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|Piano Rags by , , and|
|Thomas Million Turpin|
Thomas Million Turpin - 1897: In the first of its incarnations, Turpin's Harlem Rag stood alone as the first true published piano rag by a black composer, and one of very few published anywhere in ragtime's fledgling first year. According to legitimate sources, it was composed and being played as early as 1892, before the pivotal Chicago Exposition of 1893 where ragtime was allegedly heard in public for the first time. The initial 1897 edition and one that followed were both published by Robert DeYong & Company of St. Louis, and both were arranged by D.S. DeLisle. Through some unknown editing change, the C section in the revised version was entirely different from the initial publication. Yet another version surfaced when Jos. W. Stern & Company in New York purchased the copyright, this third release being arranged by staff composer/arranger William H. Tyers. This time, the A section was excised, and the remainder of the rag simplified for easier playing. The edition represented here is the first St. Louis printing by DeYong. While Harlem Rag is a conglomeration of folk styles and folk melodies, Turpin was able to give it a coherence that made it the strongest entry into the rag market at that time. Note that the repeated variations of the B and C sections are actually written out in this score, a rare practice once ragtime formats and generally accepted ragtime composition and performance protocols were established.
Thomas Million Turpin - 1899: Printed ragtime was still relatively new in 1899. However, many of the melodies used in rags had been established for some time. Such is the case with this second of Turpin's pieces. The best known of the melodies is in the C section, supposedly taken from a tune heard on street organs in St. Louis. These portable devices reproduced their music from either cylinders or continuous rolls of stiff paper. One of the more interesting aspects of this arrangement, along with that of the Harlem Rag, is that B and C sections are written out in full to provide both the first iteration of each and a composed variation as well. The written repeats mostly fill out the original melody with extra chord notes, as was common in the playing of that time. Note that the rag is written entirely in C with no modulation. There is also an extreme variation of the bass pattern in the C section, which uses devices uncommon for this time, although they were often used a decade later. These include the left hand triplet figure and the held chord that followed, the latter a precursor of stop-time.
|A Ragtime Nightmare|
Thomas Million Turpin - 1900: Ragtime Nightmare passes by quickly if you blink your ears, so be ready. Actually, the tune is a condensed adaptation of a stage piece by George Lansing known as Darkies Dream, and a follow up by banjoists Vess Ossman and Fred Van Eps called Darkie's Awakening. The startling introduction is culled from the first piece, which is based on well known Schottische dance rhythms. The body of the rag, taken from the second piece, immediately follows it. Listen to the innovative bass line in the A section, and the contrasting dynamics of the B section, clearly marked in the music with multiple sforzandos and accents. The C section is more delicate in nature and less chordal. The return of the non-repeating B section brings back the contrast, and a terse end to the nightmare. I have expounded upon the nightmare idea a bit, but will acknowledge that in the end, it truly is a nightmare for me to play this arrangement!
|St. Louis Rag|
Thomas Million Turpin - 1903: From the time of the announcement that the 1903 Louisiana Purchase Exposition would be held in St. Louis, many in the town could think of little else, whether it was the anticipation of being at the center of attention, or whether they wanted to find some way to profit from it. Since ragtime was gaining momentum in the area, many local musicians saw this as a chance to have their work heard. Turpin, proprietor of the well-known Rosebud Bar, quickly prepared this rag for publication. However, with several time and cost overruns, and the addition of the 1904 Olympic Games, the fair was delayed nearly a year. As a result, St. Louis Rag did not have the debut that it deserved, but it still did well. As with most Turpin pieces, it is pianistically challenging. Of note are the unusual breaks in the B section at measure 3/4 and 11/2, rather than the traditional 7/8. The C section provides lovely contrast, and also has a break. It is the D section which contains an idea later expanded upon in Scott Joplin's Cascades, that of an ambitious left hand filled with bass runs. Believe me, this is a lot of fun to play!
|The Buffalo Rag|
Thomas Million Turpin - 1904: Another example of a folk rag, this one may likely give the best indication of how the composer played. It is also one of two Turpin pieces (the other is St. Louis Rag that enjoyed band recordings made within a year of publication. Turpin was better known by this time as the proprietor of the Rosebud Cafe, a St. Louis destination for performing ragtime pianists, but was also respected for his playing ability and compositions. This was likely named after a lodge that Turpin was a member of. Buffalo Rag follows the pattern of Bowery Buck, including no change in key signature and fully written out variations in the B and C sections. The chord progression in A is somewhat advanced for this time, albeit with common syncopated patterns. The B section features a variety of patterns, and is based on the circle of fifths as was common for many ragtime era second strains. What is uncommon is that this idea is continued and expanded on in the C section, which contains two unique variations on the B strain. Note also that it opens and closes with the same four measure phrase. There are surprises throughout, and plenty of beef to this buffalo.
|Charles Leslie Johnson|
|A Black Smoke|
Charles Leslie Johnson - 1902: This is among the earliest of Johnson's works, coming some four years before his famous Dill Pickles Rag. A Black Smoke does not follow the three over four secondary rag figure found in many of Johnson's later rags, and depends more on intricate melodies and rhythmic devices. It also remains in the key of G throughout, unusual for Johnson. The A section contains a persistent syncopation that extends over bar lines, which was rare for this time. It is a complex melody which ends with a stop-time device found later in works by Scott Joplin and others. The B section consists of a combination of call and response and stop-time figures. I have longed maintained (with resistance by a couple of performers you may have heard) that this is a train piece, in spite of the representation of the black boy smoking on the cover. The C and D sections help reinforce my contention. There is a clear train clickety-clack pattern in the C section, followed by what could be a whistle in the D section in the second, fourth, tenth, and twelfth measures. Maybe it's a stretch, but why not. The piece closes with a reiteration of the A section. The piano is usually smokin' when I'm done playin' this rag!
Charles Leslie Johnson - 1906: As the story goes, Johnson was working on the composition of this piece one Saturday afternoon at the Carl Hoffman Music Company when a bookkeeper, drawn by the tune, walked in and asked him what it was called. Johnson caught a glimpse of the carton of Dill Pickles the bookkeeper was carrying for his dinner and said "I'll call it the Dill Pickles Rag."* Charlie always seemed able to turn out a tune that would catch the listener's ear quickly, and was not too hard for the average pianist to master. The A section is largely carried by the three over four secondary rag that was quickly becoming prevalent in popular ragtime of 1907 to 1914. As with Wild Cherries, the left hand gets some interesting solo work in the B section which is otherwise comprised of a rather uninspiring chord progression. The C section is where this rag really "rocks." It also leaves some room for interesting improvisation, followed by a return to the B theme in the new key. It was also reformatted as a song, though that version is not represented here. The covers presents some interesting art work, the first utilizing the "picture in a picture" concept, as seen in the copies of the rag dropped from the giant pickle dirigible, and the second by the pickled pickles on the bench. Did I just say that?
*Source: Rags and Ragtime by Dave Jasen and Trebor Tichenor, ©1978/1988. This is a great reference book that all ragtime enthusiasts should possess.
Charles Leslie Johnson (as Raymond Birch) - 1908: Johnson was so prolific that in an effort to avoid flooding the market with works attributed to his name he often published under pseudonyms. This is just one of his many Raymond Birch compositions. Whereas most rags were written in 2/4 time, this one was presented in 4/4, perhaps to imply a different feel for phrasing and tempo. Although Johnson was better known for his rambunctious fast tunes, Powder Rag represents one of his best attempts at classic ragtime with rich chording and advanced phrasing. The opening strain utilizes some thick melodic octave work, and is similar to an innovative rag (worth looking into) published in the 1980s by composer Glen Jenks, The Wrong Rag. The B section contains only sparse content, and is typical Johnson. This is essentially a folk-style rag in spite of its classic overtones, and the C section helps to punctuate this with a very pleasant and simple melodic line over non-complex harmonies. It is followed by a short interlude and an unusual return to the A section transposed to the new key. There are a large number of rhythmic and harmonic improvisational possibilities within this piece, a few of which I have taken advantage of.
Charles Leslie Johnson (as Raymond Birch) - 1908: Unlike the bulk of Johnson piano rags, Beedle-Um-Bo is intended as a slow drag, and is difficult to interpret as much more than that. It is elegant and fluid throughout, and is a better display of Johnson's compositional ability than many of his faster tunes. Bereft of an introduction, I took the liberty of adding one to help set up the politely arranged A section. There are no surprises, but there is a pleasant break in the middle. The second strain combines interplay between the hands alternating with call and response patterns. It is the trio that catches the seasoned ragtime listener by surprise. Instead of modulating from F to Bb as expected, it travels to Db, a move that allows Johnson to introduce uncertainty about the actual key the section is in. It plays around with F minor a bit and a suggestion of Ab before almost settling back into F major, then plows into a repeat. In the end, the original key of F is resolved to, and the rag closes out as it began.
|Apple Jack, Some Rag|
Charles Leslie Johnson - 1909: The first of two rags that Johnson sent to the Vandersloot Music Publishing Company in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, this became their biggest hit and likely the best rag to ever grace their catalog. Both Johnson and Vandersloot benefited largely from the success of Johnson's Dill Pickles of 1906, and the rag sold well as a result of its predecessor's popularity. Apple Jack actually uses a wider variety of patterns than some of his other rags of this period, and to great effect right from the introduction. The possibilities for introducing pianistic tricks into this piece made it a popular piano roll as well. The B section provides contrast through a smoother melodic line played in two-note chords. The trio presents a variation on stop-time, interlaced with cakewalk-style figures that draw heavily on a folk melody. The ending is the characteristic repeat of the B section in the new key.
Charles Leslie Johnson - 1909: M. Witmark & Sons, the famous New York firm that published Porcupine, was known more for their association with operettas, early Broadway shows, and budget reprints. They only dabbled in piano ragtime, but this was among their most popular entries. Johnson likely used them for wider distribution than he could achieve from Kansas City, where he not only owned but comprised his entire publishing company. This piece certainly sticks itself into you quickly. There is a definitive metronome marking of 100 on it, although whether publisher or Johnson included it is unknown. That tempo suggests that it be played a bit slower than many of his other rags were generally performed. The introduction has two skipped beats, including one at the beginning of a measure. Another device seldom used by Johnson; the A section does not resolve in either the first or second endings. The reiteration of A after the B section does finally come to the expected ending. The trio is very lyrical, and somewhat song-like in nature. It follows a melodic line and chord progression used over fifty years later in the song Let It Be Me. It just shows how creative Johnson could be when he set his quill to paper. Get the point?
Charles Leslie Johnson - 1910: In 1909, Johnson sent his wonderful rag Apple Jack to the earnest but somewhat isolated Vandersloot Music Publishing Company in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. He may have been looking to them for better east coast distribution of his work through them, and received it to some degree, but less than he likely had hoped. Still, he gave them a second and last try with this rare work, Golden Spider. A close look at the cover indicates it may have been designed for use by another publisher, there is faded text behind the Vandersloot logo. Even though this rag follows the Johnson formula, much of it seems derived from other well-known pieces. The A section is very similar to a popular intermezzo from 1903 by W.C. Powell titled The Gondolier. As with that piece, there isn't a whit of syncopation in this section. It does, however, suggest the delicate weave of a spider web. The B section also sounds somewhat familiar, but this author's perception may be tainted a bit by what follows. The C section is clearly a near duplication of the opening theme of Scott Joplin's Elite Syncopations from 1902, a point clearly emphasized in my interpretation during the repeat. In spite of these factors, it is a nicely assembled though neglected work of Johnson's, partly because of its scarcity.
Charles Leslie Johnson - 1911: In 1910, Johnson had sold his extensive catalog, business, and copyrights to Harold Rossiter of Chicago, with an added stipulation that he not enter the publishing business for a year. Even though he had no regular source of income at this point, he kept on composing and selling rags over the next year until he could start another publishing house. This is among those sent to Jerome H. Remick in New York, a good place to receive national distribution. Cum-Bac starts right out with an unusual ascending bass line, and there are only two syncopations in the entire A section. The B section uses a variation on the semi-chromatic theme found in A. It's the C section that could be called typical Johnson, but certainly at his best. His thin bass lines allowed much room for improvisational possibilities for the experienced pianist. There is an unusual iteration of the opening section after the repeat of B in the new key, implied by a Fine in the second ending of A. On the title - it's not some kind of lurid text message. Cum-Bac is the name of a mildly popular round metal rolling toy that had a shifting weight inside. This weight would, in theory, cause the toy to come back when rolled away on the floor. The rag was more reliable in the end.
|Peanuts - A Nutty Rag|
Owing to new information on it's authorship, this rag has been moved to the Rags From 1910 to 1915 page.
Owing to new information on it's authorship, this rag has been moved to the Rags From 1910 to 1915 page.
|Crazy Bone Rag|
Charles Leslie Johnson - 1913: This is one of a series of similar Tin Pan Alley style rags that Johnson wrote, and in spite of his prolific output, the only one for 1913. Johnson had a gift for simple rag melodies, and even more so for arranging them into something that not only sounded appealing, but was not overly difficult to play. In essence, this is Dill Pickles turned upside down and shaken around a little bit. I was first exposed to Crazy Bone at the age of five on an early 1950s RCA 10" recording by noted band leader Frankie Carle. It was one of his few ragtime recordings, and done in the honky-tonk style that was prevalent at the time. Some of the more interesting elements of that performance have found their way into mine. The B section has a break that is out of the ordinary for Johnson, employing a pattern of octaves across alternating hands, and allowing for a wide range of improvisational opportunities. As is more characteristic for the composer, the C section is clearly the most melodic, and is followed by a predictable iteration of B in the new key. I'm not sure of the source of the title, but there is a percussion instrument made of two pieces of hard wood called the Bones, which requires good rhythm and skilled hands to play well. I had the opportunity a few years back to perform this with a well-seasoned bones player, and it went with it so well that I believe it may possibly have been the inspiration for Crazy Bone Rag, more so than a dancing skeleton.
Charles Leslie Johnson - 1914: Poodles were just coming into their own in the early 20th century, and although they had been around for a few centuries, little exists on them before the late 19th century. For the smaller-sized poodle (pictured on the cover), one of the more common careers for them was actually in the circus, as they were very trainable as performing dogs. This practice spread originally from the European continent until they were eventually seen and soon assimilated into American homes. For this piece, notice that the word "rag" is missing. This piece is in rag format for the most part, but as the 1910s progressed, Johnson put more focus on what was selling at that time - dance tunes. This is touted as a one-step on the cover, but inside the music it also mentions two-step, the primary difference in being how fast it is played. When preparing this piece I tried a variety of tempos, and found that the elegance of the poodle, a dog many associated with France as well as high society, could be brought out more with the slower two-step tempo. There are several measures of the habañera rhythm interspersed throughout, and a beautiful trio that stands up to the best of Johnson's work. Note the unusual 24-bar length of the trio, something that very few ragtime composers attempted successfully, but which makes a great deal of sense in this context.
|Blue Goose Rag|
Charles Leslie Johnson (as Raymond Birch) - 1916: Another odd Johnson title with a cover most befitting, Blue Goose is somewhat more advanced than many of his earlier rags. The harmonic and syncopated content of the first section features a few subtleties that demonstrate more detail than pieces from the prior decade. It also includes the right hand slide into the opening phrase in print, a trick that is implied but not always printed in many other Johnson works. The B section features a broken bass line that is the harbinger of the boogie bass line, a staple of the 1920s. The trio breaks ranks with the other sections by omitting all syncopation and most of the eighth note rhythms as well. This likely made the piece more palatable as a dance band arrangement for the Fox Trot or similar well-known steps of the time. In addition, it is a full repeated 32 measure section, and the last eight bars of it suggest more the ending of a song chorus rather than a rag trio. I give it more of a rag treatment on the repeat. This was one of the last three piano rags that Johnson published before retiring from rag writing.
|Teasing the Cat|
Charles Leslie Johnson - 1916: This cute kitty-oriented piece, a direct sibling of his Blue Goose Rag came near the end of Johnson's rag composing career, and reflects the onset of mid 1910s dance styles, most notably the one step. In that regard, it contains very little syncopation in the A section and the trio, with most of rag-like strains living in the B section. The piece also has breaks at some of the half cadences, which translates well into a band-oriented style. The main motive found in the third measure and beyond of the A section is also repeated in other parts of the tune, and represents the playful kitty aspect of the title. It also has a 32 bar trio, characteristic of Johnson pieces of the time. Even though it is not repeated in the score, it is worth repeating here for some of the variations it suggests. As the pianist, I never mind if you're teasing the kitty, as long as you're feeding it as well!
|Charles Luckeyth "Luckey" Roberts|
|Junk Man Rag (arr. Matthews) Junk Man Rag (arr. Tyers) Lyrics|
Charles Luckeyth "Luckey" Roberts (M), Chris Smith & Ferdinand E. Mierisch (L) - 1913: Charles Luckeyth (sometimes spelled Luckyth) Roberts was at once small but dominating. Born in Philadelphia in 1887, his torso stopped growing at 4'10", but his arms and hands kept right on until they became as big as those of the legendary "Eubie" Blake, a life long friend. He was actively involved in show business from the start, originally as an acrobat. By the time he was sixteen he had a reputation that preceded him. In his mid twenties he met Artie Matthews who offered to arrange his Junk Man Rag. Matthew's arrangement, when played slowly, has a lot of Joplinesque qualities that bring credibility to the rag. The following year, Will Tyers, the composer of Panama, also arranged Junk Man for a different publisher. Thus two different instrumental versions of this fine piece exist. Neither quite captures the energy of Roberts live performances, but they do show interesting contrasts. The Matthew's arrangement can be played a bit faster, which is closer to the manner in which Roberts performed it. Melodically it alternates between octaves in each section without the use of moving octave figures. The Tyers arrangement is somewhat fuller, save for the left hand, but more static in its melodic range and the octave melodies tend to slow performance. This version also was recast with lyrics added to it for additional sales of the pieces as a song. It should be noted that Luckey was the first of the Harlem school of pianists to see his work in publication.
|Pork and Beans|
Charles Luckeyth "Luckey" Roberts - 1913: Following the success of Junk Man Rag, Roberts started on a streak of writing and publishing that would last throughout most of his life. But for his early works, this is the capper. Named after a popular food dish in Harlem eateries, it is some of the best printed representation of Luckey's playing and a true challenge to all who attempt it. The A section opens with a "smash" figure in which several notes are played almost simultaneously. Where it could have become redundant, Roberts interspersed it with some interesting breaks. Following that is the B section which is an unusual 18 measures in length, and does not require repeating. The idea behind the C section has been described as the musical equivalent of stretching a rubber band and letting it snap. The D section is indicative of early Harlem stride, and quite powerful. It is followed by one more iteration of C. I have so much fun with it that I go back to D and close with a variation of A. But then again, I'm just a Ham at Heart.
|Music Box Rag|
Charles Luckeyth "Luckey" Roberts - 1914: From the time that Junk Man Rag was published it was clear that Roberts stood out from other composers. The first of the Harlem composers to be recognized, he often leaned towards innovative playing styles that were reflected in his published works as best as they could be notated. Music Box Rag has the swing rhythm clearly written out in a dotted pattern, so it is more than just a suggestion. It should be clearly noted that what was in print was likely only a suggestion of what Roberts played, but that helped make this piece marketable to the average music consumer, a female in her late teens or early twenties. While the A section has a cute little motif based on a triad that emulates to some degree a music box (and note that music boxes at that time were not necessarily tiny, since many were large beasts that played giant discs). On the repeats I have infused some novelty piano stylings with suggestions of stride. The B section and trio go far beyond the confines of the opening, and become quite ambitious at points. They feature lots of octave movement and some challenging left hand position switches, creating what amounts to early Harlem stride piece at times. I have, like most of my peers, thrown out the original ending which was a short version of the A theme in the new key, and returned to the original A section in increasingly higher octaves to what would seem like a logical conclusion, given the title. Just don't get all wound up about it.
Charles Luckeyth "Luckey" Roberts - 1914: Roberts was one of the first black musicians to earn his way into the performing circuit for the "Top 400". This would include Vanderbilts, Morgans, Astors and the like. While some of his musical associates, such as James Reese Europe and the Clef Club groups also played these parties, Luckey seemed to have his pick of the best of them right up through 1942 when the Second World War was underway. These would include solo or band performances that ranged from Long Island down to Palm Beach. The latter so intrigued him that he wrote this gentle piece about it. Experienced listeners will also hear some of Eubie Blake's style within. They likely influenced each other during this time. The opening theme is very simple and evocative of a society gathering, much like what Thomas "Fats" Waller would later exhibit in Lounging at the Waldorf. The B section consists largely of advanced chords and repeated patterns, leaving room for some harmonic improvisation. Delicate would be one way to describe the C section as written. It is full of licks common to both Luckey and Eubie, and I manage to expand on them in the repeat.
Charles Luckeyth "Luckey" Roberts - c. 1915: Although the exact date of composition is unknown for this pianistic novelty, in the late 1950s Roberts mentioned that it was about fifty years old (he was 66 at the time). Since this was mentioned in the same time period as his Railroad Blues, published in 1915, a date in the mid-1910s is more likely. Also, this was the time when "Jelly Roll" Morton was first doing his "Spanish Tinge" pieces. A Harlem resident, Roberts probably picked up this style of composition during his many trips to Florida and New Orleans for gigs. It was finally performed as part of his Spanish Suite in a performance with symphonic orchestra in Carnegie Hall, August 1939. He later played it as a piano solo from which this version is drawn. Spanish Fandango is structured in three distinct sections with an attention-getting introduction. The right hand utilizes a lot of flashy pseudo-glissando patterns for fill, and in the A section is used entirely as a backdrop to the left hand melody. While his 1950s recording for Good Time Jazz contained some influence of the changes that had occurred in popular music since Roberts was first published, it is likely that the general structure or content of this piece changed very little since its inception.
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