the escape route.

And it’s not about classical vs. popular music or high brow vs. low brow. Western classical music isn’t snooty or self-indulgent by definition; it had become subverted, beginning with bigheaded Romantic ideas. The same thing eventually happened to jazz. Its creators and proponents realized its sublimity and in the second half of the 1900s it became equally contorted and stale. Art, it seems, must remain a means to an end (that of enhancing the human experience); it must not become the end itself.

And it’s not just pomposity, (Romantic) solipsism or excessive refinement that result. It’s the self-conscious creative process whereby one strives to consciously be original or groundbreaking; observing oneself and attempting to tame and direct forces that are beyond one’s control. Truly fresh and imaginative songs and styles are born when this result is the last thing on one’s mind.

This touches on the general principle: On cause mieux quand on ne dit pas «Causons» (“One converses better when one does not say, “Let us converse.”) It’s like the children in C. S. Lewis’s “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe”, who couldn’t enter the magical world of Narnia when they consciously wanted to. Art arises from just doing one’s job well and hopefully enjoying it. It comes from adversity and accidents and not conscious planning.