Ragtime and the guitar

His name was Arthur Blake, or maybe it was Arthur Phelps. He might have been from Jacksonville, Florida or perhaps from the Sea Islands of Georgia. Whoever he was, and wherever he was from, the guitarist who would be known professionally as Blind Blake made history in 1926 when he sat down in a Grafton, Wisconsin recording studio and ripped through a guitar rag called “West Coast Blues.” The “B” side to the first of many Blind Blake hits, “West Coast Blues” was the first recording of Piedmont style ragtime guitar – a complex syncopated style of fingerpicking, which through recordings by Blake and contemporaries such as Blind Willie McTell, Reverend Gary Davis and Blind Boy Fuller, represents a high point of American guitar music.

Blind Blake wasn’t the first guitarist to record ragtime. The ragtime craze swept America around the turn of the twentieth century, and ragtime recordings featuring guitarists began appearing as early as 1906.(1) Nor was Blake the first black guitar soloist to record ragtime – Sylvester Weaver recorded a number of ragtime pieces in the mid-1920s, beginning with “Guitar Rag” (played on a guitar/banjo hybrid) in 1923. Blake, however, was the first of the Piedmont school of guitarists to record. Rediscovered by young white guitarists like David Bromberg, John Fahey and Jorma Kaukonen during the folk and blues revivals of the 1950s and 1960s, the ragtime recordings of the Piedmont guitarists represent a standard to which fingerpickers still aspire, and Piedmont guitar rags are in the repertoire of guitarists across the globe.

Paramount Records advertised Blind Blake as “a wizard at picking his piano-sounding guitar.” Blake clearly was influenced by ragtime piano, but “West Coast Blues” belongs to a tradition of syncopated dance music that predates the familiar piano rags of Scott Joplin and his contemporaries. Despite the title, it is not a blues, and has nothing to do with the West Coast. Rather, it is an example of a country dance rag – essentially a ragtime square dance – complete with called dance steps: “Now we’re goin’ to do the ol’ country rock … first you swing your partner … promenade … now sew-saw right … swing that girl with the blue dress … now bring her back to me.”

“West Coast Blues” was recorded about a decade after ragtime had reached its pinnacle of popularity, at a time when jazz dominated American popular music. But even though “West Coast Blues” and other guitar rags of the 1920s and 1930s were recorded long after the heyday of the ragtime craze, Blind Blake and the other ragtime guitarists of his time tapped into a rich vein of syncopated rural music that dates back at least to the late nineteenth century, and probably even earlier. The origins of ragtime are murky, but its roots clearly include rural banjo, fiddle and string band dance music. It is impossible to fully disentangle the myriad elements of the great guitar rags of Blind Blake, Blind Willie McTell, Gary Davis and Willie Walker – all were talented and eclectic musicians who combined a wide range of folk and pop music elements into their compositions – but at the core of this style of guitar ragtime is a vibrant nineteenth century tradition of rural music shared by blacks and whites.

Ragtime, which was unabashedly music of the black underclass, caught the attention of white audiences in the mid-1890s. The ragtime craze was most likely sparked by a white vaudeville performer in New York in 1896. Ben Harney (1871-1938) was a hit at Tony Pastor’s Music Hall and other New York vaudeville theatres; and the composer of some of the first published ragtime songs including “Mr. Johnson, Turn Me Loose” and “You’re a Good Ol’ Wagon.” Where and how Harney learned to play ragtime is a mystery. He claimed to have invented the style, but it is likely that he picked it up from black musicians in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and honed his skills in Louisville saloons.

In the 1890s and early 1900s, ragtime was as transformational and disruptive as rock & roll was in the 1950s. It was a hot, rude new sound that erupted out of the black underclass to the delight of young white people desperate to break away from stifling Victorian propriety. As ragtime seized the imagination of the white middle class, the self-appointed guardians of culture became increasingly alarmed. Dismay grew into panic as they found they were helpless to stop the onslaught of what composer Edward McDowell called “nigger whorehouse music.”

The region north of Memphis, up the Mississippi River to St. Louis, and over to Kansas City was the most fertile territory for the growth of ragtime into a distinctive new genre in the 1880s and 1890s. St. Louis had been an important hub of black musical activity since at least the 1860s, and by the 1870s had the third largest urban black community in the nation.(2) Targee Street was a residential street in the Chestnut Valley District, the section of town where many of the bordellos and saloons that provided work for early ragtime musicians were located. “Music was a necessity in the world around Targee Street,” according to Arna Bontemps and Jack Conroy. “In every house there was a guitar. In many of the saloons and fancy establishments there were pianos. On these guitars and pianos of the Negro Sporting world ragtime music was created.”(3)

It is likely that black urban guitarists were playing syncopated instrumental solos in the 1880s and 1890s, but there is no hard evidence that this was the case. The evidence is stronger that singers accompanied ragtime songs – ragtime was more a vocal style than an instrumental style in the 1890s – with a syncopated style of guitar accompaniment. The recordings of Henry “Ragtime” Thomas, a performer who recorded in the 1920s, but whose style and repertoire are rooted in the late nineteenth century, may be the best examples of the ragtime guitar style of the 1890s. Guitarists also were often found in urban “jig” bands – mixed string and brass ensembles that very likely played syncopated music at least as early as the 1880s, and possibly as early as the 1840s.

Guitar Rags

Ragtime guitar developed most fully as a distinctive and cohesive style in an area running north from Jacksonville, Florida to about Richmond, Virginia, west through Louisville, Kentucky and into eastern Tennessee.  While the style throughout this area is rooted in a common folk ragtime tradition, researchers and writers tend to break this arc into two distinct regions. Piedmont ragtime typically is viewed as an adjunct to the African-American blues style of the region running along the southeastern seaboard, while Kentucky “thumbpicking” is seen as the foundation of “Travis picking,” the style of playing popularized by white country guitarist, Merle Travis.

The Piedmont ragtime guitar style seems to have its roots in the region’s string band and African-American banjo traditions. The Piedmont has a rich history of black string bands that, according to folklorist Barry Lee Pearson, set it apart from some other sections of the South, “where the evolving blues form quickly superseded and largely eradicated pre-blues styles. In the Southeast, the transition was slower and never complete.” (4)While commercial ragtime and the classic ragtime of Scott Joplin and his followers were several steps removed from the style’s folk roots, Piedmont guitar rags rarely strayed far from their country origins. Many Piedmont rags are guitar versions of string band-style pieces, meant for dancing.

In western Kentucky, most specifically in Muhlenberg County, a style of fingerpicking emerged, typically called “thumbpicking” or “thumb style,” which, like the Piedmont style, uses the fingers to play a syncopated melodic line on the treble strings while the thumb plucks a bass line on the beat. Also like the Piedmont style, flashy guitar rags were often the showpieces for Kentucky thumbpickers, with “Cannon Ball Rag” the piece that still defines the accomplished guitarist. This style would become enormously influential in country music as “Travis picking,” named for country guitar great, Merle Travis (1917-1983), a Muhlenberg County native.

Travis was influenced by white Muhlenberg guitarists Mose Rager and Ike Everly (father of Don and Phil, the Everly Brothers), who in turn had learned from Kennedy Jones (1900-1990). Jones, according to journalist and author Bobby Anderson, was “the one man who brought it all together. … More than anyone else, “Jonesy” was responsible for the sound that later became known as the ‘Merle Travis Guitar Style.’”(5) Jones credited his style to his mother, Alice DeArmond Jones (1863-1945), but it is nearly certain that origins of Travis picking lie in a black guitar tradition that had existed in the region for many years. Jones’ greatest contribution seems to have been the fusion of a fingerpicking style that he had learned from his mother with the African-American ragtime style he heard from black players, especially the remarkable guitarist and fiddler Arnold Shultz (1886-1931).

Schultz was a favorite at white square dances, where he played with both black and white groups. “The first time … I ever seen Arnold Shultz … this square dance was at Rosine, Kentucky,” recalled Bill Monroe, who grew up in Rosine. “Arnold and two more colored fellows come up there and played for the dance. He was powerful with it.” (6) Schulz never recorded, but it is clear he was an innovator, combining the syncopated country dance music style of the region with harmonic innovations he picked up performing on steamships traveling the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

At the core of Schultz’s style, by all indications, was country ragtime music with roots firmly set in the nineteenth century. Schultz was not the only black practitioner of this style of guitar playing in Western Kentucky. Other African-American guitarists – undoubtedly some of the generation prior to Schultz – also contributed to the birth of “Travis Picking.” “Colored fellers way back yonder played the thumb pick just as far as I can remember,” according to Mose Rager.(7) Tommy Flint, another well-known Muhlenberg guitarist, cites Amos Johnson, Jim Mason and Jody Burton – all black guitar-playing coal miners – as important influences on thumbpicking. Amos Johnson’s signature piece was “Amos Johnson Rag,” which was transformed into “Guitar Rag,” a hit for Merle Travis in the 1950s.

 

Copyright 2009, David K. Bradford

http://www.19thcenturyguitar.com


1 The Ossman-Dudley Trio, led by banjo star Vess Ossman, featured harp-guitar played either by Roy Butin or George F. Dudley. They made several ragtime recordings in 1906. Two years later Butin recorded the ragtime piece “Sugar Plum” with mandolin player Samuel Siegel.

2 Harriet Ottenheimer, “The Blues Tradtion in St. Louis,” Black Music Research Journal, vol. 9, no. 2, “Papers of the 1989 National Conference on Black Music Research” (Autumn, 1989), p. 136

3 They Seek a City, Arna Bontemps and Jack Conroy, Garden City, 1945, p. 91, quoted in “A Black Composer in Nineteenth-Century St. Louis,” Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., nineteenth Century Music, Vol. 4, No. 2, Autumn, 1980, p. 133.

4 Barry Lee Pearson, Virginia Piedmont Blues: The Lives and Art of Two Virginia Bluesmen (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990), 13, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=54309491.

5 Anderson, p. 9

6 Quoted in Kathy Thomason and Don Thomason, “Arnold Schultz,” The Amplifier, July 2006, http://amplifier.ky.net/cgi-bin/article2005.pl?Month=July&Year=2006&section=features&article=a3

7 Interview with Mose Rager in Legends of Country Guitar (VHS video casette), Vestapol 13070, 1997

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