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|Ragtime and Honky-Tonk of the 1950s|
An Essay on the Core of the First Ragtime Revival
Contents Copyright ©2004 by William G. Edwards
It was a wise man (or wise cracker in a good sense) who has been widely quoted as having answered an unheard question long ago, saying "Ragtime dead? Hell, I didn't even know it was sick!" This, of course, was the late "Ragtime" Bob Darch, one of the lesser seen forces behind the first ragtime revival, but an important figure in this interesting segment of ragtime history. Utilizing the collective research by myself and many distinguished colleagues and ragtime historians, I will provide an overview of some of the more significant facets of the ragtime revival of the 1950s along with the major players and their various stage names. Given the volume of works put out in a hurry by lesser known artists or small labels capitalizing on the public thirst for honky-tonk during the era of "space-age pop," it is nearly impossible to make this a comprehensive article without spilling off the bottom of many screens/pages, and would be replete with redundancy. Nonetheless I will endeavor to encapsulate the genesis, development, motivation, marketing, and performance analysis of 1950s style Ragtime and Honky-Tonk piano to give some perspective of where it has gone since and why. Without these pioneers who were able to create what the public apparently wanted and was ready for, interest in ragtime as a genre may have continued to wane, perhaps for decades. Artists like myself owe them recognition at the very least.
|DEATH AND RESURRECTION|
A bit dramatic perhaps, but not too far off base.
There was still some ragtime composition and publishing activity into the 1920s.
When the Swing Era started in 1935 a few arrangers like Fletcher Henderson tried to revive some of the older tunes in order to provide quick material that would appeal to older audiences. But the move was forward, on to more technically challenging arrangements by the Benny Goodman Orchestra or Chick Webb, or to the sweet music of Guy Lombardo or Glen Gray. This forward movement continued through the end of World War II in 1945. At that point, with so many soldiers coming home and so many opportunities opening for new entertainment venues, as well as a shift in the recording industry after a musician's union strike that lasted through most of the war and seriously curtailed commercial recordings, the public once again needed something new. There were many divergent directions at that time, the most prevalant leaning towards the new BeBop of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, the growth of Rhythm and Blues, and the emerging field of what would be known as pop (short for popular) music. However, a bit before the war started, something important was brewing in San Francisco that would eventually contribute to the mix in a big way.
A group of dedicated jazz musicians who were interested in resurrecting some of the classic 1920s tunes by King Oliver
Concurrently in the mid 1940s, a group of animation artists and directors, along with a couple of part time musician, were gathering for lunch time
The largest catalyst for the onset of 1950s nostalgia was accidental in nature,
Hired after the war to work with Capitol's transcription service (click for Lou Busch biography), Lou Busch had previously played with a few orchestras,
The Honky-Tonk Piano album was and still is successful in its intent as well as flawed in its execution.
A veritable tidal wave of releases started
By 1953, mainstream artists were also making their contributions.
By 1955 the field was rather crowded
Enoch Light, a violinist and musician of some stature,
In 1956, Light founded Grand Award Records, and converted many of his Waldorf recordings into 12" reissues on the new label, most featuring colorful artwork on the covers.
A different approach to the genre emerged just a little before Hyman's albums,
Women were also a part of the honky-tonk culture,
|THE CHANGING OF THE GUARD|
The second edition of They All Played Ragtime, released in 1959, had a great deal of added or modified information that was sent to the authors by many who had read the first 1950 edition. Among the stories that were augmented was that of classic ragtime composer Joseph Lamb, spurring a few ragtime afficianados to contact and spend time with him to get as much information as they could. These included piano roll afficianado and historian Mike Montgomery, who made one of two recordings of Lamb playing his own rags at home. Another was music historian and UC Berkley college professor Sam Charters, who sat down with Mr. Lamb in the composer's home with a recorder, capturing not only his playing but his reflections on the ragtime era. This also shed a new light on the perceptions of how the music should be regarded in terms of performance, as well as indications of just how revered Scott Joplin was, and should be. While Maple Leaf Rag had been commonly performed by the honky-tonk performers of the 1950s, few of Joplin's other pieces were regarded or even known by all but a few die-hard players like Wally Rose or Marvin Ash.
Charters set out to change some of this, wanting to produce an album of Joplin rags played on solo piano.
Around the same time, a Colorado pianist who was now in his
One more notable contribution to the changeover, albeit often a background figure by choice, was the late "Ragtime Bob" Darch.
All of these acts by Bob Darch contributed to the growing cache of ragtime information and inspiration. Bob was often more interested in seeing that the music and those who created it got the public recognition he felt it was due, than he was in promoting his own legacy, which ironically (and most befittingly) is largely what his legacy has become. While he eventually became fairly well-known, although never achieving the fame of Morath, Busch or others, he also knew everybody and always had time for all of them, including the author who befriended him the last few years of his life. While it was a collective effort that brought around the second ragtime revival in the 1970s, yet another story, which ultimately codified Scott Joplin's proper place in American music history, Bob was usually one or two steps away from those who were more visible in this effort, often doing the pushing. Make no mistake that he could play a mean honky-tonk piano when called upon to do so. However, up to the very end (the author participated in his last public performance) he was ultimately interested in sharing the authentic side of the ragtime life.
So from Mr. Busch to Mr. Darch, the decade of the the 1950s and part of the 1960s saw the rebirth, or more properly, the reacquaintance of ragtime music to the American public and the world at large, in a variety of forms. While honky-tonk might be viewed as an illegitimate offspring of ragtime, it is actually closer to a misguided sibling. The genre of 1950s, and indeed the larger encapsulated genre of "space age pop," were both products of an age of diversity when America and the world were experimenting with new musical directions while still trying to hang onto or incorporate more familiar legacies of the music world. Listening to honky-tonk records now may seem a guilty pleasure of sorts, but it was part of an evolution of ragtime that kept it in the forefront while the more classical forms of the performance of it were still coming to fruition. So go ahead, enjoy it without the guilt!
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