At one point in America’s history, it was all about ragtime. Usually played by a solo pianist in honky-tonks and bordellos and even ballrooms, the lively, distinctive music swept the national and spilled over into Europe, eventually inspiring composers like Debussy and Stravinsky to adapt its syncopations and drive.
Ironically, with the coming of radio and recorded music which supplanted piano rolls and live performance, ragtime faded away; but it never really disappeared, and this week its annual revival in Sonoma and Napa valleys comes back for the tenth year as the Wine Country Ragtime Festival.
From a Wednesday talk on composer Joseph Lamb at the Sonoma Valley Regional Library to a Sunday afternoon performance at Napa’s First Presbyterian Church, where Festival Director John Partridge works as musical director, there are five times and places the lively happy lilt of ragtime will be heard. And you can bet there’ll be smiles ear-to-ear at every show.
So, what is it? “What makes it ragtime,” patiently explains composer-performer Partridge, “is it uses a very steady, non-syncopated left hand part, which comes from the march, while the right hand is playing a highly-syncopated melodic part, which ultimately much comes from West African traditions.”
Ragtime is that emblematic syncopated rhythm (“ragged,” some might say), but a “rag” is a specific music form that some of its greatest practitioners – Scott Joplin comes to mind – thought belonged in the classical music canon, up there with Schubert and Mozart. It has a three-part structure, like a waltz or a march, and even that makes it sound more complicated than fun, which is its most indisputable characteristic.
Like its successors jazz and the blues, ragtime came from the black experience in America. “It grew up in the 1800s, in the red-light districts along the Mississippi and Missouri river,” explains Partridge. “There was a huge economic boom then, and steamships and trains suddenly started populating the area. So as these boom towns grew up, they all had red-light districts, and those all wanted to have music. So this generation of itinerant piano players came up to supply that music.”
The earliest composers and doubtless practitioners of ragtime were usually black; Ernest Hogan was first to have his rags published as sheet music, and Scott Joplin came soon after. Joplin became a hit-maker, with his “Maple Leaf Rag,” “Fig Leaf Rag,” and others. Ironically his “The Entertainer” became a million-seller in 1972, when it was featured in the Newman-Redford film “The Sting,” along with other rags of the era.
Along with ragtime came the cakewalk – a dance that was originally a black parody of white ballroom dancing, but which like its musical brother became a rage: “They would dress up in fancy, outlandish costumes and do an outlandish dance,” said Partridge. “The ones who did the best dance won a cake, and that’s where the expression ‘that takes the cake’ comes from.”
Partridge is one of five ragtime performers who will tickle the ivories during this week’s festival; others include Larisa Migachyov, Maple Profant and Sonoma’s Debbie Knapp, who was added to the bill when the festival was rescheduled from its original October dates to this month.
They will all take turns performing at two Sonoma locations on Friday, Nov. 10 – from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the lobby of the Sonoma Valley Inn (550 2nd St West), and from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Library. The next morning, Nov. 11, they’ll be playing in Oakmont from 10 a.m., and in a private performance in Sonoma later that evening. A show at the Jack London State Historic Park’s House of Happy Walls had to be cancelled due to last month’s fire closures.
On Sunday, a Ragtime Variety Show – with its $10 ticket price, the only show that isn’t free – will be held in Napa, including a sing-along, silent movies and a cakewalk contest. “What we’re going to do is take the little kids in the audience and teach them how to do the cakewalk; then they’ll come back and do it for the audience,” said Partridge.
“It’s really great music,” he adds. “If people haven’t had lot of exposure to it, they might think, ‘oh, honky-tonk stuff.’ But it’s very subtle, very lyrical, beautiful music and they should try it.”
More information can be found on the website, winecountryragtimefestival.com.