An interview with a ragtime pioneer, taken from the CD Rom Who Built America, by Roy Rosenzweig and the American Social History Project|
Ragtime music, with its syncopated, polyrhythmic style, was born, according to cultural historian Robert Snyder, in the 1890s in the black saloons and brothels of southern and midwestern cities like Baltimore and St. Louis. But it also owed a great deal to march music, especially the sort of quasi-military march music most famously associated with John Philip Sousa. It was at the center of American popular music from the end of the nineteenth century until the 1920s.
Ragtime, for most Americans, meant a tinkling piano; and no one played the ragtime piano any better or longer than Eubie Blake. Blake, a musician, composer, and performer born in Baltimore in 1883, published his first rags in 1914. He met his lifelong friend and collaborator, Noble Sissle, the following year. The team of Blake and Sissle went on to write and perform such notable musical hits as "I'm Just Wild About Harry" and such successful Broadway shows as "Shuffle Along."
In this selection from an interview/ performance conducted in 1970 for public television by musician Max Morath, Blake, recalls that he had to practice his rags on the family piano when his mother wasn't home. When she caught him playing a ragtime tune, she usually ordered him out the door with the stern warning: "Take that ragtime out of my house!"
Despite its origins in black urban culture, ragtime found an enormous audience among white Americans after the turn of the century, just as blues, rhythm and blues, soul, and rap music have done over the course of the twentieth century.
A transcript of this interview is included below.
Eubie Blake: So one day I was playing my mother'd gone out to work, see and what she was doing home that time in the morning, I don't know. She came in, says and heard me playing: "Take that ragtime out of my house!" That's the first time I ever heard the word "ragtime." And she made me; she made me stop.
Max Morath: She really made you stop.
Blake: Yes, wouldn't let me play.
Morath: Well, why did she . . . ? I mean why did she think it was . . .?
Blake: Because ragtime was supposed . . . See it was out of the houses of ill repute, or bordellos, I guess that's a better word, and it was low, low, low. It was considered low music, see. It wasn't, it wasn't art, see.
Morath: You think it was simply because it was played in this sporting district . . .
Blake: In the sporting district . . .
Morath: Or because they thought there was something wrong with the music itself?
Blake: No, not the music, because from whence it came. See?
Morath: Were you . . . when you were a teenager or in your early professional days, were you in that . . .ah, kind of work. I mean were you close enough to that that you could tell us about it?
Blake: Yeah. Now you see when I first start to play in these houses, see, it must have been around nineteen hundred.
Morath: So you were about fifteen . . . sixteen.
Blake: Yeah. I used to have to go across to the pool room. A guy named Rab Walker, he ran the pool room. And I got a pair of long pants to put on, you see, because I can't go in this house with short pants on, see. The pants come way up here, Max, way up here and roll up, and I go and play. The woman paid me three dollars a week. But she never paid me nothing because I made tips. Boy, sometimes I'd make seven and eight, ten dollars, see? I've been lucky all my life: I've always made good money. So, I'd take the guys to the theater, to the burlesque theater. They'd go up in the gallery, you know. Ten cents. If I'd take fifteen guys I'd spend . . . I had Max this is true I had money all under the carpet.
Morath: You'd sneak out of the house at night.
Blake: Sneak out of the house and go get my long pants and put'em on, see. Then I'd come back and put'em back, see. Twenty-five cents I had to pay him. And my mother says, "Oh, it couldn't have been him, that boy went to bed at nine o'clock." I did go to bed, see, but my mother was at the front and I'd go out the alley. Go right out the alley and go across the street, get my long pants, put'em on, go up to Aggie Shelton's to work. Well, I worked up there for about three or four months. Then I went down on what they call the line: sporting houses on this side, sporting houses on that side, see. That was Annie Gilly's and I played down there. That's where the man come and got me to play for the . . .
Morath: Medicine Show?
Blake: Medicine Show! See.
Morath: Can you remember when you were playing piano at Aggie Shelton's, for instance? I mean can you remember the style that you were playing then?
Blake: I played . . . I have never changed my style of playing in my life, see.
Morath: Oh now, come on, because you've studied music ever since 1900.
Blake: All right but, but when I play ragtime I have never changed my style. You know people say, "Today, you
Blake: I'll play like him, see? So they have no style, very few have a style of their own. Now I've been playing . . . look. Look now, the "Charleston Rag," you take the "Charleston Rag."
Blake: Ladies and Gentlemen, that's Ragtime!