Chris Green, July 2020
As I write there are demonstrations taking place across many continents in protest against the treatment of black people by police and by governments. Racism has achieved the headlines at the expense of the pandemic, or perhaps because of it. So, perhaps it is not the best time to raise the question of the role of African-Americans in the history of music. To an extent they have been airbrushed out of the history of music books. I know because it took me a time to research it when I was preparing for a lecture series (which I have now given many times) on “bad music”.
The first question I am asked is “What is “bad” music”? The answer is music that has caused major social, political and cultural challenges to dominant societies at any time. So, the Nazis had great problems with “jazz” which was seen as “black” music- music that was morally corrupt; but then, the prevailing white American scene had allowed in jazz but had largely ignored the work of composers such as Scott Joplin. He had been widely feted as a composer of “rags”, but when he wrote an opera, that was too much for the musical establishment and it took something like 60 years following his death to get the opera performed publicly for the first time.
All of this is background to a fascinating release from Saydisc, a label which has done so much to preserve the oral tradition of the spoken and musical word. This is the third album in a series which traces the history of ragtime and jazz and with twenty tracks recorded between 1898 and 1923, the contents really do portray a major chapter in the emergence of a new voice in American music.
Some of the recordings are of – what we would now consider to be “standards” – such as Won't you come home Bill Bailey?, but it is the historical context that makes this release so important such as the frequent references by black people to “coon songs”. A recent Smithsonian TV documentary highlighted the commercial success of such music; success that was all too short-lived but employing language which many would now find entirely offensive.
Ragtime was a gift from America to the world, and it was the John Philip Sousa Band that imported it to Europe, inspiring composers such as Debussy to create his classical interpretation of the rag with one of his Preludes.
So, anyone interested in the challenge of the “new” in music at the turn of the twentieth century should explore this valuable release. The engineering from a variety of sources is of the highest quality and ones' ears soon adapt to the surface noise. Indeed, some tracks almost make one feel that the listener is in the room on Tin Pan Alley in New York.