From Ragtime to Modernism

Jacqueline Wong
Oct 23, 2014 · 16 min read

— by way of —

Tin Pan Alley

by Jacqueline Wong

Music has been known for transcending the long established prejudices of African-American identity by the figures of the Harlem Renaissance. But the melodies have gone much further, creating and shaping the primal soul of modernism.

The symbiotic interplay between ragtime’s promoting of Tin Pan Alley artists and the Tin Pan Alley music industry’s promoting of ragtime-inspired music came to distinguish this African-American art form as a significant part of American culture as well as a significant, if not definitive, voice in the modernist movement.

The evolution can be traced from the inception of instrumental ragtime music through its promotion and fusion with the lyrics of the Tin Pan Alley artists who championed such distinctive African-American musical styles as syncopation, fragmentation, and vernacular speech, and concluding with how this stylistic fusion of lyrics and music may ultimately have inspired the modernist movement.


Scott Joplin

Ragtime[1] music was a creation of composer Scott Joplin, the son of a former slave, who attempted to combine high and low, European and African-American art forms into a new musical style in the 1890s. The style’s major characteristics include syncopation (or “ragged time”) and later, improvisation. It shares many similarities with baroque music, yet with additional emphasis on integrating the more colloquial American sentiments as well as conversation between instruments in its later forms.

While the style of ragtime was well received and distinctly characterized the music of the Harlem Renaissance, some claim that Joplin did not receive the recognition he deserved regarding his music’s influence on the Harlem Renaissance. Alain Locke, editor of The New Negro, for example, was not only “unfamiliar with Joplin’s music, he did not know who Joplin was. He thought Joplin was a white musician who [. . .] deserved ‘bracketed credit with the Negro pioneers.’”[2]

Those who did “know who Joplin was,” however, credited him as the founding father of ragtime; and his music predominated many major silent films. One of his first successful compositions included the “Maple Leaf Rag” (1899), in which distinctive blends of high, low, European, and African-American flavors can be detected.

So influential and impressive were Joplin’s rags that Joplin had been referred to a sort of “jazz” version of Bach.[3] His composition, “The Entertainer” (1902), frequently hallmarks the flavor of the early twentieth century Zeitgeist, played in the background of such modern representations as the film, The Sting, and of the depiction of old New York in The Simpsons television series.

Modernist composers such as Claude Debussy, who wrote the “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” and Igor Stravinsky would also incorporate ragtime characteristics into their compositions.[4]


Shortly after its popularization in the late 1890s and early 1900s, the ragtime style was soon adopted by non-African-American performers such as minstrel or “Mammy” / “coon” song singers, and later, by the artists of Tin Pan Alley. Some controversy arose concerning this ethnic mixture of music.

Tin Pan Alley, New York West 28th Street, circa 1902

Alain Locke voiced a very strong opposition toward the integration of African-American music into Tin Pan Alley, claiming that these new adaptations pervert “authentic” African-American music. For instance, while the authentic “Mammy” song narrates the story of an African American man who prepares to commit suicide rather than surrender to a mob that’s about to lynch him for “shooting a sheriff and another white man,” the Tin Pan-ified “Mammy” songs attempt to portray the African-American condition as normative and non-race-specific, thus overlooking the issue of racial oppression.[5]

James Weldon Johnson, on the other hand, assumed a more optimistic stance, asserting how ragtime music played a transitional role through its universal appeal, which would eventually allow for the liberation and general admiration of Negro art and culture.

Johnson attempted to make minstrel/“Mammy” lyrics more sophisticated and less racially offensive. He states in his autobiography, Along This Way,

“I believed that the characteristic qualities: imagery, color, abandon, sonorous diction, syncopated rhythms, and native idioms, could be preserved and, at the same time, the composition as a whole be enlarged beyond the circumference of mere race, and given universality.”[6]

This more optimistic process prophesied by Johnson appears to have been substantiated over time, particularly as ragged music and meter assimilated further and further into American culture largely via the mass-marketed popular songs Tin Pan Alley, many of which championed the art form of ragtime.

Many Tin Pan Alley artists were inspired by the newly invented genre and strove to adopt and adapt it while preserving the sentiments of its origins. The appeal of ragtime to the Alley artists owes much to several factors:

  1. Tin Pan Alley was established with the purpose of mass-marketing music by appealing to the masses of mainstream society
  2. Ragtime was introduced in the early stages of Tin Pan Alley (while the ballad was growing out of vogue – partly as a result of ragtime’s emergence). It was new, interesting, had popular appeal, and would sell potentially well, and
  3. Many of the major players on Tin Pan Alley were of minority (mostly Jewish) descent. Jewish artists such as Irving Berlin and the Gershwins belonged to an ethic group that shared a history of ethnic oppression and a style of music fairly similar to that of the African-Americans. These similarities helped these artists preserve a degree of artistic integrity as new songs were written and old songs evolved.


The Tin Pan Alley music industry was the first in the world to churn out and mass marketed popular music on an industrial scale. Producers searched for music that was both immediately appealing and easy to memorize (criteria which could also be considered the foundations of popular music). Not only did ragtime meet this demand of mass appeal, but it also appealed to many of the artists. Most of the publishers and musicians were first- or second-generation Jewish immigrants who took a familiar liking to the artistic styles and sentiments of African-American music.

The cadences of ragtime and African-American spirituals shared several idiosyncrasies similar to that of Jewish art, such as minor strains in both Russian and Negro music[7] and the improvisation and syncopation characteristic of Jewish Klezmer music.[8]

The combination of ragtime and klezmer inspired many Jewish composers of the era, including Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, and Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen to adopt ragtime as a major defining characteristic of their work. In the midst of this stylistic fusion, African-American composers such as pianist Willie the Lion Smith and Duke Ellington to perform some Yiddish songs as well.[9]


As Tin Pan Alley adapted and commercialized ragtime, popular artists began to adapt the music to conform to the 32-bar AABA song structure, or other easy-to-memorize, pattern in order to enhance the songs’ viral marketability.

The AABA formula deemed that the first 8 bars would play the song’s most distinctive melody, which would then be followed by a repeat of the melody (either exactly the same or with a slight variation). This would be followed by an entirely new theme (the B section), which would then transport back to the original (A) theme.

While this repetitive formula confined the complexity of ragtime music, the syncopated nature of the ragtime style allowed for much more lively, creative lyrics, full of verbal surprises and witty twists.[10] These syncopated musical pauses and rhythmic shifts allowed for a reversal of verbal accents, and splitting of phrases and words.[11]

Irving Berlin was one of the first and perhaps the most influential fusers of ragged music and lyrics. Ironically, his first successful hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” whose code name derives from the minstrel song, “Alexander, Don’t You Love Your Baby No More” (1904)[12], was musically more of a march than a rag, as its melody contained only a hint of syncopation.[13] In a sense, Berlin’s rendition sounds more like a promotional jingle about ragtime, imploring an audience that doesn’t normally listen to ragtime to “come on along,” jump on the bandwagon heading “up” to an elevated new style called ragtime.

Structurally, the melody provides just a small sample of syncopation while much of the ragging performed upon the lyrics. Much of the text consists of vernacular society verse or colloquialisms and jagged, choppy phrases and ideas, and unnatural rhyme schemes. When combined with the musical beats, the words within the lyrical meter are syncopated. Here, the phrases “ain’t you goin’” reflect common colloquial speech; “grand stand, / brass band” are quick choppy fragments; “bugle call” is rhymed with “before”; and the unnatural emphasis in “so natural” syncopates, or rags the meter.[14]

As Berlin’s music evolved, this lyrical ragging became much more “creative.” In his later popular hit, “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” in which he celebrates mixing into high society, both in Park Avenue and Harlem. Here, the subjects, the music, and the lyrics of this song are “mis-fits.” The rhythm of ragged music combines in perfect opposition with the lyrical meter.[15]


Picasso’s “The Guitar Player” (1910)

This practice of fragmentation reflects – and has been said to have inspired – the general sentiments of the modernist movements in several different forms of media, including those in visual and literary fields.

Lyricist Ira Gershwin was greatly inspired by Berlin and the method of fitting fragments “mosaically” to music. He also focused much on American slang as well as the fragmented artistic movement of Cubism. “The Real American Folk Song (Is a Rag)” was, like Berlin’s songs, a tribute to the art form of ragtime as well as his first collaboration with his brother George Gershwin.

In “The Real American Folksong,” the lyrics have been compared to the poetry of e. e. cummings.[16] The words of the refrain,

“For it’s inocula-ted
with a syncopa-ted
sort of meter —
Sweeter —
than a classic strain…”

are brief, abrupt, and fragmented, much like the mosaic fragmentation of modern art and poetry. The choppiness and speed of these rag-inspired tunes have also been said to reflect the industrial speed of the newly emerging modern lifestyle, particularly paralleling the “speed and snap” of the automobile.[17]

These similarities between ragtime and other modernist art forms not only helped distinguish ragtime as a significant aspect of the modernist movement, but also to distinguish African-American culture as an essential characteristic of the modernist identity. In his essay, “Listening to Jazz,” Geoffrey Jacques suggests how the African-American musicals styles of ragtime/jazz are reflected in such modern movements as futurism, cubism, imagism, and surrealism, all of which reflect “strivings toward individualism.”

“[T]o be a modernist artist meant that you either self-identified or were identified by others with African American speech or music.”
— Geoffrey Jacques

He claims that the African-American artistic genre served as a major catalyst in inspiring the major sentiments characteristic of the modernist movement, including psychic automatism (largely reflected in musical improvisation), a combination of high and low art, and transgression and disruption of established norms and societal standards.[18]

Its harmonious symbiosis with the musicians of Tin Pan Alley both paved the way for a new era in American popular music and modern culture that continues to this day.


[1] The distinction between ragtime and jazz remains fairly ambiguous. Some distinguish jazz as a ragtime that “swings,” others associate it with the post-war era — simply a later form of ragtime, others associate it more with the blues and New Orleans, and still others claim it used to be a slang term for “intercourse” that later replaced the name “ragtime.” Because of this ambiguity, the terms, “ragtime” and “African-American music” will primarily be used, while that which can be considered “jazz” may also apply.

[2] Berlin, Edward A. King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.) 242.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Levang, Rex. Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag/A Ragtime Timeline. (May 1999.) <>

[5] Melnick, Jeffrey. A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and African Popular Song. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.) 151–152

[6] Johnson, James Weldon. Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson. (1931; New York: Penguin, 1990.) 335.

[7] Schuyler, George S. “The Negro Art Hokum.” Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Ed. Nathan Irvin Huggins. (1976; Oxford University Press: Oxford. 1995.) 309–312.

[8] Mast, Gerald. Can’t Help Singin’: The American Musical on Stage and Screen. (Woodstock: Overlook Press, 1987.) 37.

[9] Melnick 179.

[10] Mast 31.

[11] Furia, Philip. The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.)

[12] Ibid. 49.

[13] Hy land, William G. The Song is Ended: Songwriters and American Music, 1900–1950. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.)

[14] Furia 49–50.

[15] Furia 62.

[16] Furia 128–129.

[17] Roell, Craig H. “The Development of Tin Pan Alley.” America’s Musical Pulse: Popular Music in Twentieth-Century Society. Ed. Kenneth Bindas. (Westport: Praeger, 1992.) 113–121.

[18] Jacques, Geoffrey. “Listening to Jazz.” New Approaches to the Twentieth Century: American Popular Music. Ed. Rachel Rubin and Jeffrey Melnick. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001.) 69–75.


Berlin, Edward A. King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
A biography on the life of Scott Joplin, the child of a former slave and originator of ragtime music. While some have acknowledged Joplin’s genius, even liking him to a “jazz Bach,” others, particularly Alain Locke, belittled claimed that Joplin did not represent mature ragtime. “Not only was [Locke] unfamiliar with Joplin’s music, he did not know who Joplin was. He thought Joplin was a white musician who, along with song-writer [. . .] deserved ‘bracketed credit with the Negro pioneers’” (242). Regardless of such under-recognition, Berlin acknowledges Joplin as the originator of ragtime.

Bindas, Kenneth J., ed. America’s Musical Pulse: Popular Music in Twentieth-Century Society. Westport: Praeger, 1992.
An anthology of articles on American music, whose articles on ragtime include those written by Peretti, Roell, and Joyner.

Ewen, David. The Life and Death of Tin Pan Alley: The Golden Age of American Popular Music. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1964.
Ewen describes a brief integration of ragtime in Tin Pan Alley and distinguishes between ragtime and jazz. Jazz, according to Ewen, derives from the improvisations and blues of New Orleans, whereas “ragtime [. . .] was nothing more than the persistent use of syncopation” (169) — one theory out of many, which contributes to the ambiguity of the distinction. Ewen also highlights the effects of ragtime on the enthusiastic masses and particularly the influence of Irving Berlin’s quasi-rags (namely, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”).

Forte, Allen. Listening to Classic American Popular Songs. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
The lyrics of popular song are primarily music-dependent, written after the music, and consists of characteristics largely distinct from poetry, such as semantics and sonics. In analyzing a small selection of songs from the 1920s, this book may shed light on how ragtime music influences ragtime lyrics and how these lyrics may have shifted the stylistics of popular lyrics.

Furia, Philip. The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
While Furia outlines brief contextual information of Tin Pan Alley, including its notion of popularizing music that would appeal to the masses, and the lyricists associated with it, this book presents an analysis of lyric content and structure, including vers de société (society verse/colloquial jargon), syncopation, &c. Lyricists covered include Irving Berlin, Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, and others. Briefly suggests also how Dadaism and Cubism, along with ragtime, may have inspired lyrical devices of fragmentation and juxtaposition.

Hischak, Thomas S. Word Crazy: Broadway Lyricists from Cohan to Sondheim. New York: Praeger, 1991.
Hischak provides some biographical context and much stylistic analysis of the works of lyricists, including Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, Hart, &c. Although he does not address the historical influence of ragtime, Hischak’s essays do analyze the unique idiosyncratic styles of individual lyricists, which include many ragtime devices. Unlike Furia, Hischak tends to focus more on mentality and tone, which vary amongst lyricists, yet seem to radiate a common comic mentality of the age.

Hyland, William G. The Song is Ended: Songwriters and American Music, 1900–1950. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Hyland provides a close historical context of individual composers and lyricists with several daily-life anecdotes about the songwriting process. Includes a chapter on Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” suggesting that it was “not a rag in the sense intended by Scott Joplin [. . .] It was closer to a march, although it has a syncopated air” (27). Also suggests how “purer forms of ragtime were bowdlerized by musicians who could not play the more complex patterns. White imitators began to simplify the music and give it clever lyrics,” which seems to mark an integration of culture through music and lyrics (28).

Jacques, Geoffrey. “Listening to Jazz.” New Approaches to the Twentieth Century: American Popular Music. Ed. Rachel Rubin and Jeffrey Melnick. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001.
Upon referring to James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Jacques elaborates upon ragtime’s dramatic influence upon the concept of modern culture. From Johnson’s account, Jacques asserts how ragtime is a music unto itself, a genre of universal appeal consisting of several forms of mediums (folk, ethnic, classical, military, &c.), and a genre synonymous with the urbanization of the time, which produced a “homogenizing cultural effect” (69). Jacques asserts that ragtime also sets the standard for modernity in all forms of art and literature, and “to be a modernist artist meant that you either self-identified or were identified by others with African American speech or music” (74).

Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. New York: Penguin, 1990.

Joyner, David. “The Ragtime Controversy.” Bindas, 239–247.
Ragtime begat pop music. Contrasting reactions to ragtime music include its youth appeal, its liberating qualities, and its shift from an “Eurocentric music bias” to one that was fundamentally American — or African-American. While some initial reactions to ragtime when it first emerged described it as “‘not our virtue but our vice, not our strength but our weakness, and that such a picture of us as it presents is not a portrait but a caricature” (245), Joyner attests to its more popular mass-appeal. Its phenomenal influence can be seen today in its pop predecessors, whose records outsell classical/European music.

Mast, Gerald. Can’t Help Singin’: The American Musical on Stage and Screen. Woodstock: Overlook Press, 1987.
The Tin Pan Alley push toward standardization and memorizability fused well with the appeal of ragtime style, whose verbal surprises and witty twists livened up the formal (AABA) structure of the song. As ragtime greatly inspired notable Jewish artists, such as the Gershwins, Mast also comments on the heavy Jewish influence in shaping musical culture, such as Klezmer music, which also relied heavily on improvisation and syncopation, and “which proved a serviceable if accidental cultural bridge — between white and black sounds” (37).

Melnick, Jeffrey. A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and African Popular Song. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Melnick describes how Jews and African-American ragtime music have facilitated cultural fusion and transition. Melnick attests that Jews in particular, who empathized with the oppressed African-Americans, were compelled to identify with African-American music. As ragtime flourished, “Jews served in the role of go-between” (149). “Berlin’s rag-inspired “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” helped contribute to the nationalization of ragtime, “helping to translate race (in the form of ragtime) into nation” (43). Melnick also refers to Johnson’s theories of ragtime music serving as a middle ground between high and low art forms and also as playing a transitional role between time periods in American society, moving toward integration.

Mordden, Ethan. Make Believe: The Broadway Musical in the 1920s. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Although ragtime is seldom mentioned, Mordden illuminates in his chapter, “Let’s Merge: New Social Attitudes,” the burgeoning cultural fusion amongst minority (& rag-inspired) artists in the 1920s. “Adding in the newcomers of the 1920s — the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, [. . .] — the WASPs (Porter, Freedley, and Henderson) are the minority group, and ‘their’ people are slowly starting to be replaced by a more ethnic mix” (133), “WASP” being an acronym for “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.”

Peretti, Burton W. “Emerging from America’s Underside: The Black Musician from Ragtime to Jazz.” Bindas, 63–71.
Peretti describes the progression of ragtime music to jazz and distinguishes the two in stating that jazz “is primarily a band music, not rooted in the technique and repertoire of the solo pianist. Like ragtime, jazz features syncopation, but jazz (as musicians put it) also swings” (68). Peretti claims that jazz is also attributed with seductivity and sensuousness, and does not refer to sheet music. This definition varies from other claims that attempt to distinguish the two genres and adds to the ambiguity between ragtime and jazz.

Roell, Craig H. “The Development of Tin Pan Alley.” Bindas, 113–121.
Roell addresses ragtime’s influence on Tin Pan Alley, and suggests possible influences of American culture of the period on the development of ragtime. “Composer Irving Berlin, whose hit, ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ (1911), became the most commercially successful ragtime song, asserted that the ‘speed and snap’ of American ragtime was directly influenced by the automobile. ‘All the old rhythm was gone,’ he said, ‘and in its place was heard the hum of an engine, the whirr of wheels, the explosion of an exhaust. The leisurely songs that men hummed to the clatter of horses’ hoofs did not fit into this new rhythm — the new age demanded new music for new action….The country speeded up’” (115). Roell does not address the fact that “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” is not entirely a ragtime song, and the accuracy of this analogy may be questioned. However, this analogy draws interesting tonal parallels between ragtime & its cultural context.

Van Der Merwe, Peter. Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth Century Popular Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Van Der Merwe’s approach to ragtime is largely focused on music-theory. He defines the origin of the term “ragtime” as “ initially, a matter of syncopation — ‘ragged time’ — and very little else” (282). This definition seems to add concreteness to the ambiguities that arise from various theories attempting to define ragtime.

Zinsser, William. Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs. Jaffrey: David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc., 2001.
Zinner dives into the infrastructure of popular American composers’ and lyricists’ songs, particularly highlighting the ease and wit with which popular lyrics must be sung. The influence of ragtime is not addressed directly, yet brief historical information is provided on Andy Razaf and credit is given to the “jazz and ragtime sensibility that George Gershwin, Harold Arlen and many other white songwriters went to Harlem to draw inspiration from” (71). Through them, this sensibility may perhaps have been carried through American popular song.

© 2002

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