Dragtime: The Root & Future of Modern Harmony

Dragtime: The Root & Future of Modern Harmony

     Sounds contain information, most of which is received in support of a grand idea.  But, with certain music, the important information is contained within the passing notes that we overlook.  This is the case with Ragtime.  This particular project is put together from digitized piano rolls taken from the public domain.  An intense ritard has been placed over the rolls and they have been edited down to their most dramatic parts.  For, the information within these rolls preserves a very unique understanding of Western harmony.

     Although the common narrative will tell us that this music has been evolved since its day, the 'gospel' or 'jazz' harmony that is consistently referenced as an improvement on ragtime concepts is simply a variation of a theme invented by these great composers. While most of the more evolved understandings of western harmony, such as Schoenberg's twelve-tone theory, seek to escape traditional Euro-classical doctrine, Ragtime makes do within those confines as only the lost tribes could.

     What you will hear in this project is that this style of music is an elaboration on Euro-American 'classics.' It is the simple difference between “Oh, When The Saints Go Marching In' and 'O Wen De Saints Go Marchin In.' It is through the simplification of the language and the music, through it's dismantling and reassembling, that these new styles have been born and conceptually advanced.

     The difference between the classics being played classically and being ragged is just that subtle, and the result of the piano rolls being slowed to a tortoise pace shows this. It sounds at times like a classical symphony, since the tempo removes most of the rhythmic elements of the music. Yet, many of the harmonies and melodies offered are completely unique conceptually and structurally, coming from the intense emotional experience of the lost tribes here in Babylon (a.k.a. USA). Ragtime is still the root and future of what is arguablly the most expressive harmonic concept of western harmony in existence. This is why this great collection carries its title and why so many other styles have come about in its shadow. In the current day, we have the opportunity to digitally reconstruct the piano rolls and present them in different sound configurations, as we have done here. The result is beautiful and mysterious.


     The key of the songs, in order, moves from E-flat to C to E-flat to C to G, which is a little melody in itself. Fats Waller's “Ain't Misbehavin” is performed by Jean Lawrence Cook, who was the most prolific piano roll artist in history. We could view him as a technologist of sorts and I do wonder if he would have been interested in synthesizers. The lyric to this song, although not heard here, was written by the great Andy Razaf.

    Layton and Creamer were immersed in the song market of tin pan alley. They penned “After You've Gone,” their most famous song, which has been recorded many times. My favorite version of this song is performed by the Count Basie Band, fronted by Jimmy Rushing. But, the player of this roll is yet anonymous.

     We have the privilege, through these piano rolls, of hearing Scott Joplin play his “The Entertainer.” Of course, he passed before the science of recording sound had really reached a presentable level. James Price Johnson also plays his own “Carolina Shout” on the piano roll which is presented here. All of these songs were bonafyde hits. But, I remember hearing “I'm Just Wild About Harry” in cartoons as a child, a true timeless hit made famous by the stage show called Shuffle Along. It was written by Eubie Blake.