Midnight Radio

Ragtime Terror

“Ragtime is syncopation gone mad,” Edward Baxter Perry wrote in 1918. “Its victims, in my opinion, can be treated successfully only like the dog with rabies, with a dose of lead. Whether it is simply a passing phase of our decadent art culture or an infectious disease which has come to stay, like leprosy, time alone can tell. It is an evil music that has crept into the homes and hearts of our American people regardless of race, and must be wiped out as other bad and dangerous epidemics have been exterminated.”

From 1895 until 1920, newspapers published hysterical editorials arguing that “maintaining a healthy organism requires a steady pulse,” not the “ragged” beat of syncopated music. Doctors cited Plato to argue that “ragtime syncopation disrupts normal heart rhythms and interferes with the motor center of the brain and nervous system.” Pseudo-science aside, ragtime cut the template for every musical controversy to follow because 1) it was made by black people and 2) it led to intoxication, especially drunken women.

Is there any type of controversial music today? The last time I remember music causing a stir was around 1990, back when N.W.A. was telling us about the dopeman and Ice-T released “Cop Killer” and it seemed like every local newscast expressed concern that our kids were eating ecstasy and raving. Today Ice-T plays a detective on Law & Order and techno provides the soundtrack for aspirational advertisements for luxury sedans and moisturizing lotions. But I’m old. Perhaps there’s a new kind of dangerous music out there.

Perry quote via Ken Burns’s Jazz; medical quotes via Edward Berlin’s Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History; see also Scott Joplin.


Clarence Williams’s Blue Five – Wild Cat Blues

A “multi-thematic ragtime tradition” from 1923 | Photograph by Alan Fisher, 1938