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.