RAGTIME: A Musical and Cultural History by Edward A. Berlin

RAGTIME: A Musical and Cultural History

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A slightly pedantic but highly conscientious and useful study of the many musics known as ""ragtime""; and though Berlin never supplies the full-bodied textures implied by ""cultural history,"" his emphasis throughout is on musico-historical precision and on contemporaneous perceptions of ragtime--perceptions that may have become obscured by the recent Joplin-piano-oriented revival, by ragtime studies in ""the domain of vague intuition and romantic fantasy."" Piano ragtime, in tact, accounted for ""perhaps less than 10 percent"" of what listerners of the ragtime period (circa 1890-1920) called ""ragtime""--so Berlin gives due attention to the ragtime song, ragtime band, and ragtime dance before moving on to a thorough documentation of the ""ragtime debate"" (was it licentious junk or the one original American art form?) and to detailed analysis of the more durable piano-rag genre. This analysis, using a generous array of musical examples, examines sources of early ragtime (march, cakewalk, black vaudeville, Caribbean dance) and becomes admirably specific about the evolving ragtime style: rhythmic motifs (e.g., ""tied"" vs. ""untied"" syncopation), harmonic sonorities, matters of form. Finally, and here at his most prissily academic, Berlin zeroes in on the ""historiography of ragtime"": a critique of previous, less precise studies--many of which, however, have an infectious snap missing from Berlin's dry thesis. Still, his shrewd research is invaluable (he cannily keeps in mind, for instance, the limitations of printed sheet music as evidence of what was heard)--and, balanced with such other sources as Rudi Blesh's overview and Jasen & Tichenor's rag-by-rag appreciation (Rags and Ragtime, 1978), this is a vital addition to the ragtime reference shelf.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1980
ISBN: 0595261582
Publisher: Univ. of California Press