Sunday, May 27, 2012


Ragtime (alternatively spelled rag-time) is an original musical genre which enjoyed its peak popularity between 1897 and 1918. Its main characteristic trait is its syncopated, or "ragged," rhythm. It began as dance music in the red-light districts of African American communities in St. Louis and New Orleans years before being published as popular sheet music for piano. Ernest Hogan was an innovator and key pioneer who helped develop the musical genre. Hogan is also credited for coining the term Ragtime.  

The ragtime composer Scott Joplin became famous through the publication in 1899 of the "Maple Leaf Rag" and a string of ragtime hits that followed, although he was later forgotten by all but a small, dedicated community of ragtime aficionados until the major ragtime revival in the early 1970s.  For at least 12 years after its publication, the "Maple Leaf Rag" heavily influenced subsequent ragtime composers with its melody lines, harmonic progressions or metric patterns.

Here’s the "Maple Leaf Rag" with Scott Joplin himself on the piano:

And here’s a more 'Roaring 20s' cover of the song by Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks as it appears on the soundtrack of the TV series Boardwalk Empire

Jelly Roll Morton
Ragtime was one of the main influences on the early development of jazz (along with the blues). Some artists, like Jelly Roll Morton, were present and performed both ragtime and jazz styles during the period the two genres overlapped. Jazz largely surpassed ragtime in mainstream popularity in the early 1920s, although ragtime compositions continue to be written up to the present, and periodic revivals of popular interest in ragtime occurred in the 1950s and the 1970s.

The heyday of ragtime predated the widespread availability of sound recording. Like classical music, and unlike jazz, classical ragtime was and is primarily a written tradition, being distributed in sheet music rather than through recordings or by imitation of live performances. Ragtime music was also distributed via piano rolls for player pianos.

Ragtime also served as the roots for stride piano, a more improvisational piano style popular in the 1920s and 1930s. A true master of stride piano was of course my beloved Fats Waller - you can check my relevant post: Fats Waller Elements of ragtime found their way into much of the American popular music of the early 20th century.

In addition, classical composers were influenced by the form with, for example, Igor Stravinsky's solo piano work Piano-Rag-Music from 1919, and Claude Debussy's Golliwogg's Cakewalk (from the 1908 Piano Suite Children's Corner), and General Lavine (from his Preludes). Stravinsky also included a ragtime in his theater piece L'histoire du soldat (1918).

For more details about ragtime:
For more information about Scott Joplin:
About the 'Maple Leaf Rag':

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Western Swing

Western swing music is a subgenre of American country music that originated in the late 1920s in the West and South among the region's Western string bands.It is dance music, often with an up-tempo beat, which attracted huge crowds to dance halls and clubs in Texas, Oklahoma and California during the 1930s and 40s until a federal war-time nightclub tax in 1944 led to its decline.

The movement was an outgrowth of jazz, and similarities with Gypsy jazz are often noted. The music is an amalgamation of rural, cowboy, polka, folk, Dixieland jazz and blues blended with swing; and played by a hot string band often augmented with drums, saxophones, pianos and, notably, the steel guitar. The electrically amplified stringed instruments, especially the steel guitar, give the music a distinctive sound. Later incarnations have also included overtones of bebop.

Western swing differs in several ways from the music played by the nationally popular horn-driven big swing bands of the same era. In Western bands—even the fully orchestrated bands—vocals and other instruments followed the fiddle's lead. Additionally, although popular horn bands tended to arrange and score their music, most Western bands improvised freely, either by soloists or collectively.

Prominent groups during the peak of Western swing's popularity included The Light Crust Doughboys, Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys, Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, and Spade Cooley and His Orchestra. Contemporary groups include Asleep at the Wheel and The Hot Club of Cowtown.

According to legendary guitarist Merle Travis, "Western swing is nothing more than a group of talented country boys, unschooled in music, but playing the music they feel, beating a solid two-four rhythm to the harmonies that buzz around their brains. When it escapes in all its musical glory, my friend, you have Western swing."

More about the origins and evolution of western swing:
Some tunes from the prominent groups of the genre:


A little addition of mine to YouTube because I like this track:

You can read more about this track here Keep a-knockin' and then listen to another, more famous, cover of this song - it's not swing, but it sure rocks!!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Prohibition [USA, 1919-1933]

Prohibition of alcohol, often referred to simply as prohibition, is the legal act of prohibiting the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol and alcoholic beverages.

Prohibition was a major reform movement in the United States of America from the 1840s into the 1920s, and was sponsored by evangelical Protestant churches, especially the Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Disciples and Congregationalists. The Women's Christian Temperance Union, founded in 1874, and the Prohibition Party were major players until the early 20th century, when the movement was taken over by the Anti-Saloon League. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union [believed that Prohibition] would protect families, women and children from the effects of abuse of alcohol. By using pressure politics on legislators, the Anti-Saloon League achieved the goal of nationwide prohibition during World War I, emphasizing the need to destroy the political corruption of the saloons, the political power of the German-based brewing industry, and the need to reduce domestic violence in the home.

Prohibition was instituted with ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution on January 16, 1919, which prohibited the "...manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States..." Congress passed the "Volstead Act" on October 28, 1919, to enforce the law, but most large cities were uninterested in enforcing the legislation, leaving an understaffed federal service to go after bootleggers. [1] Three separate Federal Agencies were to enforce the Volstead Act: a) the United States Coast Guard Office of Law Enforcement, b) the US Treasury Department IRS Bureau of Prohibition and c) the US Department of Justice Bureau of Prohibition [2]

Nationwide Prohibition in the United States began on January 17, 1920 and focused on the manufacture and sale of alcohol [1]…one anomaly of the Act as worded was that it did not actually prohibit the consumption of alcohol; many people actually stockpiled wines and liquors for their own use in the latter part of 1919 before sales of alcohol became illegal the following January.
Photograph via Corbis.

The introduction of alcohol prohibition and its subsequent enforcement in law was a hotly debated issue. The contemporary prohibitionists ("dries") labeled this as the "Noble Experiment" and presented it as a victory for public morals and health. The consumption of alcohol overall went down and remained below pre-Prohibition levels long after the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed. Anti-prohibitionists ("wets") criticized the alcohol ban as an intrusion of mainly rural Protestant ideals on a central aspect of urban, immigrant and Catholic everyday life. Effective enforcement of the alcohol ban during the Prohibition Era proved to be very difficult and led to widespread flouting of the law. The lack of a solid popular consensus for the ban resulted in the growth of vast criminal organizations, including the modern American Mafia, and various other criminal cliques. Widespread disrespect of the law also generated rampant corruption among politicians and within police forces. [2]

The sale of alcohol was illegal, but alcoholic drinks were still widely available. People also kept private bars to serve their guests. Large quantities of alcohol were smuggled in from Canada, overland, by sea along both ocean coasts, and via the Great Lakes. Legal and illegal home brewing was popular during Prohibition. "Malt and hop" stores popped up across the country and some former breweries turned to selling malt extract syrup, ostensibly for baking and "beverage" purposes. [1]

Chicago became a haven for Prohibition dodgers during the time known as the "Roaring Twenties". Many of Chicago's most notorious gangsters, including Al Capone and his enemy Bugs Moran, made millions of dollars through illegal alcohol sales. By the end of the decade Capone controlled all 10,000 speakeasies in Chicago and ruled the bootlegging business from Canada to Florida. Numerous other crimes, including theft and murder, were directly linked to criminal activities in Chicago and elsewhere in violation of prohibition. [2] 

A speakeasy, also called a blind pig or blind tiger, was an establishment that illegally sold alcoholic beverages.


The term “bootlegging” came into use in the 1880s, when it referred to the practice of hiding flasks of illegal liquor inside boots.


Prohibition became increasingly unpopular during the Great Depression. The repeal movement was started by a wealthy Republican, Pauline Sabin, who said that prohibition should be repealed because it made the US a nation of hypocrites and undermined its respect for the rule of law. Her fellow Republicans were put in office by the "drys" and, even though they eagerly partook in consumption of alcoholic beverages at her parties, in public they presented themselves as opposing the repeal of prohibition, lest they be thrown out of office by the dry voting blocks. 

This hypocrisy and the fact that women led the prohibition movement convinced her to start the organization that eventually led to the repeal of prohibition. When her fellow Republicans would not support her efforts, she went to the Democrats, who changed from drys led by conservative Democrats and Catholics to supporting repeal led by liberal politicians such as La Guardia and Franklin Roosevelt. She, and they, emphasized that repeal would generate enormous sums of much needed tax revenue, and weaken the base of organized crime.

The Repeal of Prohibition in the United States was accomplished with the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment to the United States Constitution on December 5, 1933. By its terms, states were allowed to set their own laws for the control of alcohol. The organized Prohibition movement was dead nationwide, but survived for a while in a few southern and border states. [1]


ca. 1925 Photograph via Corbis
photos from Google Images and The New Yorker's article "We Wanted Beer" 

Viewing material:

Documentary on Prohibition

Brian De Palma's The Untouchables [1987]

Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot [1959]

Monday, May 14, 2012


Grand Theatre in Buffalo, NY around 1900
Vaudeville was a theatrical genre of variety entertainment in the United States and Canada from the early 1880s until the early 1930s. Each performance was made up of a series of separate, unrelated acts grouped together on a common bill. Types of acts included popular and classical musicians, dancers, comedians, trained animals, magicians, female and male impersonators, acrobats, illustrated songs, jugglers, one-act plays or scenes from plays, athletes, lecturing celebrities, minstrels, and movies.

You can read more about Vaudeville here:
or if you are the visual type you can watch this two-part documentary film on YouTube:

The photo is taken from this site where you can find lots of interesting information about vaudeville but also watch original films and listen to original tunes.

Other interesting sites: [about Vaudeville Houses] 

Don't miss the Vaudeville Revue organized by the Athens Lindy Hop on June 16, 2012.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...