Ragtime music was what got Europe to begin paying attention to American music. In the 1890s, and around the turn of the 20th Century, the thirst for this vivacious novelty spread quickly. When Johannes Brahms died, he left sketches for a ragtime-based piano piece behind. Claude Debussy wrote the ragtime-based Gollywog's Cakewalk. When John Philip Sousa toured Europe in 1900, the most popular item on their programs was Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag.
Ragtime was at the peak of its success at about the time many Alaska communities were booming in the early 20th century mining explosion that fueled the growth of many towns. Some, like Katalla, Hope, Sunrise, Ellamar and others, had populations numbering in the several hundreds or even thousands, but soon suffered catastrophic declines, for one reason or another.
Some say that in Juneau and Fairbanks, ragtime piano music has been played at one bar or another since the 1890s. Elsewhere in Alaska, and in the USA, ragtime was so eclipsed by Dixieland and jazz, that it all but disappeared, only to be rescued in the 1960s by new academic interest in the genre, and in the 1970s, by the movie, The Sting.
My interest in ragtime dates back to hearing friends play the most popular Joplin rags on piano when I was a kid, and listening to Sousa's band play Maple Leaf Rag on my grandmother's 78-rpm records. In the early 1970s, I began learning several rags by Joplin, Joseph Lamb and James Scott. During the period between 1973 and 1982, when I wrote very little music, I did finish three rags - two for piano, and one for solo violoncello. In 1983, when I decided to write an orchestral symphony about the Chugach area, I included a ragtime movement. And, recently, when I wrote my Sinfonietta, commemorating the life of Alaska's pre-eminent conductor, music promoter and ragtime revivalist, Gordon Wright, I concluded the work with a rag about Gordon's demise.
The Juneau Symphony Orchestra will be playing these two classic-style rags in their June 14 & 15 "Celebrating Alaska" concerts. Here are the stories of the rags:
Pioneer Days Rag -- I imagine an aging ragtime pianist at the keyboard in the Katalla Madness Saloon at the end of Katalla’s brief heyday. A storm has just washed away the port’s breakwater, and the town will soon fade away too. As he realizes this, a bittersweet tune about his often shattered dreams comes out.
Gordon's Last Ride Rag -- This work takes its title from Mike Dunham’s stirring article about finding Gordon, and getting him down that big hill in winter. Dunham’s article helps give Gordon Wright’s demise the Robert Service-esque edge Gordon would have loved, and perhaps does. Alaska is one of those places where ragtime music never died and never will. Gordon Wright was the music’s chief and enduring advocate here.
He loved my ragtime movement in my first symphony, and when he started working with Butch Thompson on Gordon’s orchestrations of Scott Joplin rags, suggested I write some material they could play. I started a piece, then dropped it, as I was working with a lot of electronic music at the time. This rag uses the theme I wrote and didn’t finish then for Gordon Wright.
The rag opens with a 36-bar extended introduction, followed by the theme I wrote for Wright years ago. The second strain is about Gordon’s bumpy ride down the hill. The first strain of the trio combines the first two themes of Emil von Reznicek’s Dona Diana Overture – in the oboe theme and in the pizzicato upper strings. The trio’s concluding strain is a final “goodbye” to the big guy.
KTOO-FM radio in Juneau will live stream one of the performances. I'm not sure which one, though.