Greatest Ragtime Album of All Time

March 16, 2011 - Leave a Response

The greatest ragtime album of all time (in my opinion) is John Arpin’s "The Kings of Ragtime".

To fall into the "greatest of all time" category for anything demands a superb musical performance and John delivers that. What I like most about the album is that Arpin has selected a broad spectrum of composers that significantly influenced the ragtime era.

Kings of Ragtime

Composers include Joseph Lamb, James Scott, Eubie Blake and Scott Joplin among others.

John Arpin

John Francis Oscar Arpin (3 December 1936 – 8 November 2007) was a Canadian composer, recording artist and entertainer, best known for his work as a virtuoso ragtime pianist.


John starts the album off with Eubie Blake’s "The Chevy Chase" from 1914. Eublie Blake came to the Toronto Ragtime Society’s annual Bash just before he passed away. I remember John playing the Chevy Chase back in 1983 with the same energy he put into this recording. He follows that with some Scott Joplin rags and then a very classical rendition of Joseph Lamb’s Ragtime Nightingale. Eubie Blake pronounced John Arpin "the Chopin of Ragtime" and you will hear why on this tune.

John then really mixes it up with George Gershwin‘s Rialto Ripples. Who knew Gershwin was into ragtime? He continues on with a variety of composers and then a two part rendition (blues/boogie) of W.C. Handy‘s "St. Louis Blues", a highlight of this album and of John Arpin’s concerts. Besides the St. Louis Blues, perhaps my favourite selection is William Bolcom‘s "Graceful Ghost". This modern day (1971) rag is so beautifully executed I would imagine that any pianist hearing it would add the Graceful Ghost to their bucket list of must learn songs.

The Kings of Ragtime is one of those rare albums that you never tire of hearing because of its variety and top notch performance. I highly recommend this album to ragtime enthusiasts and welcome comments from you about your favourite ragtime albums!

A Blind Ragtimer?

February 7, 2008 - 5 Responses

Many of you have heard of blind pianists like Ray Charles, George Shearing, Ronnie Milsap and Art Tatum but did you know there was a blind ragtime composer?

Charles Hunter (1876-1906) was an American composer of ragtime music who was born almost totally blind.
He attended the School for the Blind in Nashville, Tennessee, where he learned the piano tuner’s trade. He went to work at the Jesse French Piano Company in Nashville.

Absorbing the folk strains of Nashville, he published his first rag, "Tickled to Death," in 1899, which became a hit. This was followed 1900 by "A Tennessee Tantilizer," and in 1901 by "Possum and Taters," "Cotton Bolls," and "Queen of Love."

Of these fine rags, my favourite is the "Possum and Taters". It is quite different than a Scott Joplin rag in that it relies more on melody than rhythm.

Possum and Taters Rag

I find the prominent single note melody that Hunter uses similar in style to that of Earl Hines "trumpet-style" piano-playing made famous in 1928.

The rag should be played with a clear statement of melody. The left hand should be present but slightly understated so as to not detract from the melody. Adding rubato, especially between strains, will give the piece a lilting character like a classical romantic piece. The piece sounds easier than it is to play properly, however, if you are a beginning ragtimer, this is a good introduction.

Charles Hunter lived only 30 years and produced a handful of rags, but the Possum and Taters will be remembered as a delicate piece of folk ragtime, a pleasure to play and hear.

Listen to Possum and Taters

Spotlight on Nightingale Rag

September 21, 2007 - 7 Responses

The Nightingale Rag was published by Joseph Lamb in 1915. It is Classic ragtime at its finest.

Note: The Illustration contains the name Nightingale Rag but the Sheet Music is titled Ragtime Nightingale.

I first heard John Arpin perform the Nightingale Rag on CBC Radio some 25 years ago. I was moved by the lyrical beauty of the tune and Mr. Arpin’s interpretation.

Nightingale Rag

Joseph Francis Lamb (December 6, 1887 – September 3, 1960) was a noted American composer of ragtime music.

Joseph Lamb was interviewed and recorded in his home August 12 and 22, 1959 on Folkways Record FG 3562. In that interview he says he was influenced by James Scott’s Ragtime Oriole so he thought he should be able to write about a Nightingale. He "borrowed" an 8 note bass phrase from one of the selections in The Etude magazine to begin his piece. He said he didn’t have the slightest idea of how a Nightingale sounded but he added some bird noises. He was particularly fond of some "bird" sounds he heard in Ethelbert Woodbridge Nevin’s Nightingale Song and used that as the introduction to the last strain.

Like Joplin’s rags, the Nightingale is separated into strains but instead of the traditional 4 strains, Lamb used 3 strains, repeating the first strain as per usual but closed with the majestic second strain.

The piece has a very classical sound and is more difficult to play than it sounds. Interestingly enough, it is now included in the piano syllabus for the Royal Conservatory of Music (Canada).

Listen to Nightingale Rag

What is Classic Ragtime?

June 11, 2007 - One Response

Classic Ragtime is essentially sheet written ragtime music that peaked in popularity around the period 1897-1917. Classic Ragtime resembled classical music in that it was what I call "note perfect". i.e. you could interpret the composer’s work but it would not be considered "Classic" if you improvised on it. Invariably the left hand marked time by playing even eighth notes while the right hand added syncopated melodies.

The pieces are usually broken into 4 sections or strains but there are exceptions. The first strain would repeat once in the middle.

The most standard structure of a Classic Rag followed this format:

A / A / B / B / A / C / C / D / D /

Scott Joplin
Scott Joplin

Almost all Scott Joplin Rags adopted this structure. Other prominent ragtime writers like James Scott, Joseph Lamb and Tom Turpin tended to stay closely to this structure.

Scott Joplin wrote many rags, marches, waltzes and even an opera.

It is interesting to note that almost all jazz standards that followed in the 30’s and 40’s also adopted a standard format. In that case the format was:

A / A / B / A /

The sheet music was accompanied by a colourful and eye-catching cover. Entire books have been written documenting the stories behind these covers. Here are a few examples:

Classic Ragtime Covers

Who was Tom Turpin?

May 15, 2007 - 2 Responses
Tom Turpin was a composer of Ragtime who lived 1873-1922. He is credited with publishing the first rag by an African-American, the “Harlem Rag” of 1897. He also published the Bowery Buck, Ragtime Nightmare, St. Louis Rag, Pan Am Rag and The Buffalo Rag.

Listen to the Harlem Rag

Tom Turpin

He was the owner of the Rosebud saloon in St. Louis, Missouri. He was also friends with Scott Joplin and other early rag composers.

Turpin’s rags are all very catchy. Although he didn’t write a lot, he left a mark on the Ragtime world. Almost all of his rags are in C so if you’re a budding ragtimer, these are a good introduction to this style.

I’ve played all of Turpin’s rags over the years and I just recorded my favourite, the Ragtime Nightmare. Gary Barratt(Dr. Drums) accompanied me as did double Bass player Bob Arlidge. It’s a short and fast rag that’s musically accessible to just about anyone. He calls it the “Nightmare” because there are a few “crazy chords” near the start of the piece. By today’s standards they’re not very crazy. If you only want to learn one Turpin rag, I recommend this one.

Listen to the Ragtime Nightmare

Comparison of Ragtime styles and interpretations

March 5, 2007 - Leave a Response

They all played the Maple Leaf Rag

“They all played the Maple Leaf Rag” is an album that both ragtime enthusiasts and those new to ragtjme will enjoy. There are 15 different interpretations of Scott Joplin’s 1899 Maple Leaf Rag, all recorded between 1907 and 1969. If you aren’t familiar with the original tune, I recommend listening to Ralph Sutton’s 1950 version first. Although none of the recordings on this album follow the sheet music score exactly, this is probably the most accurate. There are a variety of artists who have been captured here including Jelly Roll Morton, Willie the Lion Smith, James P. Johnson, Eubie Blake and my favourite, Sidney Bechet’s New Orleans Fleetwarmers with Bechet doing a killer job on soprano sax. Jelly Roll Morton also provides an interesting insight in the different ragtime styles that existed within America. He first plays it in the traditional Joplin style, popular in and around St. Louis and then in his own New Orleans style, quite different but equally as good.

I recently saw an extended CD version of this album at David Jasen’s Archive Productions website.

You don’t have to know anything about ragtime to appreciate this collection!

Definition of ragtime

February 14, 2007 - 2 Responses

Ragtime flourished from the mid 1890’s until around 1920. It was predominently sheet written music and was distributed before the days of recording. Pianos were as common as TVs are today so sheet music sales were huge.

I play “Classical Ragtime”, a structured style developed by several composers including Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb, Tom Turpin and James Scott.

Although not the first rag written or published, Maple Leaf Rag did become the first instrumental piece to sell over one million copies The rag was named after the Maple Leaf Club in Sedalia, Missouri.

Sales of Maple Leaf and subsequent rags earned Joplin his “King of Ragtime” reputation, and enabled the publisher John Stark to move his company to St. Louis, then later New York.

Scott Joplin was the most famous ragtime composer. Scott Joplin lived from 1868-1917. He wrote many rags, marches, waltzes and even an opera.

His music was featured in the 1973 movie “The Sting” including the song “The Entertainer” as well as many others.

Wiki’s view

Ragtime is an American musical genre which enjoyed its peak popularity between 1899 and 1918. It has had several periods of revival since then and is still being composed today. Ragtime was the first truly American musical genre, predating jazz. It began as dance music in popular music settings years before being published as popular sheet music for piano.

[Source and more:]

Ragtime Kidd Repertoire

February 13, 2007 - One Response

I love many styles of music and I believe it is healthy
to accept the merits of each. Playing at the Holiday Inn for years and various tour boats have secured me with a broad repertoire covering styles like Pop, Rock and Roll, Jazz Standards, Ragtime and Boogie-Woogie.

What is Boogie-Woogie? I maintain it was the precursor to the Rock and Roll that was popularized in the 1950s by Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino and the like.

Here’s what Wiki says:

Boogie-woogie is a style of piano-based blues that became very popular in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and was extended from piano, to three pianos at once, guitar, big band, and country and western music, and even gospel. Whilst the blues traditionally depicts sadness and sorrow, boogie-woogie is associated with dancing.

Source: Wiki

Here are some of the rags and boogie I like to play:

Ross the artist

February 13, 2007 - Leave a Response

I have performed at many functions in the Kingston area for over 20 years. I developed a love for Ragtime in 1982 when I became hooked on the Classic Piano Ragtime book by Rudi Blesh. I studied under John Arpin, Toronto’s great pianist and President of the Toronto Ragtime Society at the time.

One of my highlights was playing for Princess Diana on her visit to Kingston in October 1991.

I have worked several drummers in the past and I still work occasionally with Doctor Drums. I have been a member of the Ragtime Society in Toronto and the Kingston Musician’s Union Local 518.

In 2009, I finished a 20 year gig as “The Ragtime Kidd” performing as the house pianist at the Holiday Inn Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

I look forward to sharing my thoughts and appreciation for ragtime with all of you!