Ragtime- “Swing or Straight”?

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To most people, the question of how one should play the rhythms in Ragtime music seldom comes to mind. In my case, I know how it should be played but have doubts that it truly needs to be played correctly. To address this dilemma, I will explain the differences and why I choose to perform Ragtime music incorrectly.

A brief history of Ragtime music 00:101

Ben Harney first introduced his style of broken rhythms from Africa to the public in his compositions which he called ragtime songs. These songs were more casual than the European music enjoyed at that time and contained the distinctive American slang and the African- American derived melodies and rhythms.

After Irving Berlin’ success with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, the whole nation’s musical tastes shifted away from the sentimental waltz songs and operettas of that time to the new music- Ragtime.

Important point to remember-

Ragtime in its beginning, SWUNG. This was represented as a series of long followed by short note valves.

In order to make available the newest popular songs to the public, the player piano was invented. Many homes were furnished with these musical wonders and the latest piano roll was heard throughout the land. Unfortunately the technology used to punch the holes in these piano rolls was note accurate enough to accurately represent the long, short notes performed by the Ragtime piano players and their owners learned incorrectly to play rags with even note values.

Important point to remember-

Because of the limitations in the manufacturing of piano rolls, the correct swing rhythm of piano rags was replaced by even note values or straight rhythm.

The Entertainer

Maple Leaf Rag

So now you understand our dilemma. Do we play Rags with a swing feel or with even eighth notes?

On our next concert we are performing an arrangement of “And All That Jazz” and I have asked my players to play the eighth notes even or straight, not with a swing feel (which is historically more accurate). I would like my audience to recognize the music as they are used to hearing it, even though it is incorrect. I will introduce the number with a shortened version of this post in order to enlighten them to the background and misuse of the original style.

I searched the net to offer something which I think is closer to the original feel of Ragtime music and found this gem recorded by Ragtime Pianist Bob Milne. Notice that the notes are not even and at the same time they are not what we consider swing either. His performance seems to be in between the two which I believe is more accurate of a traditional performance.

Ragtime Pianist Bob Milne

Now that you understand the history of the swing, no swing discussion related to Ragtime music, you can decide for yourself to which side of the isle you would like to walk on.

Published by

Bruce Chidester

Bruce was a member of the faculty at the University of Northern Iowa, School of Music in Cedar Falls from 1969 until his retirement in 1999. He has performed with many well-known entertainers such as Bob Hope, Jim Nabors, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Anita Bryant, Carman Cavalara, Victor Borgie, the Four Freshman, Blackstone the Magician, Bobby Vinton and John Davidson.

6 thoughts on “Ragtime- “Swing or Straight”?”

  1. Hi, I stumbled across this searching for history of swing 8ths, and had to say–I can’t imagine where you get the idea that ragtime swung. In web crawling I found one contemporary recording by Vess Ossman–he swung, but his backing band didn’t. Mike Bernard did not in 1913, and Joseph Lamb did not — found here

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bdz2D8S-3BE
    There are many band recordings including Jim Europe–he doesn’t swing.

    On the other hand, I would be interested in any recordings from the ragtime era where they did swing–can you recommend some?

    1. Thank you for visiting my blog and for your comments on this issue. I would have answered your questions sooner but had to check out your examples in order to justify my conclusion on Rag- swing or straight.

      I will try to answer your statements in the order you submitted them.

      1. “Hi, I stumbled across this searching for history of swing 8ths, and had to say–I can’t imagine where you get the idea that ragtime swung”.
      I came to this conclusion after careful thought and research.

      2. “I found one contemporary recording by Vess Ossman–he swung, but his backing band didn’t”.
      You are correct and that proves that my conclusion was correct. That was a live recording and all musicians at that time were swinging the 8th notes. Why the band didn’t is an interesting observation.

      3. “Mike Bernard did not in 1913, and Joseph Lamb did not”.
      If you were listing to the examples I found (Lemon Drops by Mike Bernard (1910, Ragtime piano), That was a fine example of a recorded piano roll and for that reason it did could not swing. Which again proves my point.

      4. “Joseph Lamb did not”.
      The example you submitted was a live sound recording and if you listed more carefully, you’ll find that this is a perfect example of a piano rag played in swing style which again proves my point.

      5. “There are many band recordings including Jim Europe–he doesn’t swing”.
      Your problem is becoming more obvious for this live recording is just another example of a true swing style used in this black band recording. These live recordings again prove my point.

      6. “On the other hand, I would be interested in any recordings from the ragtime era where they did swing–can you recommend some?”
      I would be delighted to add additional live recordings for you to listen to but this would not be of any help to you until you are able to recognize swing from straight rhythms.

      If you would like help in developing this ability, please let me know and I would be happy to do a blog on how to recognize straight rhythms from swing.

      Thank you for your comments for it has helped me demonstrate my original statements about the change of swing/straight style of playing Rags. Stay well and I am looking forward to visiting with you again if you have any more questions.

  2. Interesting article. This is the first time I’ve ever heard that Ragtime swung. I’m gonna look into it more.

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